What Is Consumerism?

ABSTRACT - This research is a response to the question: "What is consumerism?" The hypothesis that general attitudes toward the socio-economic environment influence more specific attitudes toward buyer-seller relations is evaluated using factor and canonical correlation analysis. Consumerism exhibits a complex structure consisting of alternative views on consumer protection. The findings provide a foundation for designing preventative and remedial programs.


Kent L. Granzin and Gary M. Grikscheit (1976) ,"What Is Consumerism?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 68-72.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 68-72


Kent L. Granzin, University of Utah

Gary M. Grikscheit, University of Utah

[We gratefully acknowledge permission from the Journal of Business Research to reprint portions of this article from "Who are the Consumerists?" by Gary M. Grikseheit and Kent L. Granzin) 81975 by the Journal of Business Research.]


This research is a response to the question: "What is consumerism?" The hypothesis that general attitudes toward the socio-economic environment influence more specific attitudes toward buyer-seller relations is evaluated using factor and canonical correlation analysis. Consumerism exhibits a complex structure consisting of alternative views on consumer protection. The findings provide a foundation for designing preventative and remedial programs.


Consumerism, the "social movement seeking to augment the rights and power of buyers in relation to sellers," (Kotler, 1972) is manifest in new laws, regulations, and marketing practices, as well as in new public attitudes toward government and business. Despite unprecedented affluence and a host of new and improve products and services, consumers are disenchanted with the marketing system. Symptomatic of consumers' malaise are complaints about rising prices, demands for improved products and services, suggestions for improving the adequacy of product information, and concern for the physical environment. In response to these consumer dissatisfactions, self-appointed spokesmen, unions, professional consumer organizations, business leaders, and politicians have advocated numerous remedies for curing consumer ills. During the rise of consumerism at least one consumer spokesman, Ralph Nader, has become a modern folk-hero.

Yet, as is typical for youthful social movements in a state of rapid change, the structure of consumerism is neither well defined nor clearly understood. To be sure, both participants and observers have expressed their perceptions of consumerism, but little has been done to empirically characterize this social movement. Hence, the purpose of this research is to provide at least partial answers to the question "What is Consumerism?

Guiding the search for answers to the question is the hypothesis that general attitudes toward the socioeconomic environment influence more specific attitudes Toward buyer-seller relations. This hypothesis follows from the results of a number of studies reported in the behavioral literature. For example, Bolton's study of peace-group membership shows that a person's predisposition toward social action is related to his degree of alienation (Bolton, 1972). Zygmunt asserts the socio-cultural context is central to understanding movement affiliation, Longman and Pruden find anomie important to understanding attitudes toward specific marketing acts, and a number of other investigators report the viability of employing general measures to determine views on particular subjects (Zygmunt, 1972; Longman and Pruden, 1972; McCloskey and Schaar, 1965; Stole, 1956). Based on the behavioral and business literature, the present research employs three types of such general attitudinal measures to provide data for testing its hypothesis: (1) degree of reliance on business and/or government for regulating economic activities; (2) satisfaction with one's social and economic environment; and (3) trust of others.


Based on a cluster sampling scheme, Salt Lake City was divided into 49 cells according to census tracts, and blocks within each tract were selected at random. [The reader may be interested in speculating about how findings are affected by local demographic characteristics even though this research does not attempt to estimate parameters for a universe larger than residents of the Salt Lake metropolitan area.

According to the 1970 census, Salt Lake City, with a population of 175,798, was 98.1 percent whites and 1.9 percent nonwhite. The Spanish-American ethnic group (primarily recorded as white) constituted 4.8 percent of the total, while persons of foreign stock contributed 15.4 percent of the total population. Also of possible relevance, although local scholarly studies suggest otherwise, is the predominance of a single religion. Approximately 47 percent of the Salt Lake residents claim affiliation with the L.D.S. (Mormon) Church.] For each block a map detailing the number and location of dwelling units was drawn and the units to be contacted were selected on a systematic random basis. The sampling plan sought to include 20 percent of the dwelling units per block, alternating male and female respondents of at least 18 years of age. One callback was made before the next dwelling was substituted.

A total of 295 residents provided usable responses to the personally administered questionnaire. The instrument contained 28 opinion items representing both the three classes of general measures introduced above and items judged a priori to indicate respondents' specific interest in consumerism. All opinion items were 100 mm Likert-type scales such as:

"More protection is needed for the consumers of this country."


To avoid pattern responses by respondents, the instrument used some items stated as positive and some stated as negative opinions, an alternative approach to reversing the scales themselves. Naturally, the number of items that can reasonably be included in a questionnaire is limited by the willingness of respondents to cooperate with interviewers.

Business writings provide a rich source of the items expressing opinions on specific consumerism issues (Day and Aaker, 1970; Bauer and Greyser, 1967; Buskirk and Rothe, 1970). Typical of these measures is the item tapping support for the leaders of the consumerism movement: "Consumer spokesmen (like Ralph Nader) should be thanked for the work they are doing."

A number of more general items involve support for business and/or government control of marketing operations, based on the rationale that consumerism frequently calls on either or both of these institutions to protect the consumer (Herman, 1970). Underlying their inclusion was the desire to see whether the consumer views the two institutions as complementary or alternative means for furthering his ends. That is, are business and government perceived as equally responsible for remedying wrongs? Direct remedy by these institutions is exemplified by the items "Business should bear more of the cost of consumer protection" and "The government should do more to control prices." Government control of the economy varies, however, in the directness of its link to business matters. While control of price, product, and promotion matters reaches to the heart of business strategy formulation, government is also involved with more indirect issues. To learn the extent to which consumerism includes or overlaps with a desire for greater control of society in a larger sense, this research includes such items as that asking consumers to what degree they agree that "The government should do more to regulate and control TV programming."

To measure satisfaction and trust, the relevant measures for one's general frame of reference are again limitless. However, the literature of the behavioral sciences provides strong guidance (Clark, 1959; Gerson, 1965; McCloskey and Schaar, 1965). Typical of items used for measuring general satisfaction is "It would be accurate to say this country is going to the dogs." Trustfulness is expressed by measures like "The average person you meet is honest."

To this point discussion has considered a categorical and necessarily conceptual dichotomization of items into specific consumerism interests and general attitudes toward the socio-economic environment. This characterization is supportable and necessary for data collection, but somewhat arbitrary. To avoid an arbitrary separation during analysis the research required a means for empirically isolating specific consumerism items as seen by the respondents. Therefore, factor analysis was employed to separate the 28 items not only into specific and general sets, but to divide the latter category into its constituent subsets. Factor analysis by the principal components method was employed for this task, with orthogonal rotation of factors by the varimax procedure (Kaiser, 1958). Six factors were rotated toward simple structure, using the criterion for selection that this number (lowest eigenvalue 1.16) provided maximum clarity of factor structure for the analysis to follow (Hakstian and Muller, 1973; John W. Thompson, 1962).

Having isolated the single factor most closely representing specific consumerism interest, the analysis proceeded to examine the relationships between this set of consumerism variables and the more general items. Canonical correlation analysis made it possible to examine simultaneously the multivariate relationships between specific and general measures. Canonical correlation extends multiple correlation to include a set of variables as criteria, rather than using only a single criterion variable (Stewart and Love, 1968). As in multiple correlation, the predictor set also involves multiple variables. The resulting equations are linear functions which portray the relationships between the two sets of variables. Thus, the functions developed here relate the set of specific consumerism variables to the set of more general predictor variables in a way such that the sets are correlated maximally with each other. Correlations between the best weighted combination of criteria and best weighted index of predictors are computed so that each variate is orthogonal to those already computed for earlier functions representing its set. Examining the correlation between each variable and its canonical variate is analogous to examining factor loadings (Veldman, 1967). The analysis computes as many of these linear functions as there are variables in the smaller of the two sets, in this case six.


Table 1 presents the factor structure of the 28 opinion items. The following interpretation of this structure considers each of the six factors in turn, giving greatest emphasis to those variables whose loadings on primary and secondary factors differ by at least .1, indicating they are relatively unambiguous (Neulinger and Breit, 1969).

Factor I--Trust in Americans. Central to this factor is the opinion that the average person is honest. Manufacturers may be personified by consumers and these producers' consideration of their customers associated with a single concerned individual representing the firm. Responses showing support for the American culture sharpen the picture of a basic dimension indicating a need (or lack of need) for protection from other residents of the respondent's country. This factor reflects more personalized consideration of other individual Americans than the factors that follow.

Factor II--Distrust and Dissatisfaction with Institutions. Factor II, which may be interpreted as distrust/dissatisfaction (or trust/satisfaction) appears less personalized than Factor I. Dissatisfaction expressed by agreement that the country is going to the dogs, the economy is in a sad stage, and the government is not doing enough for peace shifts the focus to the national social and economic scene, indicating concern (or lack of concern) with the way the federal government is doing its job. Similarly, distrust of government officials, military leaders, and government leaders appears to indicate a concern with institutions and the faceless officials who are responsible for their operation.

Factor III--Need for Environmental Change. Both willingness to believe Russian leaders on peace and desire for increased government action on pollution problems indicate interest in changing the current situation. Unfortunately, only two items load on Factor III, making interpretation difficult. Nonetheless, the fact that this is the only factor with no items directly linked to business suggests the broad environmental nature of the perceived need for change underlying this dimension.

Factor IV--Need for Institutional Change. Factor IV combines two related aspects. One is the broad concern for the current situation revealed as agreement on need for improving race relations and the country's educational situation. In this country responsibility for such improvement is currently delegated to government agencies. The second concern is the need for business to take a greater responsibility to regulate its conduct and protect the consumer. Thus, the two institutions of government and business are here called upon to improve their performance.

Factor V--Need for Increased Consumer Protection. Like the preceding two factors, Factor V indicates a need for changes directly related to new protective laws, organization of consumers, rewards for those advocating change, and explicitly, more consumer protection. Two ambiguous items are also included. The belief that advertising is misleading offers one rationale for change, and the call for stronger penalties for cheating firms furnishes a means for bringing about increased protection.

Factor VI--Call for Increased Governmental Regulation. Preceding factors have expressed the underlying reason for and the need for change in the conduct of the economic system. In addition, Factor IV assigns that responsibility to business firms. On the other hand, Factor VI calls for government to exercise the necessary control. Among the unambiguous items, government is given sanction to control prices, regulate salesmen and sales practices, and test, rate, and/or grade certain consumer products. Power to regulate is extended to TV programming, a product of the television industry, and greater power is desired for the government agencies involved in regulating business. Again, two ambiguous items load highest on this factor. Approval of the government's role in promoting auto safety and granting government more power to promote racial integration also overlap the concerns of other factors, as shown by their secondary loadings.

Two criteria provide powerful support for selecting Factor V as that most central to the concept of specific interest in consumerism. First, the word "consumer" appears in four of the six items loading highest on the factor. Second, an analysis at the conceptual level confirms Factor V as the basic dimension most closely tied to the call for augmented "rights and powers of buyers." For these reasons, Factor V appears to most closely represent the heart of the consumerism movement, and this factor and its associated six variables are selected as the criterion set for the canonical analysis.

Nonetheless, it must be recognized that, as expected, other items expressive of the consumerism movement load most highly on other factors, especially Factors IV and VI. Thus, while the picture of the heart of consumerism is presented in basic form through Factor V, the responsibilities of both business and government in providing for these needs (Factors IV and VI) remain to be clearly determined. The next phase of the analysis investigates these interactions, and also adds the supplementary explanatory power of items loading on Factors I, II, and III as well.

Based on the preceding results, canonical analysis provides six canonical functions representing correlations between the best weighted combination of the six variables loading highest on Factor V and a similar linear combination of the remaining 22 items. Five of the six linear functions have correlations significant at the .05 level as indicated by X2 tests of their respective Wilks' lambdas. Probabilities of a Type I error for Functions A through E are .000, .000, .022, .032, and .040 respectively. Function F is nonsignificant. In addition, Function E, while significant, has such low loadings that its interpretation would add little to understanding the consumerism issues involved.



Discussion of Function A considers only correlations between items and canonical variates of .5 or greater. Criterion items on need for more protection, organizing consumers, new protective laws, and stronger penalties for cheating firms, as well as feeling advertising is misleading, relate positively to six other opinion items. Three of these other measures come from Factor II, Distrust and Dissatisfaction with Institutions: distrust of government officials, fear that firms market dangerous products, and feeling the economy is in a sad state. This canonical relationship provides solid evidence for the hypothesized link between a general societal malaise and specific remedies to bring more protection for the individual consumer. An item from Factor IV, the call for business to bear more of the cost of consumer protection, also enters positively. While the respondents whose opinions are described by this function show distrust of government officials, they do see a need for more government regulation, as shown by the two Factor VI items calling for control of prices and testing of consumer products. In short, Function A describes a general discouragement with one's situation. In particular, the persons described call for increased consumer protection. They want business to bear its cost and government to provide the necessary control.

In function B four items have loadings over .4. Thanking consumer spokesmen, absent from the first equation, provides the only consumer protection item here. This criterion item correlates positively with predictors expressing need for firmer government action on pollution control and more self-regulation by business. However, its negative correlation with the idea that firms market dangerous products underscores the more specific nature of this relationship as compared with Function A. In this function, appreciation of consumer spokesmen relates to their championing a move for more corporate responsibility in areas of environmental interest, as opposed to concern for the price, product, and promotion aspects of marketing strategy.

Examination of loadings of .4 and over for Function C shows that a segment of consumers is not concerned about misleading advertising, but wants more protection for consumers. The relationship indicates trust (a lack of distrust) of government officials and agreement there is need for price control. Apparently some respondents see the need for a particular remedy, price control. This temporal issue, like that underlying the environmental concern expressed by Function B, again indicates a specific concern. This more specific interest appears more reasoned than the general interest shown in A, and the general distrust and dissatisfaction concerns do not enter here.



Function D also has four loadings of .4 or more. Three of these items are criterion variables and represent perceived need for consumer aid: agreement on the need for more consumer organization and stronger penalties for cheating firms, but disagreement that advertising tends to mislead. The single predictor item comes from Factor VI, approval of the government's stepping in on auto safety. Thus, this relationship supports a specific government activity and would apparently back strong government action to exact compliance from the auto makers. Rather surprisingly, this relationship indicates a desire for consumer organization but does not to a marked degree care to reward consumer spokesmen. Considering the fame accruing to Ralph Nader for his attacks on the auto industry, one may wonder just how pervasive is his support. The moderate negative loading on distrust of government officials solidifies this direct appeal for government action, quite possibly as a preferred alternative to endorsing the leadership of consumer spokesmen.

In sum, the canonical functions examined show both broad and narrow aspects of consumerism. The strongest relationship exhibits a link between the call for more consumer protection and a general distrust in and dissatisfaction with the current performance of America's institutions. Here, both business and government are called upon to act in the interests of the consumer. But superimposed on this strong general correlation are three lesser specific relationships. In particular, pollution control, price control, and auto safety emerge as issues of importance to a number of those responding to the survey.


Consumerism emerges as a complex cluster of issues. However, most salient appears to be the concern for consumer protection. Peripheral are concerns for how this protection may be gained. On one hand, business may bear its cost. On the other, government regulation may be the consumer's salvation. Significantly, these basic positions are alternative rather than complementary.

The desire for increased consumer protection reflects something other than a studied appraisal of the workings of America's economic system. For many citizens, their dissatisfaction and discouragement with the operation of society appears to bring a general call for more consumer protection. For remedies, many of these dissatisfied persons may choose government control as possibly the best alternative means of correction from a set of undesirable remedies. For other citizens the issues are more clear-cut and they view pollution control, regulation of prices, and auto safety as specific concerns. Had other such items been included, they too might have emerged as specific concerns.

Business leaders and government officials concerned with bringing about change would do well to consider the structure of consumerism presented here. However, they should recognize that the total picture must be balanced by considering the citizens whose opinions form the opposite ends of the relationships expressed here. While some respondents showed dissatisfaction, distrust and need for redress, others indicated satisfaction, trust, and approval of the current situation. Thus, a survey of national scope would be useful for assessing the relative weights to be given to the positions revealed in this report. Nonetheless, the empirical knowledge of the basic structure of consumerism presented here provides an important foundation for formulating preventative and remedial action.


Raymond A. Bauer and Stephen A. Greyser, "The Dialogue That Never Happens," Harvard Business Review, 45(November/December, 1967),186-190.

Charles D. Bolton, "Alienation and Action: A Study of Peace-Group Members," American Journal of Sociology, 78(November, 1972),537-561.

Richard H. Buskirk and James T. Roche, "Consumerism--An Interpretation," Journal of Marketing, 34(October, 1970),61-65.

John P. Clark, "Measuring Alienation Within A Social System," American Sociological Review, 24(December, 1959),783-791.

George S. Day and David A. Aaker, "A Guide to Consumerism," Journal of Marketing, 34(July, 1970),12-19.

Walter M. Gerson, "Alienation in Mass Society: Some Causes and Responses," Sociology and Social Research, 49(January, 1965),143-151.

A. Ralph Hakstian and Victor J. Muller, "Some Notes on the Number of Factors Problem," Multivariate Behavioral Research, 8(October, 1973),461-475.

Robert O. Herrman, "Consumerism: Its Goals, Organizations and Future," Journal of Marketing, 34(October, 1970),55-60.

Henry F. Kaiser, "The Varimax Criterion for Analytical Rotation in Factor Analysis," Psychometrika, 23(September, 1958),187-200.

Philip Kotler, "What Consumerism Means for Marketers," Harvard Business Review, 50(May/June, 1972),48-57.

Douglas S. Longman and Henry O. Pruden, "Alienation from the Marketplace: A Study in Black, Brown, and White," in Combined Proceedings, 1971 Spring and Fall Conferences, ed. by Fred C. Allvine (Chicago, Illinois: American Marketing Association, 1972).

Herbert McCloskey and John H. Schaar, "Psychological Dimensions of Anomie," American Sociological Review, 30(February, 1965),14-40.

John Neulinger and Miranda Breit, "Attitude Dimensions of Leisure," Journal of Leisure Research, 1(Summer, 1969),108-115.

Leo Stole, "Social Integration and Certain Corollaries: An Exploratory Study," American Sociological Review, 21(December, 1956),709-716.

Douglas Stewart and William Love, "A General Canonical Correlation Index," Psychological Bulletin, 70(August, 1968),160-163.

John W. Thompson, "Meaningful and Unmeaningful Rotation of Factors," Psychological Bulletin, 59(May, 1962), 211-223.

Donald J. Veldman, FORTRAN Programming for the Behavioral Sciences, (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967).

Joseph P. Zygmunt, "Movements and Motive: Some Unresolved Issues in the Psychology of Social Movements," Human Relations, 25(November, 1972),449-467.



Kent L. Granzin, University of Utah
Gary M. Grikscheit, University of Utah


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03 | 1976

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