Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior


Brian Sternthal and Gerald Zaltman (1975) ,"Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior", in SV - Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior, eds. Gerald Zaltman and Brian Sternthal, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-7.

Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior, 1975      Pages 1-7


Brian Sternthal, Northwestern University

Gerald Zaltman, University of Pittsburgh

During the past few years, the emergence of a broadened concept of marketing has eradicated the boundaries that had traditionally defined its domain. Marketing now comprehends the facilitation of the exchange process, regardless of whether economic goods and services, persons, institutions, places, or ideas constitute the object of exchange (Kotler, 1972). Strategies and tactics which were once indigenous to business settings are now conceived as being applicable in a variety of contexts.

Since consumer behavior is a subfield of marketing, it seems logical to suggest that it too should be concerned with a breadth of consumption settings. Indeed, this is the perspective taken in the monograph. Thus, consumer behavior is defined as the purchase and consumption-related activities of individuals engaging in the exchange process. Of particular concern in this monograph is the examination of the exchange process in "nontraditional" settings', including health, education, and welfare, and the determination of its correspondence to exchange processes that occur in traditional contexts. This entails developing a common language to link traditional and broadened contexts of consumer behavior. It also involves assessing the efficacy of applying consumer behavior knowledge developed in one setting to other seemingly disparate situations.

This paper briefly traces the evolution of the broadened concept of consumer behavior. Given this perspective regarding the historical antecedents of the broadened concept, the organization of the remainder of this monograph is outlined.


A review of the historical development of thought pertaining to a broadened concept of consumer behavior has involved the progression through three overlapping but distinct eras: the era of segregation, the era of comparativism, and the era of integration. An examination of each of these eras indicates why the broadened concept of consumer behavior has become a focal concern at this time. Further, it suggests the research paradigms that are likely to lead to the rapid accretion of knowledge regarding consumer behavior phenomena in both traditional and broadened contexts.

The Era of Segregation

With the emergence of the modern marketing concept after World War II, marketing researchers and practitioners began to study consumer behavior as an aid to decision making. These investigations tended to focus on the content of consumer thought. Measures with high face validity as behavioral predictors, such as attitude, personality, and demography, were administered to determine the profile of potential market targets. Furthermore, the theoretical underpinning of this approach was typically monomial; consumer behavior was grounded in either micro-economic, psychoanalytic, or perceived risk theory.

In contrast social scientists concentrated their investigations on the structure of consumer behavior as a subset of human behavior. Processes involved in the diffusion of innovations, mass persuasion, and the like, received substantial empirical study. However, because these studies were often conducted in contrived settings and dealt with topics which were seemingly irrelevant to the consumption of economic goods and services, they were seldom used as a basis for marketing practice.

In essence, the era of segregation was characterized by a fractionation of those interested in consumer behavior phenomena. Marketers focused on the substance of consumer thought in order to predict situation specific behavior, while social scientists centered their attention on the processes that explained human exchange processes. Unfortunately, there was little communication between them.

The Era of Comparativism

Although remnants of the era of separation still remain, it seems evident that since the mid-sixties consumer behavior has progressed into an era of comparativism. Marketing has attracted a group of scholars who combine a grounding in marketing issues and a sophisticated understanding of social science theory. As a consequence, there is a growing body of knowledge which juxtaposes practitioners' knowledge of what strategies are likely to be effective and researchers' knowledge of the mechanism that explains these observations.

To elaborate this point, consider the following example. Advertisers have recently adopted the "quick cut technique." Quick cuts involve rapid movement from one scene to another. A television commercial for a headache remedy may use quick cuts by first showing a mother scolding her children. The next scene depicts the mother at the medicine cabinet taking the analgesic being advertised. This is quickly followed by a scene in which the mother is cheerfully playing with her children, and then by an announcer who explains why the advertised brand is more than twice as effective for the relief of headache pain than the leading competitive brand.

The rapid movement from one scene to another is a technique adapted from flashbacks used in the film industry. It is employed by advertisers because it is creative and because it is an effective means of conveying information quickly. To determine the relative efficacy of using quick cuts versus some other technique, the advertiser must follow a trial and error procedure for each product tested.

Juxtaposed to this practice, is both theory and experimental evidence which give some indication of why quick cuts are effective. On the basis of cognitive response analysis (Greenwald, 1968), it is hypothesized that much of persuasion is self-persuasion; it entails the individual's rehearsal of his repetoire of attitude relevant thoughts. Thus full comprehension is unnecessary for persuasion, at least in situations where the individual has some familiarity with the issue in question.

This assertion is congenial with evidence reported in distraction (Baron, Baron, and Miller, 1973), inoculation (McGuire, 1964; Tannenbaum, 1967), and compression (Wheeless, 1971) studies. In compression studies for example, parts of a tape-recorded persuasive appeal are systematically deleted and the remainder of the tape-recording is spliced together. Although subjects exposed to this procedure exhibited less comprehension than those played the complete version of the message, no differences in persuasion were reported (Wheeless, 1971).

Thus, characteristic of the era of comparativism is the juxtaposition of practitioners' knowledge of what strategies work and social scientists' understanding of the mechanism underlying this observation. Moreover, during this era eclectic theories have replaced monomial explanations of consumer behavior phenomena. The theory of consumer behavior may be conceived as being analogous to a jigsaw puzzle in which the various theoretical positions constitute the pieces of the puzzle. For some parts of the puzzle, there are at present no pieces; theory and empirical work is virtually silent. In other parts of the puzzle, there appears to be multiple competing pieces. For example, cognitive consistency, learning theoretic, and behavior theory formulations are middle range theoretical positions that can be offered as alternative explanations of the same phenomenon.

The Era of Integration

Despite the isomorphism between practitioners' knowledge of what strategies work and social scientists' ability to explain, seldom has the prediction, explanation, and control of consumer behavior been systematically studied in natural settings. From a practitioner's viewpoint, such a paradigm would provide an externally validated explanation of the processes underlying behavior. Given this knowledge, inferences could be made about the likelihood that a particular strategy would be effective in a variety of contexts. From the researcher's perspective, testing explanations in natural settings would provide strong evidence concerning the efficacy of the theory being investigated.

Although true integration of practitioners' and researchers' concerns is still somewhat rare, there are studies which approach achievement of this end. Consider a study by Richard Evans and his coworkers (1970). In an initial contact with highschool students measures were taken to determine their behavior, behavioral intentions, and attitudes toward dental hygiene. In a subsequent contact subjects were randomly assigned to one of five treatments: severe threat of physical consequences, mild threat of physical consequences, social approval for proper dental hygiene practice, recommendations only, and elaborated recommendations. Several posttests were administered to determine the extent and persistence of the communication's effect on attitude, behavioral intention, self-reported behavior and actual behavior.

Although the issue under investigation falls under the rubric of health, it has several noteworthy methodological attributes. First, it allows the researcher to test the effect of physical threat and induction of social approval in the same study. Second, it provides an opportunity to administer a scaled and relatively unobtrusive measure of behavior; plaque accumulation and the condition of the gingiva are highly sensitive indices of an individual's dental hygiene practices. Third, it enables examination of the relationship between self-reported and actual behavior. Finally, it addresses the question of the relative efficacy of threat and other motivationally based appeals in achieving compliant behavior.

The Evans et al. study may be recast in terms of a prediction of behavior paradigm. Using this approach, the induction of various levels of physical threat may allow systematic manipulation of an individual's personal normative beliefs; that is, what a person believes he ought to do in a particular situation. Further, manipulation of the level of social approval may have a systematic effect on individual's social normative beliefs--what he perceives significant others to want him to do in a given situation. Thus the causal relationships between two normative belief variables and behavior may be investigated. - This study would make a significant contribution to extantknowledge which indicates a significant association between personal and social normative beliefs and behavioral measures.

Despite the advantages of such paradigms as the one used by Evans in integrating substantive and structural concerns, they fail to satisfy the objectives of social scientists. Specifically, they afford only a superficial level of explanation. The mechanism underlying the prediction made by a theory is seldom tested. A study in the welfare area will clarify this point. Freedman and Fraser (1966) studied the effectiveness of the foot-in-the-door technique as a means of interpersonal persuasion. Initially, Palo Alto homeowners were visited and asked to sign a petition or display a small sign dealing with one of two issues: keeping California beautiful or driving safely. The vast majority of homeowners who agreed to comply with the request were visited several weeks later and asked to display a large, poorly lettered Drive Carefully sign on their front lawn. They were shown a photograph which indicated that the sign would almost completely obstruct the view of their home from the street.

Thus a 2X2 design was employed with two levels of task similarity and two levels of issue similarity. It was found that all experimental groups complied to a greater extent than did a control group which was only visited once and asked to display the large Drive Safely sign. This finding is congenial with the prediction made by self-perception theory (Bem, 1972). Individuals who complied with some small request dealing with a social welfare issue attributed this behavior to the fact that they were socially concerned individuals. This attitudinal predisposition, in turn, led them to comply with the larger request. However, it should be noted that Freedman and Fraser's study does not address this question. Thus self-perception or some competing theoretical formulation may explain the results observed.

The point of this discussion is not to disparage a particular investigation. Rather, it is to indicate that even studies which examine causal relationships may not afford adequate explanation of the phenomenon observed. True integration of the practitioners and researchers perspectives will require more elaborate tests of the process underlying reported relationships in natural settings. Once this is achieved., information may be disseminated to consumers concerning effective modes of using and resisting marketing strategy--in effect making the consumer a salient audience for those investigating and reporting about consumer behavior phenomena.

In summary, it appears evident that consumer behavior has progressed through a series of stages. At present, the concept of consumer behavior encompasses a wide variety of issues. However, to truly broaden the concept of consumer behavior the concerns of practitioners, researchers, and consumers must be more adequately integrated. Of focal concern is the development of research paradigms which not only test theoretically based predictions but also provide an explanation of the process involved. To achieve this end, a common language is needed that links concepts that have been historically associated with particular consumption contexts. A major contribution of this monograph is the articulation of the common language.


This monograph is divided into three parts. In Part I, several of the basic assumptions underlying consumer behavior research in the broadened context are examined. More specifically, Nicosia and Witkowski question the efficacy of investigations predicated on the assumption that society is motivated by the desire to industrialize. They document the emergence of a post-industrial age and point to the need for a sociology of consumption to predict and explain consumer behavior accurately. Scott, on the other band, pursues a more microlevel analysis in examining the assumptions underlying research in broadened consumer behavior contexts. She identifies the criteria necessary for rigorous empirical research and illustrates how these requirements may be satisfied. Using this approach, Scott observes that consumers' decision making processes are essentially the same in broadened and traditional consumption settings, questioning the assumption that these contexts are disparate because of differences in their stimulus attributes.

Part II of the monograph provides a detailed examination of consumer behavior in health, education, and welfare contexts. Each manuscript attempts to develop a common language that links the context examined with traditional economic goods and service settings. In the health context, Woods describes the purchase and consumption of psychiatric services and compares it with the purchase of a bicycle. Venkatesan discusses the purchase and consumption of health maintenance organization services and relates it to the exchange involved in more traditional settings.

The discussion of purchase and consumption of educational products focuses on the diffusion and implementation of educational innovations. Florio provides a detailed description of the environment in which the adoption of educational innovations occurs and draws on the diffusion literature to suggest ways to investigate and facilitate the diffusion process. Chow et al. further elaborate Florio's discussion by developing a framework for research regarding the diffusion and implementation of -educational innovations.

Part II concludes with two manuscripts that focus on the welfare context. Shama provides a detailed analysis which exhibits the isomorphism between purchase and consumption in traditional and political settings. Yalch reports the results of a study which seeks the prediction of voting behavior from a knowledge of individual's dispositions. on the basis of these data, he concludes that broadened contexts are not only valuable to study in their own right, but also provide information useful in understanding consumer behavior in traditional contexts.

Considered together, the selections included in Part II provide compelling evidence that the purchase and consumption behaviors related to health, education and welfare products and services are not different in kind from those related to the purchase and consumption of economic goods and services. once a common language linking different contexts is articulated, the same research paradigms that are useful in understanding, predicting, and modifying behavior in traditional settings are also useful in broadened contexts.

Given this perspective, a conceptual framework for future research that is applicable in both broadened and traditional contexts is articulated in Part II of the monograph. Sheth develops a comprehensive conceptual framework for examining buyer-seller interactions. Sternthal and Zaltman justify the need for a taxonomy of situations that is based on consumers' reactions to marketing stimuli rather than the physical attributes of those stimuli and provide a theoretical foundation on which future development of the taxonomy can proceed.


Baron, R., Baron, P., and N. Miller. "The Relationship Between Distraction and Persuasion," Psychological Bulletin, 1973, 80, 310-323.

Bem, D. "Self-Perception Theory," in L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. New York: Academic Press, 1972.

Evans, R., Rozelle, R., Lasater, T., Dembroski, T., and Allen, B. "Fear Arousal, Persuasion, and Actual Versus Implied Behavioral Change: New Perspective Utilizing a Real-Life Dental Hygiene Program," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1970, 16, 220-227.

Freedman, J. and Fraser, S. "Compliance Without Pressure: The Foot-in-the-Door Technique," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1966, 4, 195-202.

Greenwald, A. "Cognitive Learning, Cognitive Response to Persuasion, and Attitude Change," in A. Greenwald, T. Brock, and T. Ostrom (eds.), Psychological Foundations of Attitudes. New York: Academic Press, 1968.

Kotler, P. Marketing Management: Analysis, Planning and Control. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972.

McGuire, W. "Inducing Resistance to Persuasion: Some Contemporary Approaches," in L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 1. New York: Academic Press, 1964.

Tannenbaum, P. "The Congruity Principle Revisited: Studies in the Reduction, Introduction, and Generalization of Persuasion," in L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 3. New York: Academic Press, 1967.

Wheeless, L. "The Effects of Comprehension Loss on Persuasion," Speech Monographs, 1971, 38, 327-330.



Brian Sternthal, Northwestern University
Gerald Zaltman, University of Pittsburgh


SV - Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior | 1975

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