Consumerism, Consumer Expectations, and Perceived Product Performance


Rolph E. Anderson and Joseph F. Hair, Jr. (1972) ,"Consumerism, Consumer Expectations, and Perceived Product Performance", in SV - Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. M. Venkatesan, Chicago, IL : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 67-79.

Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1972      Pages 67-79


Rolph E. Anderson, Old Dominion University

Joseph F. Hair, Jr., The University of Mississippi

[Rolph E. Anderson has several years business experience with consumer packaged goods manufacturers. His last position was New Product Development Manager for The Quaker Oats Company. He holds the B.A. and M.B.A. degrees from Michigan State University, and the Ph.D. degree from the University of Florida. He taught at the latter institution for two years.]

[Joseph F. Hair, Jr. has been employed in the Marketing Research Department of N. V. Philips' Gloeilampenfabrieken in Eindhoven, Netherlands and as a Systems Analyst for Food Fair Stores, Inc., Jacksonville, Florida. He holds the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D degrees from the University of Florida, where he also taught for two years.]

In America's era of agriculture which preceded the Industrial Revolution, the family was both a producing and consuming unit. Domestic arts furnished the major share of consumption goods, and the limited manufacturing was largely accomplished by local craftsmen. An illustration of the degree of self-sufficiency of the pioneer family is found in the 1787 newspaper publication of a farmer's letter, which read: "At this time my farm gave me and my whole family a good living on the product of it, and left me one year with 150 silver dollars, for I never spent more than ten dollars a year which was for salt, nails, and the like. Nothing to eat, drink, or wear was bought, as my farm provided all" (Early, 1898).


Consumer expectations in the marketplace were not a serious problem when the family itself produced most of the essentials for everyday life. With home produced goods, the consumer of the goods had firsthand knowledge of their quality and workmanship. As for the few items that were purchased, the buyer had a much better understanding of the techniques of production and the tests of quality than do most consumers today. Even though the problem of recognizing the comparative quality of goods was minimal when goods were produced by those who would use them or by local tradesmen who were personally known by their customers, this does not imply that goods were necessarily of better quality than today. For example, homespun woolen cloth was typically coarse, rough, and uneven. It could not begin to match the fine texture made possible by modern manufacturing techniques. But, whatever the quality, it was known by the purchaser beforehand, so he knew exactly what to expect from the product. Thus. he was seldom disappointed.

Rising Expectations

American business is generally considered to be doing a better job for consumers than ever before. In the words of Otto Kleppner, "...Today's average refrigerator has a far better refrigerant, a better motor, better insulation, and larger storage space than the costliest model of twenty years ago. Canned soups today have better enriched recipes than when you were a youngster, and are offered in greater variety. Today's tires give over four times the mileage per dollar (aside from excise taxes) of those of twenty years ago, in addition to giving you a smoother and safer ride@' (Kleppner, 1970).In further support of this contention, Time magazine (December 12, 1969, p. 92) reported that the average buyer probably gets more value per dollar spent in a current mail order house catalogue than in an edition fifty years ago. Why, then, do we have so many complaints against products and the rising demand for consumer protection legislation?

Arjay R. Miller, former Ford vice-chairman and now dean of Stanford's Graduate School of Business, attributes the growing consumer irritation with the slightest flaw to the "phenomenon of rising expectations" (Business Week, 68 1969). Largely due to the increase in consumer affluence and sophistication, the threshold of acceptable performance is rising. Younger, wealthier, better educated, and more sophisticated consumers seem to be less tolerant of gaps between promotional promise and product performance.

Another contributor to rising consumer expectations in general has been the remarkable space flights. Many Americans reason that if we can put a man on the moon, why can we not find a way to eliminate pollution and poverty and make products that do not fail? The mass communications achieved by television and the transistor radio and the great mobility of people have carried the message of hope and high expectations worldwide. No one can predict human expectations. They are infinitely elastic -- bounded only by individual imagination.


The expectations consumers have regarding a particular product depend upon information gathered from a variety of sources. Past experience, promotional communications of sellers, and personal acquaintances are the most common sources of product information. If a product is purchased frequently, the consumer may have a satisfactory information source -- his previous experience with it. In such a case, he is able to judge, prior to purchase, the product's effectiveness in meeting his expectations, both functional and psychological. Conversely, when purchasing an untried product or brand of significant importance, the consumer may find a meaningful choice difficult because of the lack of information. Since he has not previously purchased this product, he must rely on information sources other than his personal experience. Another source may be his associates, but the limited accuracy and nontransferability of this experience to his own situation often sharply limits its value. Ratings by private, independent organizations are often regarded as excellent sources but tend to be used by those who least need help in purchasing decisions. For example, the most recent survey of subscribers to Consumers Union showed the median income is $14,000 and 58 percent are college graduates (Herrmann, 1970). Thus, it appears that many consumers depend largely on one basic information source -- the company's promotion mix -- in forming their expectations regarding new or untried products.

Information Gap

Proponents of consumerism claim that corporate marketing programs are not providing the information necessary for meaningful choice, and point to inaccurate, misleading, and inadequate information as major reasons for the demand for more consumer protection legislation. As E. B. Weiss says: "When every detergent gets clothes whiter, brighter, cleaner, sweeter-smelling than any other; when every toothpaste is better than every other in preventing tooth decay; when every gasoline makes your car run better than any other, what is the consumer to believe since the claims can't all be true?" (Weiss, 1967)

Many consumer protectionists see improvements in promotion as the best means of spanning the expectations -- performance gap. Promotion, they insist, instead of adding confusion to an already complex marketplace, could be developing well-informed consumers by providing relevant and reliable information for use in making accurate buying judgments. This proposition maintains that well-informed individuals would not unknowingly buy inferior products, leading to dissatisfaction and demands for more consumer protection legislation. Given enough relevant information, it is claimed, the consumer would be able to form realistic expectations about products and be able to protect himself from those evils from which the government is now trying to shield him.


The Random House Dictionary states: "Dissatisfaction results from contemplating what falls short of one's wishes or expectations. . " In much the same vein, Stanton has provided one of the best definitions of consumerism, as follows: (l) the reaction of consumers to their dissatisfactions and unrealized expectations and (2) their efforts to have these perceived injustices remedied (Stanton, 1971). Based on these definitions, one might hypothesize that consumer dissatisfaction and consumerism result from market offerings which fall short of consumer expectations. It may be that corporate promotional mixes are helping create excessively high expectations for products which result in consumer dissatisfaction upon purchase and use. This apparent gap between promise and performance may be largely responsible for rising support for legal enforcement of minimum performance standards. Buskirk and Rothe unequivocally declare: "It is this sense of frustration and bitterness on the part of consumers who have been promised much and have realized less, that may properly be called the driving force behind consumerism" (Buskirk and Rothe, 1970).

If business is providing communications that raise consumer expectations beyond a realistic level, then it is important to learn what kind of communication should be provided -- presumably still persuasive in nature but different in content. Knowledge about the effect of consumer expectations and perceived product performance on consumer satisfaction is vital because management can, within limits, influence consumer expectations and product performance.


In order to meaningfully discuss interrelationships among expectations, perceived product performance, and consumer satisfaction, the three variables need clarification.


Expectations have been described as "subjective notions of things to come" (Katona, 1958). An expectancy is a type of hypothesis formulated by the consumer, and his perception of product performance after purchase and use will serve to either confirm or reject this hypothesis (Engel et al, 1968). Expectations are confirmed when a consumer receives what he expects. Negative disconfirmation takes place when the product's actual or objective performance cannot match expectations for it. Positive disconfirmation may occur when objective product performance actually exceeds expectations.

Expectations may be created and strengthened by corporate promotional mixes, past experiences, opinions of friends and associates, impartial product rating services, or general aspiration levels. Writers frequently refer to consumer "attitudes" or "aspirations," or "images" of products, brands, or stores, and these terms may be considered implicit forms of expectations. For example, when a consumer expresses a favorable attitude toward a product, he may say: "That's a good product," but in translation, he means that he confidently expects that product to provide certain specific benefits. As Professor Theodore Levitt has pointed out, people buy the "expectation of benefits" (Business Week, 1972) Consumers are not anxious to purchase new. sharPer razor blades but faster, smoother shaves.

Product Perception

Perception can be thought of as the individual's mental impression of a stimulus object, in this case, a product. No two people perceive a product exactly alike because no two people have the same view of their environment. Perception has four major facets. First, it is selective. Since an individual cannot possibly be cognizant of all the stimulus objects within his perceptual field, he perceives selectively. Secondly, perception is organized in that it has meaning for the individual. Third, perception depends upon stimulus factors, e.g., advertising in consumer product evaluations. Fourth, perception is influenced by personal factors, i.e., what the individual brings to the situation. The consumer's view of the world, or his cognitive set, is formed over time, and reflects his physiological and psychological characteristics as well as his needs, moods, values, past experiences, and the nature of his environment (Robertson, 1970). In the present study, consumer perception of the product will be called "perceived product performance." "Actual" or "objective" product performance will be used in referring to reality or true product performance.

Consumer Satisfaction

No satisfactory literal definition has yet been developed for consumer satisfaction. However, inferring from our description of the source of dissatisfaction, one might postulate that satisfaction results when consumer expectations are matched (or exceeded) by perceived product performance. Consumer dissatisfaction, then, might be measured by the degree of disparity between expectations and perceived product performance.

Theories of Expectations

Except for the field of psychology, the literature of the social sciences contains few references to any systematic studies relating to the effects on people of disparity between their expectations and actual product performances. However, since consumer satisfaction is such a fundamental problem to human behavior, it is only logical that one would turn to psychology to develop a theoretical framework for the present investigation.

Assimilation (Cognitive Dissonance)

According to Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance, an unconfirmed expectancy creates a state or psychological discomfort because the outcome contradicts the consumer's original hypothesis (Festinger, 1957). The theory suggests that any disparity between expectations and actual product performance will be minimized by the customer adjusting his perception of the product to become more consistent with his expectations. Consumers are continually receiving various types of information about products from their own experiences, associates, advertisements, and salesmen. These pieces of information are cognitions which consumers like to have consistent with one another (Holloway 1967). When inconsistent information is received, the individual suffers mental discomfort which he attempts to reduce--often by changing or distorting one or more of the cognitions to make them more consonant with each other. The stronger the cognitive dissonance, the more motivated he is to alleviate tension bs altering the cognitive elements (Brehm, 1962).

As applied to marketing, if there is disparity between expectations for a product and the actual performance of that product, the consumer is stimulated to lessen the psychological tension generated by changing his perception of the product so that it comes more into agreement with his expectations. Therefore, if this theory is true, the promotional mix for a product should substantially lead expectations above product performance to obtain higher consumer evaluations of the company's product. This concept is illustrated in Figure 1 by the dotted line which shows that perceived product performance is always between actual performance and consumer expectations, except when all three coincide. Considerable controversy and some disaffection with the theory of cognitive dissonance have developed in recent years due to the accumulation of an increasing amount of contradictory evidence (Chapanis and Chapanis, 1964; Feldman, 1966; Insko, 1967; and Rosenberg, 1965). A major criticism is that the theory assumes the individual does not learn from his purchasing mistakes. Instead, he actually increases the probability of repeating past mistakes through his efforts to reduce post-purchase dissonance by justification and rationalization of his decisions (Cohen and Goldberg, 1970).


Even in the studies supporting assimilation theory, some individuals tend to shift their evaluations away from expectations stimulated by communications if inconsistent with reality (Cardozo, 1964; and Hovland, Harvey & Sherif, 1957). Contrast theory assumes that the consumer will magnify any disparity between the product received and the product expected; i.e., if the performance of the product falls short of his expectations, the customer will evaluate the product less favorably than if he had no prior expectations for it. When expectations are not matched by actual product performance, contrast theory presumes that the surprise effect or contrast between expectations and outcome will cause the consumer to exaggerate the disparity.

Contrast theory would predict consumer product perceptions as shown by the dashed line in Figure l. It implies that slight understatement of the product's qualities ln promotion might lead to higher customer satisfaction with the product. Obviously, the advertisements or other components of the promotional mix would not 90 understate the product's qualities that consumers by-pass it for another brand. Several studies lend support to the possible success of this promotional strategy (Diab, 1965; Freedman, 1964; Hovland, et al., 1957; Sherif & Hovland, 1961; Spector, 1956; and Whittaker, 1965).


As its name implies, the assimilation-contrast approach combines the theories of assimilation and contrast. Hovland, Harvey, and Sherif have provided support for the contention that product performance differing only slightly from one's expectations tends to bring about adjustment of product perceptions toward expectations (assimilation effect), while large variances between one's expectations and actual product performance tend to be magnified or exaggerated (contrast effect)(Hovland, et al., 1957). The theory assumes that individuals have ranges or latitudes of acceptance, rejection, and neutrality. If the disparity between expectations and performance falls into the latitude of acceptance, there is strong probability of an assimilation effect. On the other hand, if the disparity falls into the consumer's latitude of rejection, a contrast effect is likely.



Assimilation-contrast theory suggests that promotional messages ought to create expectations for the product as high as possible without creating a level of disparity between expectations and actual performance which exceeds the consumer's latitude of acceptance. In accord with assimilation-contrast theory, consumer perception of product performance would take the shape of the S-shaped curve in Figure l. At low levels of disparity between expectations and product performance, consumer product perceptions tend to assimilate differences and draw near to expectations. However, as the disparity becomes large, it may reach the point where contrast effect takes over, and differences are magnified.


Which, if any, of these theories best describes the true relationships between these important consumer variables? Four hypotheses may be considered, as follows:

1. Null -- product perceptions are not significantly different for various levels of expectations.

2. Assimilation - product perceptions will vary directly with the level of expectations.

3. Contrast -- product perceptions will vary inversely with the level of expectations.

4. Assimilation-Contrast -- product perceptions will vary directly with expectations over a range around actual performance, but above and below this threshold, product perceptions will vary inversely with the level of expectations.


Subjects (Ss) for the empirical investigation consisted of 144 volunteers from undergraduate marketing classes. No reward or incentive was offered for participation. However, after the experiment began, in order to increase involvement or commitment, subjects were told they could keep the product they were going to evaluate. The product selected for the experiment was a ballpoint pen, for several reasons: (a) students constitute a major market for this product; (b) students have been shown to be more interested in writing instruments than other miscellaneous products priced under two dollars (Cardozo, 1964); and (c) less variability of preference has been found among writing instruments than in most other product categories (Cardozo, 1964). All the pens were identical, unmarked ones selling at retail for about one dollar each

Research Design

Using a 2 X 6 factorial design, the independent variable (expectations) was manipulated by randomly assigning subjects to one of six different conditions or levels of product information. As confirmed in pretesting, condition one (C1) substantially understated the product features, C2 slightly understated the features, C3 depicted the product accurately, C4 slightly overstated the quality of the product's features, and C5 substantially overstated the product's features. Co provided no information about the product, but instead Ss received a communication unrelated to the experiment.

Half the Ss in each experimental condition were asked to complete a questionnaire regarding their expectations after reading the product information, but prior to seeing the product. This questionnaire acted as a "take-measure" to ensure that the different levels of product information were creating expectations in the right direction, with the desired degree of intensity. Remaining Ss were given a task unrelated to the experiment so that the time occupied by the two treatments was about equal. If the take-measure had proved reactive, responses of those Ss would have been discarded and only Ss not receiving the take-measure would have been included in the data analysis.

Each S was permitted to inspect and test the product for the same period of time, then record his reactions on a modified logarithmic product rating scale using dollars and cents distributed in small ranges from $0.04 to $64.00. These ratings were subsequently converted to integers by sequentially numbering the rows of the product rating scale. Three dependent measures were obtained. One dependent variable consisted of the mean of individual subject ratings on 15 visual features and performance characteristics of the ballpoint pen. The second variable was an overall rating by Ss on the pen's combined features. This was a weighted mean since each S could assign certain product features more importance than other features in determining the overall evaluation. Finally, Ss estimated the pen's price.


As shown in Table 1, mean scores for all three dependent variables are assimilated toward expectations until reaching the "very high" level of expectations, which caused a sharp downturn in product ratings for all three measures.

One-way analysis of variance (treatment variable collapsed since Ss were not sensitized by the take-measure) revealed a main effect of conditions significant at the .01 level for all three dependent variables (product features, F - 10.06; combined characteristics, F = 9.31; and price, F s 11.08). Thus, Ss responded differently in their evaluations or perceptions of the product depending upon their level of expectations. There were no significant treatment main effects nor treatment by condition interaction effects for any of the dependent variables.

Relating Results to Theoretical Models

Ratings for each of the dependent variables were plotted by each of the six conditions, as illustrated for product features in Figure 2. Product ratings plotted on the vertical axis are the mean responses for all 24 Ss in each expectational condition. Expectations plotted on the horizontal axis are the mean expectations for the 12 Ss in each condition who were administered the take-measure. Inspection of the plotted data indicated conformity with assimilation theory until reaching C5, the "very high" level of expectations, which marked a decline in product evaluations for all three dependent variables in accord with assimilation-contrast theory. Not only were mean ratings in C5 lower than in C4 but, for both product features and combined characteristics, evaluations were lower in C5 than in C3 where accurate information was provided. C0 was plotted separately (since expectations for these Ss were not manipulated) and proved significantly lower than C3.





Linearity Tests

The tests for linearity, provided in Table 2, showed deviations from linearity to be highly significant for the relationship between expectations and product perceptions for each of the dependent variables. Significant deviations from linearity rejected both the null hypothesis of no effect of expectatiOns and the assimilation hypothesis. Contrast theory which demands a negatively sloped relationship between expectations and product perceptions was quickly discarded because of the positive slope of the plotted data. Thus, the data best fit assimilation-contrast theory since product perceptions are assimilated toward expectations until the "very high" C5 when contrast effect begins.

Although contrast effects did not appear in C1, "very low" expectations, this result may b.e partially explained by "floor effects" which may have prevented manipulation of expectations far enough below the relatively low cost product to elicit sufficient surprise or delight upon seeing and trying the pen. More complex products, where there is ambiguity and uncertainty in making judgments, may deliver different results as subjects may tend to rely more on the information provided. Olshavsky and Miller found assimilation theory supported in student evaluations of a reel-type tape recorder; i.e., overstatement for this complex, multidimensional product led to more favorable evaluations and understatement to less favorable evaluations (Olshavsky and Miller, 1972). To date, the only other published experiment in the marketing literature dealing with the effects of disconfirmed expectancies on consumer evaluations of products provided partial support for contrast theory (Cardozo, 1965). More research needs to be undertaken with a variety of products and services, e.g., ones requiring deep personal and financial commitments. Such items may yield substantially different results than those for less personal, lower cost, and less ego-related products and services. As an adjunct to such additional studies, it might be profitable to determine if there are significant differences between consumer reactions based on psychographic variables.




This study has demonstrated that consumer expectations can influence consumer perceptions of products. High expectations for product features and performance seem to generate, at least initially, higher ratings for the product up to a certain point, depending upon the product and its importance to the consumer. Beyond this critical threshold, however, exaggerated high expectations may be detrimental to product evaluations.

In sum, marketers ought to exercise caution in positioning the level of advertising and other promotional claims. Consumer expectations can profitably be led only so far for certain relatively simple and easily understood products. A tendency toward promotional hyperbole can be contagious among competing companies but can result in lower overall product evaluations and perhaps consumer dissatisfaction which may add other voices to the chorus calling for greater legislative control over the marketplace, especially on advertising and the promotional mix.


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Rolph E. Anderson, Old Dominion University
Joseph F. Hair, Jr., The University of Mississippi


SV - Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research | 1972

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