Conceptualizing Adequacy of Information


John A. Howard (1972) ,"Conceptualizing Adequacy of Information", in SV - Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. M. Venkatesan, Chicago, IL : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 196-100.

Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1972      Pages 196-100


John A. Howard, Columbia University


In the last decade, our institutions and ideas have come under severe fire by those who are attempting to formulate a better concept of the good life for society. An element of that concept has come to be adequate information for the consumer. Awareness of this requirement is being reflected in executive, judicial, legislative and regulative bodies at local, state and national levels.

How to conceptualize the idea of adequate information so as to develop criteria for action directed to insuring that the consumer does have adequate information, in fact, is not exactly clear. Even less clear are the concepts and techniques required for obtaining data appropriate to whatever criteria are formulated. Permit me to attempt an answer to this two-fold problem.

I propose four criteria for deciding whether information to the consumer is adequate. For these, I am indebted to the staff of the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Federal Trade Commission. Information to be adequate should have the following characteristics:


Intelligible [The bureau terminology is "comprehensible" but it can easily be confused with the label for a construct used here. I have renamed it.]



My purpose is to conceptualize these criteria in such a way that theory and empirical research can be brought to bear in providing data for applying them quantitatively in concrete instances. In this way, the proposed structure can be tested for its correspondence with reality and the scientific legitimacy of the criteria established.

The first two criteria, however, will be neglected. General agreement exists among most all interested parties--consumers, industry and the government--that consumer information, including advertising, should be truthful. Differences of opinion arise in specific cases, but the general principle is widely accepted. For information to be intelligible would seem to be very much in the interest of the dispenser of the information, the advertiser, for example. Effort is devoted to achieving this in advertising agencies and their client organizations. Consequently, it should largely take care of itself. Both characteristics are important and deserving of research, but they lack the urgency of the last two, relevancy and completeness.


To ask what information is relevant is to ask how the consumer conceptualizes the object which the information is about. Thus our task is to describe how the consumer conceptualizes the brand.

Research, especially that in concept formation, indicates that he conceptualizes the brand in denotative, descriptive or non-evaluative dimensions as well as evaluatively. We label a summary measure of these denotative dimensions "brand comprehension." He uses them to identify the brand and to discuss it with his friends and neighbors. These dimensions are not numerous, being severely limited by his capacity to process information. Also, he has less difficulty conceptualizing these denotative dimensions for a concrete object than for an abstract thing such as a service. Thus, we can think of brand comprehension as an aspect of a brand image or concept.

Another aspect of a brand concept is the evaluative dimensions. What characteristics of the brand cause him to say it is good or bad for him in terms of his motives? The extensive literature in attitude research is quite helpful here. Unfortunately, it has two limitations. First, with increasing exception, it deals with unidimensional attitudes, whereas our concern is with multidimensional phenomena. Second, the research in attitude, has with few exceptions, not been linked to the denotative or brand comprehension type of research characterizing concept formation.

It is important that we distinguish among two classes of attitudes: personal and interpersonal. An ad tells you, "Brand X is sweet and tastes good; it will make you beautiful and attractive to others." We can call the first "personal" and the second "interpersonal." Interpersonal or self-concept appeal is an assertion or implication that the buyer can change, in a favorable way, how he views himself or how others view him. Consequently, the distinguishing feature of the self-concept appeal is "others," and it has a two-fold aspect. First, it is one of the most seriously criticized features of modern advertising. Second, it is probably more difficult to substantiate than the personal dimensions.

It is the combination of denotative and connotative dimensions that constitute a brand concept. Information is relevant whenever it helps the buyer place the brand on the dimensions of this concept.

Finally, our discussion of attitudes above implicitly dealt with either personal or interpersonally, things that matter to him directly and immediately. Still another set of conditions prevail and these are particularly associated with the act of purchase. Price of the product is an obvious example. The buyer does not care about the price per se, but he does care about how much of other things he must forego to buy it. Also, his expectations about whether the brand is available at his regular retailer is a dimension. Finally, his attitude toward how people with power over him will feel about his purchasing the brand also matters. Because these dimensions do not matter personally or interpersonally, but instead are looked upon as constraints, they are called impersonal attitudes.

In summary, any information which enables the buyer to place a brand on each of these four sets of dimensions--brand comprehension, personal attitudes, interpersonal attitudes and impersonal attitudes--is relevant. These sets of dimensions can be thought of as being related in the following way.


We must add a construct representing information--permanent memory--in developing a testable structure. We do not discuss the mechanisms that regulate the input to the buyer's memory: How did the information get there in the first place? The important point here is that it provides the informational input to the other constructs.

As implied by the connecting arrow, brand comprehension forms an essential foundation for personal attitudes to develop. Personal, interpersonal and impersonal attitudes jointly cause intention to buy. Intention to buy is incorporated because purchase is a discrete, infrequent event and to use it as the independent construct places a burden on research. Intention measures, on the other hand, can be taken at any time. Intention, in turn, causes purchase.


When does the consumer have enough information? Psychologically we think of this as occurring when tension engendered by the conflict arising from uncertainty is at some comfortable level. A construct that describes this psychological state is confidence in judging the quality of the brand. We postulate that when the consumer has received adequate information on the four sets of dimensions, his confidence will be high, and we can conclude that in a vitally subjective sense, his information is complete. The following structure is postulated.


Brand comprehension can be clearly thought of as both a specific content construct and an amount of information construct. In the first capacity, it shows how well he knows the criterial, denotative dimensions and so serves as a basis for evaluative feelings to develop. In the second capacity, it seems to us that he has a subjective sense of how accurately these judgments conform to reality. The human has survived, in part, because he has been rewarded when he judged accurately and punished when he judged inaccurately.

All three types of attitudes pose a problem, however. Their evaluative nature complicates formulating their role in completeness of information. To the extent that the consumer has information about where the brand lies on each set of dimensions should per se have no effect on confidence. This would indicate merely his evaluation, not how confident he is in that evaluation. Consequently, we must look elsewhere for the relation of attitudes and completeness and so to confidence.

The credibility of source of evaluative information is a factor. To the extent the buyer believes the source in terms of both its expertise and its motives. he will be affected by it.

Also, presumably some of the evaluative dimensions are more important or salient to the consumer than others; some relate to motives that are higher in his motive hierarchy than others. This is clearly borne out in data on personal attitude dimensions. If so, information on these crucial ones should provide a relatively greater boost to confidence than information on less important dimensions. True, a growing body of evidence suggests that this importance weighting does not influence behavior directly, but I will postulate that it exerts an indirect effect by guiding the consumer's selection of information. He selects that which applies to the more salient dimensions in preference to information about the less salient dimensions.

Thus, quantity of information is basically the number of relevant descriptive and evaluative dimensions--personal, interpersonal and impersonal--on which he has received information. Thus, we conclude that confidence is a function of both brand comprehension and evaluative information taken into long-term memory, weighted by its credibility and the salience of the dimension to which it pertains.

Finally, it is probably obvious that a single ad could not be expected to completely inform a buyer of a radically new product, for example, where new choice criteria must be formed. Nevertheless, it can be judged on whether it contributes to completeness.


Formulating these two criteria--relevance and completeness--in terms of an explicit structure that can be modelled empirically is essential because of complex policy implications. Let us illustrate by referring to television.

Industry experience is apparently clear that when using a recall criterion, the 30-second commercial is economically superior to the 60-second. Further, some evidence indicates that even with a sales criterion, the 30-second is still economically superior to the 60-second, except in the case of new products. Thus, for industry generally to provide more information than it now does, we tentatively conclude, would be uneconomic in its own terms.

Two possibilities arise. First, we can resolve the issue by concluding that it is the obligation of industry in fulfillment of its privilege of serving the consumer, to provide the additional information made possible by a 60- or 90-second commercial. Better evidence than we now have that the consumer really needs more information than can be provided in a 30-second commercial would have to be generated. Hence, the theoretical system set forth here should be modelled to determine precisely how much information is needed to insure that it does exceed that possible in a 30-second message. This would be a cost-benefit approach.

But second, perhaps the content of the 60-second ad should be changed, instead of extending it to a longer commercial. For this we must know how the 30-second commercial is achieving its effect. Is its role heavily motivational and less cognitive, for example? Perhaps by redesigning the content of the 30-second commercial it will provide enough information. To answer these questions we must apply the relevancy and completeness criteria by running an ad, use the structure and examine the content of the ad, the level of the variables and strength of the linkages among the constructs.



John A. Howard, Columbia University


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

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