Putting Consumer Voice Back in Public Policy: an Enlightenment Model Approach

ABSTRACT - Preoccupation with reactive research and lack of Aconsumer voice@ were identified as two of the most serious drawbacks of the policy research in marketing (e.g. Stewart and Martin 1994). Today, the regulatory bodies have been challenged with another problem: regulating the production and distribution of genetically modified foods (GMF). We argue that the research efforts regarding GMF policy, so far, have done very little to bring Aconsumer voice@ into such potential policy (regulation and communication) efforts. In this paper, we report the findings of a two-step proactive policy research in an attempt to provide a in-depth look at consumers’ background and environment regarding these food products.


Ahmet Ekici (2002) ,"Putting Consumer Voice Back in Public Policy: an Enlightenment Model Approach", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 377-385.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 377-385


Ahmet Ekici, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Preoccupation with reactive research and lack of "consumer voice" were identified as two of the most serious drawbacks of the policy research in marketing (e.g. Stewart and Martin 1994). Today, the regulatory bodies have been challenged with another problem: regulating the production and distribution of genetically modified foods (GMF). We argue that the research efforts regarding GMF policy, so far, have done very little to bring "consumer voice" into such potential policy (regulation and communication) efforts. In this paper, we report the findings of a two-step proactive policy research in an attempt to provide a in-depth look at consumers’ background and environment regarding these food products.


Regulating biotechnology, genetically modified organisms (GMO), and more specifically genetically modified foods (GMF) have recently become the center of a heated debate among consumer activists, environmentalists, industry, regulatory agencies, and policy makers. As a result many countries in the world have tightened regulations. The European Union (EU) has imposed mandatory labeling for foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. The EU and many other countries are currently blocking all U.S. grain shipments because American farmers use genetically altered seed. The biotech backlash is not just an export problem. Now, giant U.S. food companies such as Heinz and Gerber Foods have elected to stop using genetically modified ingredients in at least some of their products. They fear that particular regulations (e.g. mandatory labeling) will be imposed and U.S consumers will react drastically. However, to date there have been very few in-depth studies to investigate how American consumers view GMF products.

Consumer researchers have pointed out the importance of putting (consumer) research before policy decisions (e.g. Stewart and Martin 1994). The literature suggests that much of policy research that has been carried out has been after policies have been implemented. As indicated by Steward and Martin (1994), such reactive research has serious limitations because "it focuses on the effects of what has been implemented rather than what might have been optimal" (p.14). Further, Griffen and Hauser (1993) noted that there was little tradition in policy research akin to the "voice of consumer" orientation.

This paper aims to take a proactive approach to communication and regulation issues surrounding GMF products. When we say "proactive" research, we don’t exactly mean determining whether negative or positive labeling, or whether full description or a single word, a warning sign, an attribute-based or ingredient-based regulation would reveal the best result for a cost/benefit analysis before the policies are implemented. A more realistic proactive policy research should take a couple of steps backward, and find out about consumers’ background on the issue: not only where consumers are today, but also where consumers are coming from. Therefore, proactive research on genetically modified foods looks at the reasons behind consumer responses for potential communication efforts, which in turn, requires to look in detailCamong othersC consumers’ experiences, knowledge assessment, sense-making, meaning making, analogy development, heuristics, anchoring-adjustment, and learning activities.

As can be seen from Figure 1, one can approach GMF policy issues from at least three different levels. Level 1 type approachesCcommonly employ a so-called engineering modelCaim at answering particular predetermined policy questions (e.g. what type of labeling to be used) under the implicit assumption that consumers are aware and knowledgeable about the topic. Most policy research regarding GMF so far has employed such an approach. We review these studies in the next section. Level 2 and 3 employ a so-called enlightenment model (we describe later) and aim at identifying consumers’ background on GMF and/or other relevant issues without any predetermined policy questions or assumptions. We conducted both level 2 and level 3 type research. In this paper we report the findings of these studies, and discuss the public policy and consumer behavior implications of the findings.


Researchers, so far, have dealt mainly with one aspect of GMF policy: labeling of GMF. Specifically, studies so far have focused on 1- voluntary versus mandatory labelng, 2- positive versus negative labeling, and 3- process-based versus product-based labeling. Phillips and Isaac (1998) provided a conceptual assessment of the potential threats and/or opportunities (for producer) of mandatory and voluntary labeling. They argue that mandatory labeling of both process-based and product-based genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could pose as threat to the producers: the producers would likely suffer a discount for their good in the market, would dampen the production and consumption of this products, could seriously disrupt domestic and international food markets. They further argue that mandatory labeling of product-based GMO could be even more damaging to the producers, preventing them from positioning their products in the market.

Caswell (1998) argues that from a regulator’s point of view, mandatory labeling has the advantage of giving consumers full information. On the other hand, if there are no real differences between products that use or do not use the technology, the label may not be useful to consumers or could actually be deceptive and may unnecessarily impede adoption of the technology. Further, she argues that labeling is not costless since it requires segregation of product and verification. Users of GMO also tend to oppose mandatory labeling because they believe it will hurt market acceptance. In a follow-up article Caswell (2000)Ctaking a strict cost/benefit approachCargued that voluntary labeling programs may deliver benefits more efficiently when a small segment of the population is interested in the genetically-modified status of food products and is willing to pay more for products carrying this information. On the other hand, if most people want to know, then mandatory programs may be more effective.

The treatment of GMF as regular credence products (see definition in this section) and the use of a strict cost/benefit approach have led the conclusion that voluntary labeling offers more advantages than mandatory labeling. Within voluntary labeling, the scholars further debated on the "positive" versus "negative" labeling alternatives. Runge and Jackson (2000) are proponents of voluntary negative labeling. As with Kinsey (1999), they argue that positive labels are almost as misleading as having no label at all. Positive labeling would identify the presence of GMOs in a product and would involve the statement: "This product may contain (or contains) GMOs." Given the extent to which GMOs have already entered the food and fiber chain, such a label would convey relatively little information

In contrast, they argue that negative labeling (such label reads "This product (or seed) contains no GMOs") would have advantages for both consumer and producers: For consumers, negative labels would avoid the potential information biases of the positive label system. For producers, it is already evidence in the marketplace that such labels could create niche markets and increase sales (Runge and Jackson 2000).

Although many scholars indicated that consumers will have the "final word" on the acceptance of these products, most studies have excluded actual views and background of consumers. Instead, most studies make implicit assumption as to how consumer would see these alternatives. Even such survey studies as Kinsey (1999) Bwho recommended negative labeling over positive oneCdoes little to bring consumer input in the regulation decision process. One, for example, wonders if consumers see negative labeling as more beneficial because they know what "GMO" versus "non-GMO" means to them or simply due to processing of negative versus positive information. Consumer researchers have long established the effects of negative and positive information (e.g. Tversky and Kahneman 1981). However, without a proper knowledge of consumer background on the issue, we may still not know how and why consumers actually view these food products.

Further, most studies discussed above see genetically modified foods (GMF) as regular credence products. Credence products represent some degree of consumer uncertainty that cannot be quantified and factored into purchasing decision. In other words, credence product is one that may have harmful (or beneficial) effects that are not noticeable at the point of consumption. However, the assumption with regular credence products is that the discovery of the harm or benefit is a matter of time. Even if they cannot be quantified by the time of consumption, as science progresses these harmful/beneficial aspects can be quantified. Therefore, in the meantime, the consumption behavior can be explained through risk-accepting tendencies of consumers.

With respect to GMF products and consumption, there may be issues that cannot be quantified or resolved over time (e.g. consumer perceptions regarding the abilities of regulatory bodies and the philosophy of production and consumption of the society, including the meaning and role of food, production, farming, breeding, science, technology, and religion in people’s everyday lives). More specifically, one can argue that it may be misleading and potentially dangerous to design policies by simply asking consumers how they react to GMO without having adequate understanding of what GMO means to them.

Another issue that must be dealt with before progressing further is the problem with the identification of the (policy) problem. Problem definition exposes the researcher to several kinds of challenges. The simplest is that facing someone working on behalf of an interest group (e.g. tobacco farmers). If the problem definition of the interest group is accepted at face value it is likely to bias the conduct of the research and overlook important issues which need to be taken account of in policy formulation. Second, what is a problem for government is not necessarily a problem in everyone’s eyes, and vice versa. The policy makers may perceive as problems, issues which others deny to be significant problems while itself ignoring issues which members of the society considers to be problems. A question to be asked about a problem, then, is "for whom is this issue a problem?" The posing of such a question may lead to a question being seen in a new light.

Communication and regulation issues of GMF can be seen as a problem of the government, biotech researchers, seed/chemical companies, farmers, food producers, retailers, environmental groups, and mainstream consumers. We argue in this paper that in the heart of all these interest groups lie ordinary consumers. In other words, if we (researchers from various disciplines) truly believe the "king" consumer will have the "final word" on the issue, it is only appropriate to treat the issue as a problem of consumers. Once consumers’ problems are identified and addressed then other interest groups’ problems may be addressed adequately and fairly. Further, treating the issue as a problem of mainstream consumers would have advantages to remain "neutral."

When identifying and addressing policy problems (of consumers in this case) there seem to be two fundamentally different approaches. Those who favor the "engineering model" view social science as a means of providing technocratic solutions to problems. A problemCwhether pollution, poverty, alcohol, or tobaccoCcan be safely agreed to be a "bad" thing by all, and the social scientist is then brought in to treat the problem in the manner that the doctor diagnoses illness. The employment of such engineering models can be discomforting and perhaps dangerous if the social scientist points out the "right" course of action when there are conflicting interests, lack of consensus, social cleavage, and (international) political conflicts surrounding the problem. In such cases, the "enlightenment model" can accommodate better in establishing the role of researcher who attempts to provide an intellectual background of the problem using the domain of his/her discipline.

In the next section, we review the two models (engineering and enlightenment) that link social knowledge to social (public) policy. We claim that most research regarding GMF regulation has treated the issue through the engineering model, therefore lacked providing rich background information for policy makers.


The Engineering Model

One influential account of the relationship between social science (research) and social (public) policy is to draw an analogy with the engineer, a notion perhaps given unintended impetus by Karl Popper’s belief in "piecemeal social engineering." Social science provides the evidence and conclusions to help solve a policy problem. The social scientist is a technician who commends the knowledge to make the necessary investigation and interpret the results. The model is a linear one. A problem exists; information or understanding is lacking either to generate a solution to the problem or to select among alternative solutions; research provides the missing knowledge; and a solution is reached. Typically a single study will be involved. ThisCwith its data, analysis and conclusionsCwill affect the choices that decision-makers face. Implicit in such approach is agreement upon ends. It is assumed that policy-makers and researchers agree upon what the desired end-state should be. The role of research is to help in the identification and selection of appropriate means to reach that goal (Weiss 1977, p11-12).

Policy research in the engineering model, it is argued, misunderstands the policy-making process, fails to take account of the complex processes by with decisions are reached, exaggerates the role of the 'decision-maker’ for whom research is carried out and gives unwarranted authority to the research input which the policy researcher provides (Zetterberg 1964). The results of policy research lack the degree of conclusiveness which their practitioners claim, either as scientific knowledge or as confirmation of ordinary knowledge.



The Enlightenment Model

Morris Janowitz argues that the social scientists is part of the process which he or she is studying, not outside it. In other words, under the enlightenment model it is assumed that the social scientist recognizes that he/she is interacting with his subject and a variety of publics to which he must be responsible. His work has an impact on himself, and his findings influence his subjects and his public in an ongoing fashion. The enlightenment model assumes the overriding importance of the social context, and focuses on developing various types of knowledge that can be utilized by policy-makers and professions. "While it seeks specific answers its emphasis is on creating the intellectual conditions for problem solving" (Janowitz 1972, p5-6). Research (of enlightenment model) provides the intellectual background of concepts, orientations, and etc. that inform policy. It is used to orient decision-makers to problems, to think about and specify the problematic elements in a situation, and to get new ideas. Policy-makers use research to formulate problems and to set agendas for future policy acions. Much of this use is not direct, but a result of long-term infiltration of social science concepts, theories and findings with the general intellectual culture of a society.

In terms of enlightenment model, what makes a piece of "applied" research undertaken for presumed practical ends relevant for social sciences is the ability to place the particular and specific findings in a broader context. This means the data must be integrated in terms of some general (or theoretical) notions. This same ability makes the piece of research relevant for social policy and practical ends. Lasswell (1951) uses the phrase "policy science" or "policy approach" to emphasize this point. "The basic emphasis of the policy approach, therefore, is upon the fundamental problems of man in society rather than upon the topical issues of the moment" (p. 95).


As detailed in the preceding section, this paper employs an enlightenment model to link the "consumer" knowledge obtained through the study to public policy decisions. Others have identified specific and discrete policy problems regarding genetically modified food products (e.g. what type of labeling-negative or positiveC be used?). Our objective is to provide an intellectual background of concepts, orientations, etc. that inform policy-making. We further aim to orient policy (decision) makers to problems, to think about and specify the problematic elements in this context, and to get detailed and new ideas.


In order to identify consumer background on various GMF issues, we first conducted depth-interviews with 7 respondents between April and June 2000 in a Midwestern state (Level 2 type policy research, see Figure 1). Our specific objective in study I was to identify consumers’ knowledge, conceptualizations, overall views, and concerns about these products. Since secondary data in popular press suggest that the consumers’ awareness level about GMF products is low (e.g. Kilman 1999), for this initial study, we decided to sample a relatively educated group of informants. We content analyzed the data using open-coding procedures (Glaser and Strauss 1967). More specifically, we looked across informants to identify prominent themes and associations between themes. A filing system was established, including indexing, coding, and categorization. We have identified more than twenty categories of findings, however; due to page limitation, in this section we focus on the following a few themes.

a. Even though consumer knowledge and awareness of GMF is very limited, they still speculate, guess, and make assumptions as to how genetic modification of foods could be done.

Genetically modified foodsgenetics to me means genes and modified means you are changing thestructure ofSo somehow you are changing the genes of a food to create another product or to enhance that product or something like that would be my guess. I can’t think that food would have genes but I guess it does, I don’t know." (#3)

I don’t actually know what you can improve with genetic modification except the size, the color, or shape. If you could make products that last longer on the shelf so for example apples, if you could genetically modify them so that you slow down the process and they stay fresher longer." (#2)

b. Consumers don’t seem to have well articulated preferences for GMF products. As a result, consumers do not have clear categories of these foods. They are ambivalent and confused. This confusion seems to affects consumers’ potential concerns about various types and applications GMF products.

Probably (I would be concerned about) the fresh foods as compared to foods like crackers. There is a lot of other junk concerning crackers. So I’d be probably more concerned with the fresh food because that’s all there is. And you can alter that all much easier than a cracker. So, I would be more concerned with fresh foods. An apple is an apple versus a cracker you got salt, flour, wheat, blah, blah, blah, and the wheat might be genetically modified. (#3)

c. GMF products create ambiguous consumer experiences (both in terms of product attributes and information environment) and consumers seem to use various types of analogies in making sense of their ambiguous experiences. This tells us several very interesting things about how consumers draw inferences to novel product categories (Mick and Fournier 1998) as well as their constructive choice processes (Bettman, Luce and Payne 1998). Like Mary Douglas’ penetrating discussion of food that is dirty or clean (see Douglas 1966) and Levi-Strauss’ (1975) classic distinction between raw and cooked food, our respondents seem to have constructs about food and food safety that they use in making decisions about this new food category.

...Like I said earlier you can go buy some meat. I think I would be more concerned about the fresh foods (if they are modified). And I don’t have a lot of problem (with meat) because I know I am going to cook them to the capacity that they won’t get me sick. (#3)

d. Consumer education may not result in behavior change. Level 1 type studies assumes that through provision of verbal information consumer can be "taught" about the facts of GMF and this education could benefit the providers in the long term. However, as we found out, consumers tend to link attributes of GMF to some (intended or unintended) consequences, and further linked these consequences to deeply held and enduring personal values. When these personal values "disagree" with the providers’ intention, it seems very difficult (if not impossible) to make any change in consumers’ beliefs and attitudes toward such food applications. For example, this respondent is relating GMF to her personal values by talking about animal rights.

...I really care about the animals (laughs). Because for the same reason that I don’t want somebody else wearing my pet, I don’t want somebody else cloning my pet either I think why you want to genetically modify animalsFor example, cows, they are so big that farmers can’t birth their own cows because of the genetic modification. From what I understand, they breed bigger cows. So, they can’t birth their own babies now and I don’t like that at all and if they had not done to some cows we would still have a breed of cows who can birth their own cows. I think ranchers would go back to that because who wants huge cows. It is not very nice to the female cows.




The findings of study I suggested that a more comprehensive and holistic look at the potential public policy issues surrounding these products may be beneficial. For example, the finding that consumer know very little (if not nothing) about GMF makes it very difficult to identify specific regulation (such as labeling) questions. When level of awareness and knowledge is very limited, consumers seem to use their experiences in other technology and/or food products and transfer this existing knowledge to this new yet unknown domain (a type of analogical learning). In order to provide a more detailed information environment for policy decision maker, one should try to understand these broader associations and linkages consumers make with GMF products. Therefore, the specific objective of the second study is to understand consumer background not particularly on GMF but on other related issues (level 3 type policy research, see figure 1). These issues are numerous. However, based on the findings of the first study, we focus on consumers’ overall food purchasing concerns, consumers’ views on food safety, and consumers views on the interaction between science/technology and food.

Study II is based on dept-interviews with consumers that vary in age, family life cycle, and food practices. Study I suggested that consumer vary in their views of food issues based on age, family life cycle (single, married, with/without children), and food practices (e.g. vegetarians, organic food buyers). We aimed toaccommodate such variation through the sampling (see Table 1 for sampling frame, respondent profiles available upon request). In the following sections, we report the findings of 17 dept-interviews done between September and December 2000 in the same Midwestern state. A similar data analysis technique was employed for the second study.



Food Concerns

One of the fundamental arguments made by the proponents (mostly providers of biotechnology products) is that the use of biotechnologies would bring consumers less expensive and more nutritious food supply. On the other hand, opponents are concerned that such applications will cause heath problems. There is an overarching assumption that once consumers realize the potential health hazards, they will elect not to buy these products. Similarly, consumers will (continue to) buy as they see low cost, convenience, and durability attributes of these foods. In the following two sections, we report our findings regarding consumers primary concerns about the food they purchase and consume.

Consumers’ Food Shopping Concerns: Table 2 is the summarized version of responses consumers provided as their most important concerns in food shopping. Identifying consumers’ food shopping concerns can provide insight into priorities consumers have when they purchase food products. We can have a general understanding regarding what consumers are looking for when they purchase food.

It seems that most of our respondents were concerned about the price of the food they purchase.

I’d say price is the first thing and then nutritional content is the second thing and variety (#6)

One respondent spoke about "health" as her primary concern. Even then, she immediately bundled health with low cost food:

To but healthy foods, and that the costs are low. Inexpensive foods. (#13)

Other issues such as freshness, convenience and taste appeared to be the secondary concerns of consumers. The most intriguing finding here is the low priority consumers give to safety and health issues in food shopping. While some consumers do not even recognize safety and health as a concern, most others view them as their distant third degree concerns.

I would say I’m most concerned with price then taste then I ask myself how fresh it is. (#15)

That t won’t spoil, that it’s easy to prepare, quick to prepare, and half way healthy. (#14)

Consumes’ Concerns about Food Safety: Although Table 2 offered some insights into the degree to which consumers are concerned about their food supply, we could still know little if we don’t look at the elaborated responses to consumers’ view on food safety. In other words, Table 2 suggests that consumers didn’t seem to worry too much about health and safety aspects of the food they purchase. However, there is still merit in examining consumers particular food safety concerns. Such an examination can provide information regarding the sources of consumers’ suspicion and/or confidence about the food they purchase and consume.

Table 3 provides another summary of consumer responses to (particularly) food safety. Through this table, we can make a number of observations about consumers view of food safety. Those who indicated "concerns" can be categorized into two: concerns over the use of chemicals, and concerns over spoilage. First category was only brought by the vegetarian/organic food buyer respondent who believed that the current food supply is an "unnatural" one, making her even more concerned about the safety.

I always buy pretty much organic vegetables and produce that means it doesn’t have pesticides on it, sure it’s grown with cow poop and stuff, but at least it’s a natural product. Ya know, I know that there’s not, cows mostly eat grain and stuff like that. At least that’s natural, insecticides and stuff like that aren’t natural. And it does seep into the food no matter how much you wash it. So I would rather have something that was nurtured by cow poop than something that just kills bugs. It’s like steroids for food pretty much and it’s unnatural. But I always try to wash my food, so, even lettuce, even if it is organic from the store, because people touch it anyway. (#4)

Consumers are also concerned about the safety of the food they keep at home, especially those that are in the fridge.

I don’t worry about the things I get at the grocery store so much, but I worry about the things I leave in the fridge for a prolonged period of time, like oh this hamburger defrosted for two days now and I need to cook it before it goes bad. (#1)

We also observed, frequently, that consumers did not have big safety concerns about the food they purchase. A review of the data suggests that there are at least two broad reasons behind consumer confidence: self-oriented and other-oriented. Self-oriented comfort comes from various sources including consumers’ perceived "control" over what food is purchased, buying fresh, checking expiration dates, and washing and cooking food "properly."

I don’t take to much concern to that when I choose my food I bought it and keeping it and know where its been since I’ve had it. (#16)

Not a whole lot (concern). Like I said from picking out the meat in the store and cooking it properly, to washing off the vegetables when I get them, but that’s more a habit than really being concerned that there is anything wrong with it. Other people touched them in the store that’s probably why I wash them off the most. (#3)

Other-oriented comfort comes from the trust consumers have in food providers. This finding is parallel to Study I, where we found four main sources of consumer trust in food system: trust in farmers, retailers, scientists, and regulators.

I guess I just trust people to make food correctlyI haven’t had any bad experiences, so I have no reason to be cautious. (#17)

No...I...I just have a lot of faith in the supermarkets, you know, that they are not going to... to be contaminating things and there’s enough government regulations that kind of monitor that ...So... and the food that I prepare here... um, I... am aware of how they are prepared and I don’t consider anything unsafe. (#8)

Food and Technology:

Various authors both in popular press and in academics (e.g. Kilman 1999) suggested that consumers’ knowledge of GMF is very limited. However, having no or limited knowledge does not necessarily mean that consumers do not have opinions about GMF. Study I suggested that especially, once consumers view GMF as a product of science and technology, they are able to "imagine" numerous currently unknown or even unintended applications of genetic modification. Consumers, further, appeared to make analogies between other technology applications and GMF products. Based on these prior understanding of consumer sense making about GMF, it seems beneficial to explore consumers’ views on technology and food in general. In the following section, we report the data regarding consumers’ general views about the interaction between food and technology. This analysis can potentially be beneficial in understanding consumers’ responses to such product they "do not know about."

Consumers’ Views on the Technology Effects on Food System: The data suggest that consumers have various views on the effects of technology. First, science and technology have brought convenience and conservation.

I believe many aspects regarding food have been impacted. Preservatives have allowed us to keep foods better longer. Refrigeration has definitely lengthened the time we are able to keep food from spoiling. The microwave has made food preparation much quicker and easier. (#15)

Technology has also helped farmers: plant diseases have declined, more (and nontraditional areas, such as deserts) land is cultivated and made available for agriculture, and as a result, our food supply has increased.

Technology has contributed a lot. We now have more food than we ever have had before. We can farm in near desert conditions with the help of irrigation. We can grow bigger crops, bigger animals, etc. (#12)

According to the respondents, the use of science and technology in food supply has also brought negative consequences. As indicated by this respondent, the use of technology in food, at times, creates "worries."

There is a lot of preprocessed food and stuff out there, but I don’t any of that. I worry most probably about fruits and vegetables. Also all the genetic engineering that has been going on there and then the meats too you know. There is that "mad cow disease," and you worry about people giving them growth hormones and steroids to cattle to get them bigger and fatter. I mean it is good in the fact that you know with all these fertilizers there is a lot more food and it’s bigger and stuff, but is it really better. That kind of worries me. I’d say as far as technology and as far as I know on crop output on farms compared to what they used to get out of it per acre, it is a lot more than before. From just what I’ve heard about different planting techniques and stuff. (#6)

As detailed by other respondents, these concerns can be categorized into two: health concerns and moral concerns. With respect to moral issues, this respondent fears that we are employing technological developments at the expense of humanity: obtaining more meat or plant may not justify the way other "living" species are being treated.

...the technological advances will be such that, it’ll be so easy and quick. Just scan for microorganisms, "Oh, none, none at a bad level." It’ll just make it even faster and faster. Pretty soon it’ll be all super computerized and it’ll just be too easy anymore and that’ll be really scary. That will be just making it so easy to catch the organisms and stuff that people will say that now meat is good for since we can find all the bad pathogens in it; once they can scan for that type of stuff. That doesn’t still make it right to kill animals that way. It still doesn’t make it right to separate calves from their mothers and stick them in a tiny little cage so they can’t move, for veal because it’s classy. It still doesn’t make it right, just because it’s easy and it’s now been made safe doesn’t mean it’s morally better than what it ws. (#4)

With respect to health issues, it appears that more, bigger, and convenient food does not necessarily mean that technology is bringing healthy food. In fact, as this respondent indicates, science and technology have affected our food supply by bringing more "junk" into it.

I think you have a lot more junk food because they can take like all these ways to have these artificial foods that without the food I don’t really think that, without the technology I don’t really think you could have the Twinkie you know or some of that other stuff. (#1)

As above excerpts suggest consumers have both negative and positive views regarding the effects of technology on food supply. More importantly, for many respondents, these negative and positive effects seem to operate simultaneously. At the same time, when respondents were asked (without specifying any heath or safety issue) to make their overall assessment about today’s food supply, respondents, across individuals, indicated that "today we have safer but less healthy food" due to science and technology.

I think we have less healthy food because of technology. Because if you go back like 50 or 100 years things were pretty basic. I mean yeah some things are more safe because of the invention of plastic made a world of difference for like you know meats and things like that in butcher shops were those things used to just sit open and only God knows what landed on it you know. But so there’s a combination of both I think. I think that technology has been better for like keeping things less, like less contaminated but I think technology has also brought us a lot more crap, junky food. (#1)




Our objective in this paper is not to point the one "right" course of action to be taken for GMF policy. This undermines the value of a proactive policy research that employs enlightenment model. Instead, we aimed at providing a more detailed and textured consumer background for such policy decisions. In the following sections we offer some concluding remarks about our findings.

Proactive Policy Approach: Putting Consumer Voice in Policy Making:

First, from the public policy point of view, consumers’ meaning making about GMF products seems alarming. Consumers tend to think that such food safety practices as cooking and washing can take care of potential negative health consequences of consuming these products. Similarly, it appears that consumers are making analogies between GMF and other food categories (e.g. junk foods). Parallel to Douglas’ (1966) account of dirty vs. clean food, consumers seem to believe that such food categories as "junk foods" are already "polluted." Therefore, marginal (potential) danger of GMF seems ignorable.

When we connect the findings of study I and study II, we observe that consumers’ views on GMF products are closely related to broader issues such as how they view food safety, technology, and the interaction between food and technology. From the policy point of view, it is imperative to identify such linkages and focus on the impact of such linkages to consumer learning, unlearning, and fail to learning.

Further, study II suggests that consumers are preoccupied with the cost of the food and rely (and trust) heavily on the integrity of the providers and regulators of these products. This further suggests that consumers expect a well-integrated and open communication among various types of providers and regulators to ensure the safety of GMF products. Consumers seem to extend a time credit to providers and policy makers in order for them to act in the best interest of the consumers.

On a practical note, consumers’ preoccupation with cost, convenience, and durability aspects of the food could provide opportunities for providers of GMF in their communication and persuasion efforts. In other words, through the use of biotechnologies, these food providers could be offering consumers exactly "what they want." However, the same findings might concern policy makers and regulatory bodies: consumers should be protected from any ill-informed communication strategy.

The Use of Enlightenment Approach: Social Science Framing of the Findings:

We believe that approaching policy research through the enlightenment model can lead to the discovery of various important questions of social sciences. More specifically, we believe that our findings are closely linked to various fundamental consumer behavior concepts and theories, and therefore can open up perspectives and newer ways of thinking about these concepts.

First, as indicated earlier, GMF consumption creates ambiguous experiences. Literature on ambiguous experiences suggests that when there is ambiguous evidence about the product performance consumers rely on advertising (ad-induced expectations) in making consumption decisions (Deighton 1984; Hoch and Ha 1986). Similarly, providers of these technology (food) products have mainly relied on traditional means (advertising and opinion leaders) of "reaching" consumer. For example, advertising campaigns in UK and in the US aimed at "teaching" consumers various benefits of and "easing" consumers’ possible concerns with these products. Ever growing concerns about these food products (both in UK and recently in the US) may suggest a different process consumers go through when they learn and make decisions about such products.

Second, we argue that the adoption decisions surrounding these products pose challenges for innovation researchers. The innovation-deciion model (Rogers 1995), and correspondingly most innovation research, is grounded in the assumption that individuals seek for information, go though persuasion, and make adoption or rejection decision about the innovation before any kind of experience with the innovation/product. The innovation-decision process seems to overlook the individual’s potential "unconscious" experiences with the innovation during the knowledge, persuasion, and decision stages. Since these GMF products have already replaced the existing ones (according to a USDA survey, approximately 70 per cent of all food in grocery stores are already genetically modified) and hence consumers have already been consuming (have unconsciously adopted) them, the decision-making regarding further adoption (continuation) or disadoption (discontinuation) may be different. We believe that studying consumer of GMF would provide an understanding to these direct experience-based innovation-decision making processes.

Finally, as the findings suggested, consumers seem to go through an analogical learning when they try to deal with GMF products. Our conceptual understanding of analogical learning has been limited to technologically complex and less fundamental product categories (e.g. Gregan-Paxton and Roedder-John 1997). However, when we deal with learning about products that are not only technologically complex (making most consumers novices and naives) but also its consequences are ambiguous (the "true" consequences cannot be determined), the frameworks such as Gregan-Paxton and John (1997) might not be sufficient. Further, genetically modified "food" is a prime example of a socially and culturally fundamental product category. We argue, in such situations, there is scope for studying consumer learning in its broader context to include social and cultural impacts.

Public policy researchers, at times, were charged with focusing on "current" or "hot" topics instead of dealing with enduring problems of society. We believe that proactive policy research, and the adoption of the enlightenment model, can potentially counter these charges. In the current case, studying policy issues surrounding GMF can make substantial contributions to the advancement of the fundamental concepts of our discipline. Having detailed understanding about consumer experiences, knowledge assessments, adoption/disadoption decisions, and learning processes regarding GMF products can, in turn, help policy makers in their attempts to regulate and communicate various types of other technology-driven and fundamental product categories. Social science research and public policy can help each other in a hermeneutical manner.


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Ahmet Ekici, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29 | 2002

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