Swedish Consumer Policy, Its Transferability and Related Research Implications

ABSTRACT - An overview of recent Swedish consumer policy, public and private, constitutes the first part of this paper. The one-round Delphi study which follows is focused on future developments in Sweden. A third part briefly discusses some fascinating issues involved in technology transfer in the public policy area, with examples from consumer policy. Finally a catalog is offered of research implications suggested by the paper.


Hans B. Thorelli (1981) ,"Swedish Consumer Policy, Its Transferability and Related Research Implications", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 467-473.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 467-473


Hans B. Thorelli, Indiana University

[The author expresses his appreciation to The Swedish Bicentennial Fund for the fellowship which made this research in Sweden possible. The Fund was established in 1976 by the Government of Sweden to promote scientific and cultural relations with the United States. Dr. Sarah V. Thorelli participated in all aspects of the research. We are most grateful for the outstanding cooperation of Sven Heurgren, the Consumer Ombudsman and Director General of the State Consumer Board, and his associates at the Board, and to the Dean and staff of the Stockholm School of Economics, and literally scores of other Swedish friends.]


An overview of recent Swedish consumer policy, public and private, constitutes the first part of this paper. The one-round Delphi study which follows is focused on future developments in Sweden. A third part briefly discusses some fascinating issues involved in technology transfer in the public policy area, with examples from consumer policy. Finally a catalog is offered of research implications suggested by the paper.


A dynamic analysis of Swedish consumer policy in the 1940-1975 period was presented in Thorelli and Thorelli (1977). A more detailed, institutionally oriented survey of the pre-1970 years is found in Thorelli and Thorelli (1974). Our purpose here is to update these materials, essentially covering the years 1976-80.

The Setting

The consumerism debate in Sweden has calmed down in the last five years. [This is recognized by the Director General and the editors of the State Consumer Board; see KonsumentrStt och Ekonomi (1979:2), pp. 2, 30.] It has become less passionate, less personal and there is generally less exaggeration in argumentation. This statement is valid also for Rsdoch R÷n, the consumer journal published by the State Consumer Board. It has almost doubled its circulation from 110,000 subscribers in 1974-75 to some 200,000 in 1979-80, despite a doubling in price to a modest $5.50 per year. The journal now has a penetration rate about twice that of Consumer Reports. Consumer activists are given less play by the media, although there is a popularly viewed, regularly scheduled TV program.

This does not mean that either consumerism or public debate is dead. The consumerist "movement"--Sweden has no general-purpose consumerist groups--has reached a stage of maturity where it is likely to remain for a while. At the same time the climate of opinion has become more nuanced, generally a healthy development. An example is the series of eight or more articles in the Stockholm Svenska Dagbladet, March-June 1978. Another is the conference "Consumer Policy Faces the 80's" of government, academic, business and media opinion leaders arranged by the Ministry of Commerce in May 1979 and also the excellent collection published by the Swedish Committee for Economic Development (SNS) in 1979. [Bengt Ryden, ed., Mot en ny Konsumentpolitik (Towards a New Consumer Policy, Stockholm: SNS, 1979).]

A sign of the times is some serious soul-searching going on in the State Consumer Board. This self-examination is not in any direct way related to the change from social democrat to coalition government by liberal parties. It does seem symptomatic of a readiness to accept or consider some new signals. There is also some unrest among the technical and economic professionals about what a fair number of them consider the "lawyer oligarchy" absorbed by the State Consumer Board (KOV) when it merged with the Office of the Consumer Ombudsman (KO) in 1976 and when KO also became Director General of the Board. In part the spirit of reevaluation is no doubt also related to a certain amount of soul-searching in and about the welfare state as such--also a fairly recent Swedish development.

A recurring theme in the expressions of opinion cited earlier is the need for a gradual shift in emphasis of policy from protection towards emancipation of consumers. In this context the need for a fresh look at consumer information programs is often stressed. Sweden pioneered voluntary informative labeling of consumer products, but this program was abandoned by the State Consumer Board during the years of the Left Twist. The desire for "help towards self-help" more than additional regulations was clearly manifested in a recent major academic survey of Swedish consumers (Wilkstr÷m 1979). On the other hand, another large survey sponsored by the State Consumer Board seemed to call for more protection. [Konsumentunders÷kningen 1978-79 (Stockholm: State Consumer Board). Swedish mimeograph summary, "Konsumentpolitken inf÷r 80-talet," by L. Lundvall of the Board. Pending the final report some aspects of the survey have been highlighted in Rsdoch R÷n. A few questions of this survey seemed less professionally worded than might be desired.] Few such large-scale surveys of consumer opinions of consumer policy issues had been made before in Sweden (Thorelli, Becker, Engledow 1975, pp. 194 ff.).

New Laws and Proposals

The momentum of consumer policy proposals enacted into law or subject to scrutiny by the perennial government investigating committees characteristic of the country has been maintained in the last few years. Sweden took the ultimate step towards centralization of general consumer policy by the merger of the Office of KO and the State Consumer Board (KOV). [The law chartering the reconstituted State Consumer Board is F÷rordning med Instruktion f÷r Konsumentverket, SFS 1976: 429.] At that time the 1971 Marketing Practices Act had been succeeded by a new Marketing Act, which strengthened the old law in two important ways. [Marknadsf÷ringslag, 15 December 1975 (SFS 1975: 1418)]

A firm (or trade association) may now be required by KO to supply product information deemed of special importance to consumers. His decisions may be appealed to the Market Court (T. and T. 1977, p. 223), in which case he has the burden of proof. The second innovation deals with the sale and rental of hazardous commodities. The marketing of such products may be prohibited. [The same applies to commodities which are "obviously unfit for their primary purpose." After a test case involving a notoriously poor washing machine, in which KO won only a Pyrrhic victory at the Market Court, that provision has fallen into disuse.] Special product control legislation was already in place for food products and goods which entail danger to the environment.

Another new lay of general importance is the Consumer Credit Act of 1977. [Konsumentkreditlagen, SFS 1977: 981, amended by SFS 1978: 598.] A seller or financing agency in marketing credit must give information about the effective rate of interest (including administrative charges, etc.). The same data shall again be given any individual customer before credit is granted. As a rule down payments in installment sales should not be less than 20 percent. The new law also restricts the possibility of sellers and third parties repossessing goods in case of default.

Sweden is primed to adopt strict liability as a general rule in the sale of consumer goods through the pending law on product liability in such sales. We may note, too, that in 1981 the Central Consumer Complaints Board (ARN)--hitherto regarded as an "experimental activity" within the KOV--will be established as a fully separate activity. It would be quite premature, however, to see in this a return to decentralization of consumer policy.

The committee to study the desirability of giving KO certain powers to subpoena information from individual firms presented its first report in 1979, including a draft law providing for sweeping powers of that kind. [Konsumentinflytande genom Insyn?, SOU 1979: 5.] KO in an official commentary to the report saw the need for even broader powers as far as past and present activities of firms are concerned. However, he suggested on both practical and principal grounds that his powers to require data about product planning and other future-oriented company activities be limited to cases where issues of product safety would likely be involved.

Another major-report presented a draft Consumer Services Act in 1979. [KonsumenttjSnstlag, SOU 1979: 36.] The principal investigator has discussed the proposal in detail in Journal of Consumer Policy (Bernitz 1980). Briefly, the proposed act will cover most services involving work on tangible objects, houses and land. The law governing such services is poorly developed in most countries. The act provides for freedom of contract as to the manner of performance of a service as well as to its price. However, once a contract is made, many of the proposed rules are mandatory, i.e., they cannot be set aside by contract to the detriment of the consumer. An interesting example is that the entrepreneur is liable for information furnished when marketing the service: "acts of marketing, such as advertising, should be considered as belonging to the contracting process .... Accordingly, a deviation from statements in advertisements and similar communications aimed at the general public should be considered to constitute a defect in the service performed." (Bernitz 1980). Two investigating committees recently appointed should be mentioned. One is concerned with "market surveys, comparative testing and other types of product research," as well as the various uses, and the distribution of, the information resulting from such activities. The purpose of the other is an evaluation of KOV activity in the area of marketing guidelines (below).

Public Policy Enforcement

Given an ecologic view of institutions it is only natural that trends of enforcement in Swedish consumer policy have responded to environmental developments as well as to the leadership of Sven Heurgren, KO as well as Director General of KOV since the merger. It is important to remember that Mr. Heurgren--who was KO before his present appointment--is a lawyer, and that he brought much of his legal staff with him to KOV. No one may doubt that the top priority of KOV is the enforcement of the Marketing Act and related legislation. Inevitably other aspects of consumer policy--such as education, information, product testing--have suffered somewhat, at least by comparison. To a fair extent technical and economic staff at KOV have been engaged in the professional backup work necessary in effective law enforcement. Indeed, malice would have it that in effect the KOV has become an enlarged Office of the KO.

The must dramatic shift in policy enforcement has been from the brash jawboning of producers and anti-business tirades of the former Director General to the development of guidelines governing particular industries and trades. This change should be seen against the background that Swedish politics in no longer dominated by the Left Twist phalanx and that Mr. Heurgren, while aggressive and publicity-conscious, comes equipped with a sober legal temperament. He also stands for a sense of fairness, which somehow got lost in the missionary zeal of the predecessor administration.

The day-to-day handling of malpractices by particular firms has been described in Thorelli and Thorelli (1977). Of greater principal interest are the guidelines somewhat similar to the trade regulation rules of the FTC. Such guidelines are not new to the Swedish scene (T. and T. 1977, p. 219). What is new is the emphasis placed on them and the institutionalization of the system. KO himself regards the guidelines as the most important single means of influencing producers. Guidelines are typically worked out in negotiations between KOV and a trade association. Thus, the activity reintroduces in consumer policy enforcement an element of pluralism which had been on the wane during the Left Twist years. KOV has the authority to issue guidelines in the absence of an accord. However, it strives to achieve a "voluntary" agreement. If an industry member abridges the agreement, KO can take him to the Market Court, which alone can make the final decision as to the legality of a guideline.

Most of the guidelines are concerned with product safety, and many of them also prescribe certain minimum standards of product information. Advertising of alcohol and tobacco products is severely restricted. Several guides deal with energy labeling of such products as cars and major appliances. Some 30 guidelines are now published in the official KOV collection ranging from grocery store advertising and in-store information concerning "specials" on food products to safety standards for ski bindings. A similar number of proposed guidelines are in various stages of negotiation and processing, and at least another score figure in KOV internal planning. The guideline for skateboards is significant in indicating the new trend in policy: sale of the boards is permitted with the proviso 1) that they conform to specified safety standards, 2) that they carry elaborate warnings, and 3) that the seller indicate that skateboards are unsuitable for children under 12. Norway banned skateboards outright, something Sweden could have been expected to do only six years ago.

The development of guidelines is a slow and arduous process--even in cases where the trade is eager to cooperate. It must not be forgotten that there are tens of thousands of products in the modern marketplace. The system is also not free from controversy. The Chairman of the Market Court has pointed to the risk that guidelines might thwart constructive competition, and stated that many firms are sufficiently shy of bad publicity to agree to undesirable restrictions on their freedom of action. [Justice Peter Westerlind in address before the consumer policy conference of the Ministry of Commerce, May 3, 1979.] This same argument was also voiced by a spokesman for the Federation of Swedish Industries, which is trying to stimulate its members to request KOV to demonstrate the need for its proposals more thoroughly than heretofore. As KOV apparently feels it represents consumer interests sufficiently well, there has been little or no effort to engage individual consumers or groups thereof in its work. As KOV is well aware, it is also true that resources do not permit a systematic surveillance of compliance with the guidelines; enforcement effort is typically contingent on consumer or competitor complaint. These types of concerns provide some of the impetus behind the appointment of the investigating committee to evaluate the guidelines. The system will almost surely survive this examination, though likely in somewhat modified form.

KOV nowadays does little by way of comparative testing for consumer information (CI) purposes. Some tests are contracted for CI in Rsdoch R÷n (occasionally even paid for out of the magazine's budget). Most of the tests handled by the technical bureau now are either on contract from individual firms or to provide backup data for guideline negotiations. KOV does participate in the Nordic Council comparative tests which are reported in some form in Rsdoch R÷n. KOV also publishes a quarterly Journal on consumer law and economics read mainly by marketing executives and lawyers, home economics teachers and other professionals. Several buying guides are also published. Occasionally a major comparative test will be undertaken, or contracted for, to provide material for a special monograph, such as the excellent ones on washing machines and dishwashers and the economics of different models of cars (acquisition, performance, maintenance, repair, taxes, insurance, etc.). A fair amount of consumer education materials for schools (involving issues of methodology as well as subject matter) is also produced.

Little is still being done about CI in the more restricted sense. The relative decline of comparative testing has been mentioned. The only novelty worth mentioning is what may be called "negotiated CI," i.e., information rules in the guidelines. Most negotiated CI is, however, product-specific, i.e., there is no common scheme or even logo, and the information required is typically confined to safety aspects. The few energy labels among the guidelines provide no information beyond the consumption of fuel or electricity under specified conditions. KO has no interest in allocating resources to a broad-spectrum voluntary informative labeling and/or quality certification program, [KO stated this in a meeting of the Stockholm group of SNS on May 12, 1980.] although it would be within his power to do so. He feels it is the responsibility of individual producers to decide what information they should provide beyond that which may have been mandated in the 30-odd guidelines. For several years KO also refused to support research and development of computerized CI banks, expressing the fear that they might easily become subject to abuse by advertisers or other commercial interests.

In the last five years KOV has supported a good deal of academic research more or less related to consumer policy. Some of it has been of high quality. As mentioned, it has also sponsored a major consumer survey under its own auspices. An interesting initiative is the program currently being launched establishing minimum standards for auto repair shops.

KOV has devoted some special attention to the problems of consumers living in sparsely populated areas where the local general stores and/or gas stations find it increasingly difficult to survive. Such outlets may get modest subsidies for special-purpose investments, such as freezers and mobile markets. KOV has recommended to such state bodies as the Apothecary, the Lottery, the Post Office, the Alcohol Monopoly that they remunerate these distant stores somewhat more generously than before for services performed for these agencies. These authorities were not amused. Support for home delivery services organized by local government may be obtained, and so on. Experiments have also been made with special bussing of distantly located consumers to the nearest store or community. In 1975 a law was passed creating a system of consumer advisory services (budgeting, product information, complaint advice, etc.) to be administered by local and regional government on a voluntary basis. By Fall 1979 some 178 local government units of a total of 277 had decided at least in principle to establish such services. However, only 34 of them had one or more full-time consumer advisers. [The Stockholm office is the largest and very centrally located. However, we found that on two Fridays in May 1980 the office was closed--at a time when the city was full of shoppers. The preceding Thursdays were national holidays and all personnel had been allowed vacation days on these busy Fridays. Though stores are open the office is closed on Saturdays.] Most of these plus some 30 other communities had established consumer councils within the local government structure. KO has been recommending that local consular services be made mandatory, but there is a real question in our mind whether KOV at this time has enough educational and CI materials to back up such a system effectively.

It may be added that some special areas of public consumer policies are handled by other agencies than KOV, such as the State Food Administration and the Environmental Protection Board.

Constant Policy at the Enterprise Level

Too often one gets the impression in academic as well as public debate that consumer policy is an activity reserved for governments. But the term reasonably applies to any organized measures to promote consumer interests (Thorelli, 1972). Thus, consumer policymakers include consumer groups, the media, educational institutions, business firms, trade and standardization associations, etc. In the case of individual firms the border between consumer policy and general business policy is none too clear. We shall assume merely that consumer policy refers to measures going beyond "providing a good product at a good price."

No systematic survey has been made of consumer policy at the enterprise level in Sweden. If we include--as one probably should--voluntary cooperation with KO-KOV and the Central Consumer Complaints Board here, it is clear that thousands of firms are engaged in consumer policy to varying degree. What firms do on their own, however, generally appears less impressive. Students of Professor Solveig Wikstr÷m surveyed the situation in a dozen firms, and found surprisingly little activity beyond routine complaint handling. There were remarkably few consumer affairs professionals in these firms. We got a similar impression, amplified by a well-connected spokesman of organized industry who said that "this country does not have much, and what there is, is in large part cosmetic." We interviewed the coops and a few companies and found only one truly impressive case: ICA AB, the company serving the Independent Grocers Alliance, the largest retail organization in Sweden. Its weekly magazine with a paid circulation of about 600,000 (three times that of Rsdoch R÷n) is thoroughly consumer-oriented in terms of articles on home economics and household management. Almost every issue carries a comparative test; there is a special issue summarizing scores of tests. [Testat av ICA-kuriren (ICA AB, 1979).] Indeed, ICA for years has sponsored a great deal more of comparative testing than has KOV. ICA plans an accelerated effort to increase interest in consumer policy at the member store level.

Government enterprises, being semi-monopolies, are not setting noble examples in this area. The State Telephone Administration, for example, has no consumer affairs department, although we understand that KOV has repeatedly recommended that one be created. At the trade association level, the Furniture Research Institute has sponsored an informative labeling program, "Furniture Facts," which has been moderately successful. This is more due to the largest dealer chains (IKEA and the cooperative department stores) wishing to carry labels on part of their assortment than to manufacturer enthusiasm. A trade group of insurance companies has established a special Insurance Consumers' Advice Bureau as a joint venture with KOV. Speaking generally, the federations of industry, wholesalers and retailers have been more willing to accept--indeed, often endorse--public consumer policy than to launch initiatives of their own. [For sample policy statements by spokesmen of these organizations, see Henell, Olof, Foretagens Reaktioner Ps Konsumentpolitiken (Stockholm: RabTr. Sj÷gren, 1976).] It would seem that thus far Swedish business at the enterprise level has been less eager to engage in independent consumer policy than have American firms as revealed in the 1975 study by Fornell. The latter in 1978 estimated the number of consumer affairs units in Swedish firms at about 20, while in the U.S. there might well be more than 1,000 (Fornell 1978). It may well be that Swedish firms have become so conditioned by welfare state thinking and KOV activity that they simply tend to feel no independent responsibility for consumer policy. We may note, however, that both the Swedish CED and the Federation of Industries have recently given the station of consumer policy at the firm level a prominent place on their agendas.

Swedish Policy: A Futurist View

To get an idea of what the future may hold in store for Swedish consumer policy we undertook what may be called a one-round Delphi. A standardized questionnaire was used to obtain from a limited number of experts their probability estimates of 22 different consumer policy "events" taking place in the 1980-85 period. All events have been mentioned as at least plausible in Swedish debate. The 18 experts consulted were government officials, academics and business executives prominently associated with public and/ or private consumer policy. No less than 14 returned filled-in questionnaires. There was no difference in occupational composition of respondents and nonrespondents. Our excellent personal conflicts with respondents probably had something to do with the 78 percent response rate. We list the respondents to give the reader an idea of their background and to thank them for their cooperation:

Mr. Tore Adler, The Swedish Furniture Research Institute

Mr. Jan Gillberg, Executive Director, The Federation of Swedish Marketing Associations

Mr. Sven Heurgren, KO and Director General of KOV

Dr. Ernst Johnson, Associate Professor, University of Stockholm

Dr. Class-Robert Julander, Research Associate, Stockholm School of Economics

Dr. Lars Nieckels, Associate Professor, University of Stockholm

Dr. Tomas Ohlin, Executive Secretary, Government Commission on New Information Technology

Mr. +ke SSfback, Central Marketing Department, Electrolux, Inc.

Dr. Sten Tengelin, Executive Director, Swedish Industry Delegation on Marketing Law and Rapporteur on Consumer Affairs, International Chamber of Commerce, Paris

Mr. Ulf Tidics, Consumer Affairs Executive, Marketing Department, Philips of Sweden, Inc.

Ms. Margareta Wernevi, Director of Consumer Affairs, Sunlight of Sweden, Inc. (a Unilever affiliate)

Dr. Solveig Wikstr÷m, Professor, University of Lund

Mr. Nils-Erik WirsSll, Adjunct Professor, Stockholm School of Economics and Former President, ICA AB (Independent Grocers ' Alliance)

Dr. Karl-Erik WSrneryd, Professor, Stockholm School of Economics

The results of the survey are indicated by Table 1. We note the large standard deviations around the means, indicating that the numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Interestingly, only five events were given a more than even chance of occurring in the next five years. Event number 1 (better complaint handling and internal communication about complaints) anticipates a stronger commitment on the part of individual firms to consumer affairs. (So do events 7 and 14.) Events 2-5 are all concerned with consumer information and education, lending additional support to the view that a certain shift from protection-regulation towards information-education may be the direction of change in Swedish consumer policy. Event 5 should be compared with event 15. If we include as serious possibilities all events with over 40 percent mean probability assigned by the experts, the number trebles to 15 events. Note that computerized consumer information figures in both events 12 and 17, the more ambitious form being given the greater probability. The experts were also invited to volunteer other likely events. An international informative labeling and/or quality marking system with minimum performance thresholds, expanded product liability, more dialog between public and private policymakers, and more "reality-oriented" education of marketing personnel were mentioned. It should be stressed that these experts are all extremely busy people. There may well be other events which they would assign greater probability than some of those specified in the questionnaire.



Consumer Policy Precurse and Transfer

Public policy forecasting is increasingly vital to the strategic planning of both public and private policymakers. We just illustrated one of the techniques applicable. Another is to look across national borders for a country which may be a precursor of things to come in our own. Public policymakers would also be much interested in the somewhat related question as to whether, and to what extent, the precursor policy is transferable into their own environment. Given the extreme complexity of this area, and the paucity of work in it, we have only a few tentative thoughts upon it. They are essentially derived from an ecologic view of policy and institutions (T. and T. 1977).

At least three types of precurse are relevant. The first is environmental developments in the precursor country creating a latent need or problem. Latency is hard to recognize--especially in a foreign country's environment. To do this one needs an environmental scanning system with a distant early warning attachment (Ansoff 1977). The second type of precurse involves problem or need identification in public debate, often precipitated by a signal event or, more often, by a sequence of such events. The third type involves the adoption of new policies and/or institutions to deal with the problem (need) in the precursor country. Clearly, the three types of precurse often occur sequentially. However, a country may be a precursor at one of these stages but not at another. Furthermore, sometimes new policies are adopted before the need has become acute, bypassing one or both of the earlier stages.

Without getting lost in detail, it is easy to see that there are some major measurement problems here. For instance, how much public awareness of the problem (need) must there be before we have a precurse of type two? Is one a precursor at all before somebody else recognizes it? When do we have a "new" policy or institution as compared to a mere amendment of an old one?

The precursor concept is rooted squarely in the idea of transferability. If there be no transferability, why then bother to look abroad? For one to speak of transfer the policy must presumably be imported by the follower country from the precursor country, not just adopted in some kind of spontaneous diffusion process. Typically, one would expect varying degrees of adaptation in the transfer process, due to such varying environmental conditions as economic development, political values and legal system. An excellent example of adaptation in the transfer-diffusion process is the adoption of restrictive practices legislation in a dozen West European countries after World War II on the impetus of U.S. antitrust policy (Thorelli 1959). When little adaptation is called for we may speak of robustness of transferability. Robustness tends to be great at a very general level of policy, often declining with increasing specificity. For example, we have claimed that in industrially advanced countries the relative emphasis in consumer policy should be information, education, and protection (in that order), while in the LDC it should be exactly the reverse. Proceeding at a very broad level, we believe this statement is robust. Nevertheless, presumably there is a "gray area" where the switch in policy rankings takes place. An interesting example of robustness even in a rather specific situation in spite of strong environmental variation was given by KO. In the area of product liability Sweden is likely to adopt the U.S. idea of strict liability, but the Swedes dislike the huge and often seemingly arbitrary damages meted out in U.S. cases. KO feels that there would be little risk of "sensational" settlements in Sweden, as damages traditionally have been more modest (there are no juries in Sweden) and as the local social welfare system would automatically absorb the cost of many ailments due to product failure. An illustration of considerable adaptation, on the other hand, was the strong "Swedish accent" initially given to the guideline system largely inspired by the trade regulation rules of the FTC. Transferability is a relative thing. It is easy to exaggerate both the uniqueness and sameness of countries. [A precisely analogous situation obtains with regard to the PINS strategic planning data pool, as member companies agonize over to what extent policies pursued by, say the electrical machinery industry, may be applicable to, say, the farm equipment industry.] The ecologic view cautions against both extremes.

Precurse and Transfer: Sweden and the United States

In discussing precurse and transfer of environmental trends, cultural values and shifts in public opinion, it may be quite meaningful to focus on the broad national scene in both Sweden and the U.S. However, as one gets into specifics it would be unrealistic to overlook that while Sweden is a small, homogeneous and in some respects (such as public consumer policy) fairly centralized nation; the U.S. is of continental dimensions, exceedingly heterogeneous, and in many respects a highly decentralized country. In the area of consumer policy a great number of autonomous initiatives are taken at state rather than federal level.

Precurse types one and two involve changes in conditioning variables and consequent problem (or need) identification. There is relatively great transferability here due to the similarity in environmental circumstances: we are dealing with two of the handful of "post-industrial" societies in the world. As Graham T. T. Molitor (1973) and others have observed, Sweden has typically served as a precursor here. This is due to her having embraced the welfare state concept at an early stage and being a good example of the drift towards the left in economic policy, which is possibly the most significant likely global trend for the remainder of the twentieth century. The U.S. has wished to retain a greater element of individual responsibility for personal welfare, and has not veered left at anywhere near the speed of Sweden. Thus it is but natural that Sweden has been a precursor as regards such "movements" as sexual freedom, women's liberation, environmental protection (and in this area sequentially environmental pollution, resource conservation, noise reduction) and egalitarianism in the sense of making everybody equal (as distinct from equal opportunity). As regards broad consumerist trends, she was also a precursor in the early 1970's push to promote producer jawboning as a pre-sale consumer policy approach and in establishing the Central Consumer Complaints Board as a semi-independent agency in 1968 (done within the U.S. OCA in 1980). Currently, Sweden may well have a precursor role as regards both the practice of cohabitation without marriage and public concern about cohabitants' rights.

Local government activity notwithstanding, Sweden has gone further than any other nation in centralization of consumer policy. In this respect she was a precursor type three (specific policy measures) to the attempts to create a central Consumer Protection Agency in the U.S., a proposal at least temporarily abandoned in favor of a more decentralized approach not remarkably different from that initiated by the Ford administration.

In the past, there has been an unfortunate failure to distinguish precurse and transfer. At the level of general ideation it would seem that there has been some transfer from Sweden to the U.S. in the field of social welfare policy (epitomized by Marquis Childs' Sweden--The Middle Way). The notion of KO appears to have played a role in the creation of Consumer Advocates in a number of American states and major cities. However, only few specifics of U.S. consumer policy would appear to have their origin in transfer from Sweden. A big study focused on Sweden's alleged pace-setter role vis-a-vis the United Scares could only point to legislation establishing maximum levels of mercury in food, banning DDT and regulating the use of pesticides. Volvo also pioneered three-point safety belts as standard in 1959, before the promotion of such seat-belts became official policy in the U.S. (Forecasting International 1976). On balance, it seem clear that most of the transfer traffic actually has been in the other direction. The influential role of the FTC trade regulation rules on the Swedish guidelines system has already been mentioned. The U.S.--or individual states--were ahead on unit pricing, truth-in-lending and cyclamates. The accident reporting system adopted by the Nordic Council is directly patterned on NEISS. The Swedish coops borrowed the idea of generic foods from Jewel Tea. If there was no direct transfer, the U.S. was at least the precursor regarding labeling of automobile gasoline and appliance energy consumption as well as cigarette health warnings. Sweden is about to introduce an automotive repair service standards and control system which in its essentials is directly patterned on the California legislation.

Some Consumer Policy Research Implications

Several ideas for consumer policy research in the 1980s derive directly from the foregoing. We hear a lot about evaluation of marketing these days, although less is being done than said. Evaluation of public and private consumer policies affecting marketing is equally desirable. A comparative study of the impact of KOV guidelines and FTC TRR's (including possible dysfunctional side effaces on competition, small business, etc., as well as the primary, hopefully salutary effects) would be of great interest, for example. Indeed, so would the development of more satisfactory methodology for doing such studies. The costs and benefits of product bans and recalls also needs more research.

The effectiveness of local government consumer affairs departments is a fruitful area of research. In Sweden 170+ local governments are at least nominally active and over 100 have a major commitment. Such numbers are large enough to permit statistical analysis of the determinants of effectiveness in terms of goal attainment. An important related question is what types of consumers these agencies actually reach, and whether these consumers redistribute advice and information. (If, as we suspect, many of them are Information Seekers, they will, although their actual impact remains to be evaluated.) Our Delphi study pointed to obligatory consumer education as a likely development in Sweden. Educators know that their impact is related to both what is being taught and how it is taught. It would be fascinating to know how Illinois (a state with obligatory consumer education) high school graduates do on a functional consumer test as compared with graduates from a state with little or no consumer education. Or how students do who have used J.C. Penney Company's seemingly excellent Consumer Education Modules as compared to students taught in a more conventional way.

Consumer policy at the enterprise and trade association levels will clearly be a major thrust of the future. Much more research is needed as to what is being done in Europe and the U.S. An excellent point of departure is Fornell (1976). Such studies should be supplemented by more research aimed at how consumers actually experience company consumer policy at the marketplace level. All too frequently, there is a yawning gap between formal company policy and its actual implementation.

Consumer policy research also needs to get involved in technology assessment. From both a consumer and public policy viewpoint we need accelerated effort to evaluate private and public experimentation with the new information technology, such as interactive consumer information programs provided by Viewdata, QUBE, etc., and computerized consumer information systems. How much price information does the consumer actually need in the supermarket shopping process? And what are the measurable tradeoffs between costs and benefits here? There has been enough experimentation in both Sweden and the U.S. now with scanner-based checkout systems to do the research needed for sound policy development (e.g., Hammarkvist 1980).

As these examples and other items in the Delphi table indicate, consumer information will be a high priority area in the future. We have pointed to several desirable avenues of research in earlier publications (T. and T. 1977; Thorelli, Backer and Engledow 1975). Of increasing interest here is the Specialty Seeker, that is, the consumer who is an Information Seeker only for certain items of truly special interest to her/him--be it fur coats, cars, cameras, dishwashers or suntan lotions. To know the cumulative impact of the general and Specialty Seekers in various consumer markets would be of great interest to both private and public policymakers.

The evaluation of the total consumer policy system of a country--comprising all private as well as public policy-makers and their interactive effects on the marketplace--is a topic barely scratched (Thorelli 1979). This article has also stressed the importance of research on precurse, transfer, and transferability--all specialty aspects of the broader topic which is the ecology of consumer policy. Remarkably little has been accomplished here, even in the limited context of Swedish-American interaction. We need better operational definitions of the various types of precurse and transfer. We need to know much more about the determinants of the relative degrees of transferability of policy between nations and cultures. And we certainly need more nitty-gritty research on actual cases of precurse and transfer. Beyond transfer is the international cooperative development of consumer policy measures. Probably the best on-going example is that of the Nordic Council, which has been actively engaged in consumer policy research and development for over 20 years. The experience of the Council is valuable also as a guide to variables constraining such Joint efforts.

It would be an insult to talk about consumer policy research in the 1980s without mentioning the Third World. As the decade opens the UN itself and various affiliates are finally beginning to take an interest in LDC consumers and their protection, in large part stimulated to do so by the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU). Unfortunately, and incredibly, there is as yet almost no solid research of direct relevance (Thorelli and Sentell 1979 and forthcoming). It would be a great pity if the UN and individual LDC were to become heavily engaged in policy formulation without an adequate research base, as there is every reason to believe that blind transfer of consumer policy technology from the industrialized countries is not what the LDC really need. The international consumer research community has a strong moral obligation to build that research base--and there is no time to lose.


Ansoff, Igor (1977), "Managing Surprise and Discontinuity: Strategic Response to Weak Signals," in H. B. Thorelli, ed., Strategy + Structure = Performance: The Strategic Planning Imperative, 53-82.

Bernitz, Ulf (1980), "Services and Consumer Protection: The Proposed Swedish Consumer Services Act," Journal of Consumer Policy, 4, 44-56.

Forecasting International, Limited (1977), Forecasting the Effects of Events on Consumer Affairs, Phase I Final Report, Vol. 2, Appendices.

Fornell, Claes (1976), Consumer Impact for Marketing Decisions--A Study of Corporate Departments of Consumer Affairs, New York: Praeger.

Hammarkvist, Karl-Olov (1980), Detaljhandelns Datorisering (The Computerization of Retailing), Stockholm: Marketing Techniques Center.

Molitor, Graham T. T. (1973), "A Look at Government --Forecasting Public Policy Development," Technology Assessment, 2:4.

Thorelli, Hans B. (1979), "+r Sverige VSrldsbSst i Konsumentpolitik?" (Is Sweden Number One in Consumer Policy?), in Ryden, ed., 143-52.

Thorelli, Hans B. (1959), "Lectures on European Antitrust Policy," University of Chicago Law Review, 25, 222-36 and University of Chicago Lay School Record, 8.

Thorelli, Hans B., Becker, Helmut and Engledow, Jack L. (1975), The Information Seekers: An International Study of Consumer Information and Advertising Image, Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.

Thorelli, Hans B., and Engledow, Jack L. (1980), "Information Seekers and Information System: A Policy Perspective," Journal of Marketing, 44, 9-27.

Thorelli, Hans B., and Sentell, Gerald D. (1979), "Consumer Ecology in the LDC: The Case of Thailand," in Proceedings of the Academy of International Business, Honolulu, Hawaii (College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii), 324-33.

Thorelli, Hans B., and Thorelli, Sarah V. (1974), Consumer Information Handbook: Europe and North America, New York: Praeger.

Thorelli, Hans B. and Thorelli, Sarah V. (1977), Consumer Information Systems and Consumer Policy, Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.

Wikstr÷m, Solveig (1979), Swedish Consumerism at the Crossroad: A National Opinion Research Survey of Public, Business and Regulator Attitudes, Lund: Department of Business Administration. University of Lund.



Hans B. Thorelli, Indiana University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08 | 1981

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