A Study of the Relationship Between Social Values and Attitudes Toward Advertising


John F. Willenborg (1972) ,"A Study of the Relationship Between Social Values and Attitudes Toward Advertising", in SV - Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. M. Venkatesan, Chicago, IL : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 783-789.

Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1972      Pages 783-789


John F. Willenborg, University of South Carolina [Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of South Carolina.]

The study upon which this paper is based investigates the relationship between a person's social values and his attitudes toward the institution of advertising. Employed in the study are three Likert-type scales: a measure of social values or social orientation; an attitude scale made up of a series of statements about various effects of advertising; and a series of descriptions of situations in which the possibility of conflict occurs through the inclusion of both favorable and unfavorable elements. Interrelationships between the scales based on responses from 355 students were measured.


Consumer research has, for many years, sought to discover more about the dimensions of personality. Motivation, values, and attitudes have been scrutinized from many points of view. This paper reports on a study undertaken to relate social values to attitudes toward advertising and several other business functions.

An important development of recent years has been an increase in pressure being placed on business to respond to the needs of society. It is clear that many institutions of society, including both businesses and certain business functions, no longer can be considered totally autonomous and without social obligations. In response to increasing pressure and, perhaps, with a greater sense of responsibility, they seem to be becoming more sensitive to public and private concern. It follows that research is needed on the dimensions and effect of business practices.

Criticism of the advertising function is not a new phenomenon. However, criticism relating to the marketing function is particularly acute today as consumers, consumer advocates, and government seek to correct abuses and recommend changes. [For example, the Federal Trade Commission Hearings on Modern Advertising, November, 1971, dealt with advertising's effects on a broad scale.] Although much of the concern is directed toward specific examples of deception, unfair practices, and the like, criticism is often levied against the institution itself. Advertising suffers from an unfavorable image in the minds of many consumers. In this paper, some more light is shed on the nature of the person who tends to criticize, tolerate, or favor advertising and related functions.

It is an underlying assumption of this study that advertising possesses social impact and, perhaps, has become such an important facet of American life that it may have far-reaching social ramifications. Based on this supposition, it is speculated that attitudes and feelings formed by an individual regarding advertising are related to his social values, i.e., social-orientation. Therefore, the major hypothesis tested in this study is:

A person's social value orientation is inversely related to his attitude toward advertising.

Two related hypotheses are:

1.  A person's social value orientation is related to the way in which he resolves conflict situations regarding the favorable and unfavorable elements of business practice;

2.  Resolution of conflict situations involving favorable and unfavorable elements of business practice is related to a person's attitudes toward advertising.


The Measuring Instrument

A questionnaire was developed which is composed of three sections. The first part is a series of twenty statements concerned with various effects of advertising upon society. The statements were selected from thirty statements which had originally been developed. Positive and negative valences for each statement based on overall favorability or unfavorability toward advertising were determined through pre-tests in which valences were assigned by over 100 students. Of the statements selected, ten have positive and ten have negative valences.

Attitudes of respondents toward each statement were recorded on a seven-point Likert-type scale ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." Respondents were requested not to proceed to the second part of the questionnaire until additional instructions were given.

The second section includes descriptions of a series of "situations" related to business practices and their effects. The descriptions are designed to introduce conflict through presentation of both positive and negative elements or effects in a marketing and/or business framework. Several statements are directly concerned with advertising and its effects so that their relationship with the other sections of the questionnaire can be tested. Generally, the situations were developed based on frequently-mentioned arguments for and against the practice. The ten statements are presented in Exhibit 1.



1. Cultural television programs sponsored by companies which also present misleading advertising messages.

2. New, improved products accompanied by higher prices due to the high cost of product research.

3. Advertising which exaggerates product benefits, but informs us about what is available to purchase.

4. Companies which contribute to local charities while their factories pollute the atmosphere.

5. Steadily increasing salaries for workers accompanied by a higher cost of living.

6. Advertising which tells people where to buy beautiful, expensive products and often results in buyers going into debt to buy them.

7. The development and use of new, unbreakable plastic bottles for household cleaners which cannot be "recycled" or easily disposed of when empty.

8. Advertising on television which is often entertaining, but often seems to insult our intelligence.

9. The use of new safety devices in automobiles which will make automobile prices higher. 10. The growth of large chain stores which provide products at lower prices, but force small stores out of business.

*Evaluated by respondents on a scale from "very favorable" to "very unfavorable."

Respondents evaluated each situation in terms of "its overall effect on the American society" on a seven-point scale ranging from "very favorable" to "very unfavorable." A response which tends to be favorable reflects the relative desirability of the positive element and a general willingness of the respondent to accept the negative factor in light of its favorable aspect.

In the third part of the questionnaire, an index of a person's social value orientation was derived through the use of a social value scale developed by S. I. Perloe. [Described in some detail in John P. Robinson and Phillip R. Shaver, Measures of Social Psychological Attitudes, Institute for Social Research The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1969, pp. 492-501. The scale is also discussed in a paper by S. I. Perloe in Proceedings of the American Psychological Association Annual Meeting, 1971; and in "Changes in Student's Values and Roles at College," Terminal Progress Report for National Institute of Mental Health Grant, MH 16483-02, by S. I. Perloe.] The scale which is employed consists of twenty statements which are evaluated in order to measure social orientation. More specifically, the statements relate to a person's concern for the welfare of others as a matter of individual preference rather than out of moral obligation. The positive and negative valences assigned by Perloe are utilized [Perloe, in Robinson and Shaver. p. 492.] (ten statements have positive -and ten have negative valences). Respondents were asked to react to each statement on a seven-point scale on the basis of "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." Overall social orientation is the mean of all responses.

The Sample and Administration of the Study

The sample was not randomly selected from a large population. However, respondents were chosen in order to fill quotas which were representative of the student populations under study. Three general groups were included: high school students (senior level); lower division college-students (freshman and sophomore levels); and upper division college students (junior and senior levels). Two universities and three high schools were employed for drawing the sample. Total sample size was 355 students.

Administration of the questionnaire took place in small classroom group situations. Average class size was twenty students. Class sizes ranged from seven to forty-five. Administrators clearly define,d terms prior to beginning the administration and used a standardized format. Less than one percent of respondent questionnaires were rejected.

Demographic characteristics of respondents are shown in Exhibit 2.




The major analysis task was to determine the relationships between the three scales: attitudes toward advertising; resolution of conflict situations; and social value orientation. For each respondent, indices were developed by calculating mean scores of responses for each scale. Relationships were studied by computing simple correlation coefficients which indicated the direction and degree of relationship between the three scales for each demographic classification. Significance was measured by application of the t-test. The coefficient of determination was employed to compute the amount of variance explained.

To further understand the relationships, mean scores for each scale by demographic category were analyzed. Finally, responses to the conflict situations were further analyzed by considering the statements as two distinct categories: 1) those dealing directly with advertising; and 2) those involving general marketing and/or business situations.


An inverse relationship between social value orientation and attitude toward advertising had been hypothesized. The correlations lend support to the supposition; i.e., the greater a person's social orientation, the more critical he tends to be regarding advertising. Correlations and levels of statistical significance are presented in Exhibit 3. Generally, the coefficients, while showing the inverse relationship, are not high enough to give clear-cut evidence of the hypothesized relationship. Most are significant at the .05 level (t-test); however, the large number of observations is certainly a contributing factor. Yet, the highest correlations generated in the study relate to the social values-attitude toward advertising relationship. The greatest amount of variance explained by any correlation is nearly twenty percent (coefficient of determination).

No clear pattern was established in analysis of the relationship between social orientation and the resolution of the wide-ranging conflict situations. The hypothesized inverse relationship was supported; i.e., the greater the degree of a person's social orientation, the less likely he is to accept a situation which embodies both positive and negative elements. Likewise, individuals with a lesser degree of social orientation tend to be more favorable to the situations; i.e., they seem willing to accept the negative result as long as the situation contains a compensating favorable factor. Correlation coefficients are generally statistically significant, but are also relatively low for most categories.

It is important to note, however, that correlations are higher in every case when the set of conflict statements specifically involving the institution of advertising are considered as distinct from those concerned with the broader business issues (See Exhibit 3). Although the improvements are not substantial, it appears that the tendency for socially-oriented persons to react unfavorably toward business-related conflict situations is even more pronounced where advertising is concerned. Obviously, the nature of each conflict statement itself may help to account for the result; however, the assumption of the social nature of advertising is given some additional support by the finding.

As expected, a positive relationship exists between attitudes toward advertising and reaction to the conflict situations (See Exhibit 4). A person is generally in favor of the situation described if he is also favorable in his overall view toward advertising. This is particularly true when only the advertising statements are considered.





When correlations are analyzed by demographic classification, higher correlations are found with college students than with high school students; and higher correlations with white than with black students. Other patterns are not so clearly evident.

Some interesting results derive from analysis of the mean scores for each scale by demographic classification. For example, it would be expected that college students who have been enrolled in business administration courses would be more favorable toward advertising as well as to the business situations than those who have not taken such courses. The mean scores bear out the logic of the argument (See Exhibit 5). Interestingly, there is also a significant difference between the two groups in mean social value score; the students without business courses tend to be more socially-oriented.

There is also a significant difference between blacks and whites in mean scores. Blacks are significantly more favorable toward advertising and business, but tend to be less socially-oriented based on the social value scale (See Exhibit 5). Although these findings must be regarded as only tentative, they suggest that the relationships should be further tested.


The study described in this paper was exploratory in nature. The social values scale employed, although tested and validated in a variety of experiments, had not been utilized within a business and advertising framework. In addition, the use of situation descriptions with both positive and negative elements represents a somewhat unique approach to attitude measurement. Findings of the research should suggest directions for future research.

Results of the study support the hypothesis that social orientation is inversely related to attitudes toward advertising. Also, the more highly socially-oriented, the less likely a person is to favor a situation in which any benefits may be partially offset by negative factors, particularly if advertising is involved. Although correlations derived from the study are not strong enough to establish the relationship firmly, the direction of the relationship is significant.

It appears safe to speculate that advertising and other business functions do have, at least in the minds of student respondents, social connotations. If this is true, it may be disturbing to those concerned with the management and performance of business activity that socially-oriented persons tend to be anti-advertising. Carrying the reasoning further, it may even be speculated that consumers feel that advertising and related functions are not always in the social interest, a notion that is not unique in the age of consumerism.

From a research technique standpoint, the conflict resolution approach to attitude measurement may provide a means of assessing the strength of one's attitude in the face of potentially offsetting elements. It may be suggested as an alternative approach to attitude measurement which fails to predict behavior because it does not account for the multi-dimensional nature of attitudes or for the presence of such contradictory factors. Obviously, the ultimate test of the measure will lie with further testing and the observance of subsequent behavior.





John F. Willenborg, University of South Carolina [Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of South Carolina.]


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

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