The Need For Problem Definition and Research Evaluation of Proposed Solutions For Making Public Policy Decisions Relating to Marketing and Consumer Behavior


Raymond C. Stokes (1972) ,"The Need For Problem Definition and Research Evaluation of Proposed Solutions For Making Public Policy Decisions Relating to Marketing and Consumer Behavior", in SV - Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. M. Venkatesan, Chicago, IL : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 187-191.

Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1972      Pages 187-191


Raymond C. Stokes, Director, Consumer Research Institute


As a way of leading up to the ideas which I wish to discuss with you today, let me first briefly mention a phenomenon which is common knowledge to all of us. During recent years we have witnessed a new wave of consumerism represented by a fresh crop of consumer advocates who are more plentiful, devout and articulate than their predecessors. Their influence has already extended over a longer period than previous generations and their impact has been wider and deeper. While we may-have witnessed the crest of the current wave of consumer activism, it has by no means run its course. It is impossible to predict how long the current movement will continue, but most would agree that it will persist for several years and some believe it will be permanent.


The forces of consumerism have already had a substantial impact on the marketing practices of business and the activities of governmental regulatory and legislative bodies. The regulatory activities of government agencies are being conducted with increased vigor especially at the Federal Trade Commission. Legislative bodies at the Federal, State and local levels have been busy formulating bills designed to protect the consumer. Many have been passed and hundreds are pending. In addition to increased governmental activity, there have been widespread voluntary efforts of business, such as unit pricing, open dating, nutrient labeling and policing of abuses in advertising.

Another unique and constructive response to consumerism has been the formation of the Consumer Research Institute whose purpose is to sponsor or conduct research in any area of marketing practice which may be the subject of consumer concern, for the purpose of helping in the shaping of public policy. CRI was formed about four and one-half years ago by grocery manufacturers, advertising agencies, media organizations, trade associations representing various segments of the grocery industry and several management consulting and market research firms. In so far as possible, CRI's research has been coordinated with appropriate governmental agencies and conducted in a time frame which would generate information useful to policy decision making. We have demonstrated that consumerism issues can be researched, that government officials will accept such research and that these facts can and will be used in making public policy decisions.


While the dedication and concern of the consumer advocate must be admired, the increased vigor of the government commendable, the voluntary activities of business encouraging and the research on public policy issues initiated by CRI a desirable beginning, I believe an honest and objective evaluation of consumerism would conclude that it has so far yielded minor benefits to consumers at cost and therefore must be considered a failure The consumer advocate and business apparently agree on one point: recent government regulation of the marketing function has been a substantial failure. Yet the consumer advocate proposes additional governmental control with the full knowledge that previous regulation has been less than satisfactory.


It appears to me that one of the primary, if not the major, reason for the low yield and high cost of current consumerism activity is related to our lack of understanding of the problems and the adequacy, feasibility and cost of proposed solutions. Those knowledgeable of the marketing system and consumer behavior have not accepted the responsibility of defining problems and developing alternative solutions. Therefore, by default the consumer advocate, who is naive and unsophisticated in the complexities of marketing and consumer behavior, does his best to define our problems for us and to offer solutions he considers appropriate. It appears to me that the consumer advocate is pointing out symptoms rather than the fundamental underlying problems. Proposed solutions are superficial in that they only address the symptoms. Due to our zeal to be socially responsible citizens, we have been too quick to accept the advocate's definitions of problems and to implement his proposed solutions. Resources (especially research funds) are too limited and the problems too urgent for this to continue.


There are many examples of inadequate problem definitions and the proposal of superficial solutions, but I will restrict myself to a few with which the Consumer Research Institute has been most concerned.

Unit Pricing

Because of brand, product and package size proliferation along with fractional ounce packaging, it is difficult for consumers to compare the price of competing grocery products. The proposed solution is the posting of unit prices at the point of purchase. The assumptions are that consumers can use this information, will use it, and the cost of furnishing it will be less than the benefits which accrue. While the results are not all in, it is clear that the system will not reach those who need it most--the poor and undereducated. It also appears that actual usage is minimal where it has been installed and costs are high in comparison with the benefits actually obtained.

Open Dating

The consumer advocate recently became aware that it was good manufacturing practice to imprint or deboss a code on each individual food package indicating the day, shift, manufacturing plant, packaging line and perhaps other information, of significance for quality control purposes. While the advocate had no interest in decoding most of this information, he wondered why the date of manufacture or packing couldn't be communicated in plain english so we could all know the age of the food. He was quick to believe that there was an excessive amount of stale or bad food offered for sale in grocery outlets in this country and that the printing of a date on the food package would automatically solve the problem. No objective evidence was offered of the magnitude of the problem of stale food and certainly no evidence was offered that open dating would solve the problem. The Consumer Research Institute has been engaged in research activities in this area and finds that there is a favorable psychological reaction to the installation of open dating, but there is no evidence of improvement in the freshness of the food offered for sale. I view open dating to be more of a placebo than a panacea. Benefits which are promised but not delivered could contribute to additional consumer mistrust of the marketing system and ultimately result in increased consumer dissatisfaction.

Nutrient Labeling

Studies have shown that certain segments of our society have nutritional deficiencies, though we have the most abundant, wholesome good supply in the history of mankind. The White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health recommended that nutritional information be printed on food packages. The Food and Drug Administration and the leaders of the food industry enthusiastically agreed and the Consumer Research Institute has been engaged in a cooperative research project with the FDA to help determine the format for communicating this information which would be best understood and most useful to consumers. I know of no one who disagrees with this move. However, I have never and I do not now believe that this is a realistic solution to the problem of nutritional deficiency. The information is being communicated at a time, at a place, in a form which insures that it will have minimum usefulness to the consumer. The shopper in the supermarket does not have the time to run up and down the aisles reading and comparing nutritional statements and planning menus which will be nutritionally balanced. Clearly, we need a much better understanding of the problem, particularly from a consumer behavior point of view before we can begin to think intelligently about solutions. It does appear to me, however, that it might help to have additional nutritional information available to the consumer in the home, perhaps in the form of a nutritional handbook which would list nutritional values, not only by generic types of food but by brand name as well.

Restrictions of Advertising to Children

Recently, a group of concerned mothers in Boston organized a group called Action for Children's Television (ACT) which petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to ban all advertising directed to children on the assumption that it was doing various kinds of harm. The Consumer Research Institute asked the Associates for Research in Behavior to examine and conceptualize these charges, survey the literature to learn what is known that would speak to the charges and to suggest needed research. Their analysis indicated that the charges leveled against the advertising industry are unsubstantiated by any known factual information. Since this is such a serious charge, the Consumer Research Institute has recently sponsored a seminar under the chairmanship of Seymour Banks of the Leo Burnett Advertising Agency which brought together a group of social scientists to define the problems and attempt to outline a long-range research program on "How Children Learn About Being a Consumer." This group of child development psychologists, social psychologists, sociologists, communications and marketing experts spent a day and a half in discussions, a transcript of which will be made available to all who are interested in conducting research on the consumer socialization of the child.


I hope you will agree that so far we have not taken the time and trouble to dig deeply enough to define the basic, fundamental, underlying problems in marketing and society which are contributing to the new wave of consumerism. If this is true, it seems clear that we must begin to devote a larger portion of our time and money to problem definition. I suggest that the following approaches may be productive:

(A) Hold seminars similar to the Seymour Banks conference on the consumer socialization of the child mentioned above, in which the interested and knowledgeable experts in the country would define the real problems, suggest possible solutions and outline research programs. For example, two seminars seem to be needed on the difficult problems associated with the public policy aspects of advertising. One on the "copy" or psychological aspects of advertising, particularly the phenomenon of deception. I suggest that such a meeting, which would be attended by representatives of the FTC, advertisers, advertising agencies and academic, be held shortly after Professor John Howard finishes his summary of the recent FTC hearings on advertising. The second seminar would consider the economic aspects of advertising. It may be appropriate for organizations like the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, the Brookings Institute or a university economic department to sponsor a seminar of this type in which those economists antagonistic to advertising would be brought together with those who are pro-advertising to agree upon the kinds of data which will be required and methodologies which would help resolve their differences.

(B) Direct specific research activity toward the conceptualization and definition of fundamental problems. CRI is sponsoring one such study at present with Professor Robert Perloff and his associates at the University of Pittsburgh. This group will conceptualize the various dimensions or aspects of the phenomenon of deception, develop operational definitions and suggest ways in which deception may be reliably measured. A second phase of the study will be the development and application of instruments to measure deception. It would be desirable to objectively measure deceptiveness of advertisements rather than depending upon legal or expert judgment. This would also allow a more objective measure of the effectiveness of corrective and counter advertising.

(C) Another approach which I feel should be helpful is intensive, in-depth study of the environment in which the problems are believed to exist. For example, Professors Jagdish Sheth, Peter Wright and their associates at the University of Illinois are preparing a proposal for CRI to study the modern american supermarket. They would first develop a topology of the informational display which consists of around 8,000 items of each of which has many bits of information in addition to other promotional types of material in this environment. It may well be that the modern american supermarket is already the most complex informational display experienced by large numbers of people on this planet. The second phase of this investigation would be designed to develop a better understanding of the information processing and decision making task faced by the shopper.

In parallel with this proposed in-store study, CRI is sponsoring a series of laboratory projects with Professor Jacob Jacoby and his students at Purdue University to determine the amount of information actually used by consumers in making grocery purchase decisions and the hierarchy of importance or salience of this information. These studies should allow us to more adequately define problems with the marketing of groceries and develop alternate solutions for evaluation.

(D) Governmental and consumer advocate contact with consumers comes primarily from complaint letters. Too frequently such letters are from a highly vocal minority who may not be representative of American consumers. I urge that we commence conducting large scale surveys on a periodic basis to develop measures of consumer satisfaction, consumer expectations and perceived failings of our marketing system. Such information would not only allow better diagnosis of problems and the development and implementation of voluntary or Governmental solutions, it would also yield data for evaluating the effectiveness of corrective action.

Some of us have been accused at times of using research as a delaying tactic. I hope those who make this charge will allow marketing and consumer behavior scientists to spend the necessary time to do sound research. I hope governmental and legislative bodies will not rush into further regulation and control until the necessary research is done and facts are available upon which sound public policy decisions can be based. This,-of course, will require a considerable amount of money which is not now available. The Consumer Research Institute has made a start, but we will be unable to support the level of research which will be required in the future. Let us hope that others, especially foundations and governmental agencies, will recognize this problem and support research activity on the public policy aspects of marketing and consumer behavior.



Raymond C. Stokes, Director, Consumer Research Institute


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

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