Consumer Information Acquisition: Public Policy Perspectives

ABSTRACT - Programs for the provision of product information to consumers are emerging as an important area in public policy. Research on information acquisition is a relatively new thrust that will provide fundamental insights relevant to the development of such programs and contribute to our understanding of consumer behavior. This paper provides an overview of this new setting and points to some significant issues inherent in conducting such research.


William L. Wilkie (1976) ,"Consumer Information Acquisition: Public Policy Perspectives", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 334-340.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 334-340


William L. Wilkie, University of Florida

[This paper summarizes and extends research supported by the Marketing Science Institute and the National Science Foundation (Grant GI-42037). Copies of the full report (Wilkie, 1975a) are available from the Government Printing Office.]


Programs for the provision of product information to consumers are emerging as an important area in public policy. Research on information acquisition is a relatively new thrust that will provide fundamental insights relevant to the development of such programs and contribute to our understanding of consumer behavior. This paper provides an overview of this new setting and points to some significant issues inherent in conducting such research.


The topic of consumers' acquisition of product information is a subsector of consumer information processing (CIP) research, subject to most of its problems but also possessing interesting and important potentials. Recognizing that it is difficult or impossible to disentangle all the activities comprising consumer information processing, a useful view of this topic is that it serves to highlight a researcher's particular emphasis on an early stage of CIP. The general concern of research on information acquisition may thus be summarized as: "how much of what kinds of information consumers obtain from what sources at which times?" Although these questions have been pursued within the marketing field for some time, only recently have CIP-oriented researchers begun to address the topic. Most of the impetus for this convergence has come -- directly and indirectly -- from issues raised in public policy. The recency of these concerns is amply demonstrated by the virtual absence of coverage of this topic in the CIP "state of the art" workshop held in late 1972 (Hughes and Ray, 1974).

My thesis is that this relatively undeveloped state of research offers an opportunity for cumulative development of a research field. The pressing concerns of public policy should assist the degree of effort, while creative advances in methodology promise new forms of insight. This does not, however, alter either the incredible complexity of the CIP phenomenon nor the fact that at present we are not very far along in our understanding of same. Also, as I have argued elsewhere (Wilkie, 1975b), rarely if ever will public policy dilemmas be swiftly and surely resolved by consumer research; there are other dimensions and criteria of import which we must necessarily ignore.

The purpose of the paper is to expand upon these points. The first half provides a background and overview of emerging public policy programs for consumer information, suggesting a new context within which CIP research can be developed. The second half then turns to conceptual issues underlying the conduct of empirical research in this area.


Readers are undoubtedly familiar with the amount and scope of recent consumer information legislation by Congress and state and local governments -- including laws concerning packaging and labeling, Truth in Lending, the banning of cigarettes from broadcast media, unit pricing, etc. In addition, executive and regulatory agencies have been quite active. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, has undertaken its controversial gasoline mileage testing program with the intent of affording comparisons between alternative automobile brands. The Department of Transportation (DOT) is readying a program to require information on auto crashworthiness and insurability. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has since its inception been interested in consumer information as a means toward improving the safety experience of potentially hazardous products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required package disclosures to consumers and has instituted a program of corrective advertising for the specialist audiences receiving promotions on pharmaceuticals. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) in the late 60's invoked its Fairness Doctrine with respect to cigarette advertising, with the intent of providing consumers with both sides of the cigarette health controversy. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), under its broad mandate of providing fair competitive and consumer environments, has increasingly moved toward "affirmative disclosure" requirements across a number of product categories.

Currently we find more than 34 Federal agencies engaged in providing consumer information and designing consumer education programs that rely upon persuasive communication techniques. The General Services Administration (GSA) maintains the Consumer Product Information Center to centralize the dissemination of many of these publications. In sum, consumer information programs appear across a number of public policy areas, having increased substantially within the past decade.

One important characteristic evidenced in almost all past disclosure programs is an orientation toward unidimensional information provision; examples include Truth in Lending, unit pricing, care labeling, auto mileage and octane ratings. Now emerging, however is a movement toward multidimensional information in recognition of the tradeoffs between salient product characteristics in consumer choice decisions. The most likely agency for most product categories is the FTC, whose authority in this area has recently been augmented in a legal sense.

Trade Regulation Rules (TRR's)

In essence, TRR power enables a public agency to require that certain forms of marketing practices be performed by all marketers in a generic product or service category. In the case of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), two major court decisions and an important piece of legislation suggest that TRR programs will become a primary regulatory activity. In 1972, the Supreme Court's ruling in Sperry and Hutchinson v. FTC stressed that the Commission must undertake to develop its latent "unfairness" rationale to complement the heavily relied upon "deception" standard. This raised the possibility of actions being taken on the basis that a marketer's failure to disclose certain product information is an "unfair" practice. In 1973, the U.S. Court of Appeals' ruling in National Petroleum Refiners Association, et. al. v. FTC strongly affirmed the agency's power to require that specified measures of gasoline octane ratings to be posted on all pumps. Most recently, in early 1975, Congress passed the Magnuson-Moss Warranty -- Federal Trade Commission Improvement Act, Title II of which specifies that FTC may prescribe Trade Regulation Rules consistent with its mandates. In addition, this law requires certain procedures to be followed in the development of a TRR.

Prominent among these procedures is the conduct of public hearings to gather pertinent viewpoints, arguments, and empirical data. There is no doubt that consumer research will be relevant for most -- if not all -- of these programs. For this reason it may be useful to briefly consider in more detail the rationale for a TRR program and the nature of policy decisions involved in its development.

There are two sorts of public policy benefits postulated to flow from the TRR program: administrative/ legal and economic/social. Within the first category, it is expected that the process of developing, specifying and monitoring regulatory standards will be more efficient. For example, once the TRR has been issued the agency need only prove noncompliance to win a case; it need not consume resources attempting to prove unfairness or deception. This shift away from case-by-case litigation is also expected to improve equity for individual marketers, as the industry-wide proceeding removes the potential discrimination of being selected as a "test case," as well as providing increased certainty as to bounds on marketing efforts. Within the second category above, TRR programs for consumer information are advanced in part as a means toward approaching the "fully informed" consumer assumed to underpin the free enterprise economic system. More specifically, the availability of standardized performance information is posited to improve the efficiency of our market system by providing opportunities for consumers to compare alternatives on objective cost and benefit bases.

The degree to which these potentials will be realized, and the existence of possibly negative outcomes, obviously depend on the quality of each TRR's coverage and specifications. Inputs from consumer researchers will be sought and relied upon during the process of a TRR's specifications; a brief overview of such program decisions may be helpful in placing closer perspectives on the multitude of issues likely to arise. In considering the following discussion, however, it is particularly important that we recognize that this process is susceptible to numerous influences (philosophic, legal, economic, and political) apart from strictly technical concerns.

TRR Program Decisions

While it may at first blush appear that design of an effective consumer information program would be quite straightforward (i.e., simply find out what information consumers need, then require that it be made available), in actuality these programs will be extremely difficult to develop. The roots of difficulty relate to both non-consumer matters (e.g., the policy influences noted above, plus possible technical problems with standards and test methods) and to CIP research concerns. For example, do consumers currently understand the generic product in question (i.e., do they know what information they need?) and do they possess the necessary cognitive means to process or otherwise use such information? Given these sorts of issues, policymakers face a more involved, six-stage, decision process (Day, 1975; Wilkie, 1975a). Decisions made at each stage must take into account problems likely to be encountered at subsequent stages, thus introducing simultaneity as a factor.

The first stage is the selection of topic (i.e., TRR program), which involves numerous policy considerations and may well be the most subjective area of our sequence. With regard to information, moreover, there are two alternative approaches that might be taken. The first, more typical to date, would stress one particular dimension of information which is applicable across a range of product and service categories. Examples of such programs include cost of credit (Truth in Lending), nutritional disclosures, and, in the near future, energy consumption in product operation. The second approach is quite new, but is likely to receive considerable future attention. Here the focus is on only a single product or service class, but with options of covering a number of information dimensions pertinent to that class. Because this approach raises particularly fundamental CIP research issues, it will be adopted in the remainder of this paper's discussion.

Criteria used for the selection of information topics are beyond the scope of this paper; they can reduce to the view that the value of information in a given category is a function of the expected opportunity losses from suboptimal choices in that category. It presently appears that three general product types will receive primary attention: those in which safety is an issue, those pertaining to health (especially food and drugs) and those with considerable economic potentials such as consumer durables.

In addition to product selection, the matter of appropriate program objectives is a critical question deserving careful attention, as these objectives will directly affect the nature of all subsequent program decisions as well as determining relevant CIP research designs and criteria (dependent variables). The basic question, of course, is "what kinds of effects are desired at the consumer level?" A fundamental policy issue, however, involves the extent to which government may act so as to direct or influence free consumer choice in the marketplace. It may be generally agreed that information from a government program should meet the dual criteria of being both neutral (in the nondiscriminatory sense) and effective in the sense of being useful to consumers (Wilkie and Gardner, 1974). There is little doubt that the presumed neutrality on brand choice (i.e., consumers can be left to make their own choices once the needed information has been made available to them) is a major appeal of these programs.

The choice of program objectives will play an important role throughout the remaining program and decision stages, helping to direct not only the role of consumer research, but also providing general criteria for how much, which kind, and the exact manners in which information will be required to be made available to consumers. Following a brief presentation of each of the remaining decision stages, we will return to the question of appropriate objectives.

The second stage, identification of information dimensions, will likely stress objective and/or performance characteristics of the product, as these are most susceptible to standardization. There are two basic sources for the determination of relevant product characteristics: technical expertise and marketing or consumer research expertise. Day (1975) reports that most technical experts responding to a 1972 FTC task force study on this question agreed that significant product characteristics could be identified from industry knowledge and consumer surveys. It is possible, however, that consumers, who have not previously been exposed to such information would have difficulty reporting a need or desire for same. If it happens that experts and consumers don't agree, policymakers will confront the question of whether a proposed program is creating needs rather than responding to them--an issue underlying many of the decisions to be made.

The third stage, development of test standards and measures, moves to engineering test protocols to yield standardized ratings for each brand on each characteristic. Reliance will be placed on technical experts, perhaps involving the National Bureau of Standards and various industry standard-setting bodies. Day's (1975) analysis of the task force study reports a general consensus that suitable test methods for durable goods either presently exist or can be developed. There were noted, however, several areas of concern which one might expect to become significant once a given program is underway. For example, the high test cost associated with some sophisticated products may well be disproportionately burdensome to smaller competitors. Because various materials perform differently as a function of test method, moreover, difficulty in obtaining industry-wide agreement on a single method can be anticipated. Also, some products would have to be measured in terms of their effects on individual consumers which could necessitate dealing with idiosyncratic reactions as a function of individual differences. In sum, although technical experts were generally optimistic, we should not expect any given program to proceed smoothly through this stage.

At this point the raw materials for the TRR program are available, and attention turns to communication decisions. The fourth stage, determination of reporting format, involves three primary issues: (1) how many and which information dimensions should be included? (2) in what form should the information appear? and (3) what problems, if any, are encountered if some difficult-to-rate characteristics (e.g., convenience, service, credit terms, guarantees) are not included?

Day (1975) relates that the 1972 FTC task force report originally proposed that only two or three characteristics will usually need to be measured for a product class, and that these could be combined (i.e., weighted and summed) into a single, overall, "grade" to be reported to the consumer. Both suggestions were strongly criticized by respondents to the proposal, the first on the basis that two or three characteristics are simply not enough to constitute a meaningful basis for determining or explaining differences in performance. The weighting model also encountered several legitimate criticisms, especially that it incorporates the assumptions that all consumers assign values to performance dimensions (i.e., they trade-off benefits) in the same way, and that either all performance characteristics possess an identifiable "ideal" level or that more is always better. A further problem with reporting a single grade is that consumers will be unable to ascertain why one brand might be graded lower than another, thus rendering trade-offs between measured and unmeasured attributes impossible.

The general complexity of program decisions is by this point becoming apparent. At one extreme, policymakers could provide (require) all the information generated by technical experts, maintaining all dimensions and reporting all results in technically precise terms. At the other extreme, only a summary grade might be used. The primary difficulties of these policy decisions spring from anticipated constraints of consumer information processing, and involved issues of "meaning", simplification, efficiency, and equity.

Closely related to these questions are those encountered in selecting dissemination channels (stage five). Included here are questions of sources, channels, and points of consumer exposure. Unlike the previous stage's difficulties imposed by the proper role of the government actor, this stage may well benefit from such a role.

FTC is understandably reluctant to centralize the dissemination process, which indicates that marketers will probably be required to make the information disclosures using some combination of their normal channels. Possibilities include package labels, product information tags, point-of-sale materials, verbal explanation by sales persons, and/or advertising vehicles.

From the consumer's viewpoint, he therefore could have the information available to him when he is not contemplating the purchase, during pre-purchase planning activities, as well as at point of purchase. Allied to this dissemination -- although not within FTC's control -- are consumer education programs that might be aimed at developing consumers' CIP abilities, private product rating publications, and/or voluntary programs by brand marketers.

A broader question involving both format and channels concerns the extent to which brand comparisons by the consumer can or should be fostered, and where in his decision process these comparisons would occur. Some alternatives (e.g., dimensional disclosure in broadcast advertising) could place heavy stress on consumer memory. Other alternatives (e.g., summary ratings at point of sale) could hinder comparisons with brands not available. It seems quite likely, therefore, that combinations of formats and channels must be utilized.

Our final decision stage involves structuring a formal evaluation and program revision process, and reflects two major issues -- the fact of a formal evaluation and the importance of clearly defined objectives. Program evaluation -- especially of consumer impacts --has been too often ignored by public agencies. Three benefits are offered by planning for evaluation as an integral decision stage:

1. "Before" measures of the current state of the market and consumer environment can provide useful input to the five decision stages above, in addition to serving as baseline measures;

2. "After" measures reveal not only the actual impacts of the program, but can also be used as guides to revise or improve the ongoing efforts;

3. In the broader sense, formal evaluations provide "learning feedback" for those working in the public policy field, this being most valuable in the design of future programs. It is apparent that this hasn't happened from most of our past pro- grams--as a society, we have not advanced much in our understanding of public programs for consumer information provision.

The observed lack of formal evaluations probably does not reflect disinterest in the program or policymakers' desires to remain ignorant of its effects. Rather, it would appear to spring from two other sources: (1) barriers to conducting objective evaluation research in an action setting, and (2) serious difficulties in specifying program goals or objectives. The first of these is beyond the scope of this paper, dealing with questions such as the research setting within the organization and program, perceived needs for actionable conclusions, and the general negative cast of evaluation research (Weiss, 1972; Wilkie, 1975a).

The second point -- difficulties in determining appropriate and precise objectives -- is a critical one for consumer researchers, as these provide the bases for meaningful selection of dependent variables. A primary issue for almost all research in this area is the proper weighting of consumer "cognition" versus changes and choice behavior. Consider, for example, decisions on information format (stage 4). A stress on consumer cognition (including product understanding as well as brand knowledge) would assume that consumers want and can use more product information. Emphasis would be on "full" disclosure with a high degree of specificity; overall grades would not be used, and the number of information dimensions might easily be high. Such a disclosure would he expected to require increased cognitive effort from the consumer. Brand alternatives are more fully described, therefore subject to more Combinations of trade-off and perhaps decreased reliance on overall evaluations of brand superiority and inferiority. Thus we might also expect to see more alternatives under active consideration. Two negative effects might also, however, accompany this stress. Some consumers, anticipating that they cannot (or are not willing to) handle the increased complexity, might ignore the information. Others, in attempting to process it, could encounter increased anxiety about the decision and increased uncertainty in their ability to make a choice.

A stress on consumer choice behavior, conversely, would place more emphasis on resultant decisions than on the information per se. Policy decisions would be quite complex with this approach, in that one would have to consider models of consumer choice, make some resolutions between technical dimensions and consumer perceptual dimensions, and deal with problems relating to dimensions excluded from program disclosure, particularly those that are hard to measure but do relate to product performance. "Simplification," or provision of summary forms of ratings will need to be considered here, promising more efficient consumer processing and a likelihood of greater utilization. Against these potential benefits, however, policymakers must balance the tendency toward paternalism (especially if there is any question that products would be categorized differently if dimensions were weighted differently), and the charge of withholding certain information.

In summary, the public policy environment is fraught with nuance; hard answers will simply not be available for CIP researchers to build studies upon. This does not suggest that empirical studies aren't needed, but does mean that we researchers must carefully consider the problem setting when planning the study. Also, of course, it suggests that without such consideration, what appear to be direct policy implications from our typical research will rarely turn out to be nearly so meaningful as the researcher believes them to be.


In an earlier assessment of the CIP literature (Wilkie, 1975a) I have argued that surprisingly little work which might accurately be labeled "consumer information processing" research has been undertaken. The vast majority of relevant work on "information processing'' is found in nonconsumer fields, using different sorts of "information" as stimuli, often within the context of complex problem-solving (e.g., Berlyne, 1965; Newell and Simon, 1972). Most consumer research, moreover, has been conducted within the framework of marketing's controllable variables, especially persuasive communication. Here the stress has typically been on the summary effects of a stimulus rather than on intermediate "processing" activities; neither designs nor measures have been oriented to the study of processes.

Emerging research on consumers' acquisition of information is moving away from these boundaries -- an encouraging development. We are, however, still at an early point in such research. Recognition of some important distinctions in orientation may therefore be particularly useful for further progress in this field.

There are essentially three characteristics of the public policy orientation which differ substantially in nature from our prevailing consumer research orientation:

(1) neutrality on brand choice,

(2) a changed consumer environment, and

(3) little direct interest in source effects.

Most basic is the issue of neutrality with respect to brand choices of consumers. There are three aspects to this orientation which are highly significant. First, "persuasion" is not at issue for public programs (apart from attempts to insure that the information itself can be accessed and utilized by consumers). In terms of utilization, moreover, public policy programs are not directional in nature. This is obviously in contrast to the overtly directional goals of marketing and advertising (i.e., to influence each target consumer to be predisposed to purchase a particular brand). Second, in keeping with this overriding constraint, public policy must deal only with "objective" or factual information of a standardized sort, typically dealing with specific dimensions of product makeup or functional performance. Subjective appeals or dimensions ("brand image", aesthetic, styling, etc.) appear not to be possible for inclusion in these programs, though they are major factors for marketing and advertising programs. Third, and following the above points, the underlying CIP model applicable to these programs must be cognitive in nature.

Another class of considerations characterizing public policy programs involves their necessary concern with a sharply altered or changed consumer information environment. The essence of such change is fostered by the program itself, presenting what may be entirely new dimensions of information to consumers, and presenting brand data for each competitive offering on each dimension. The possible CIP implications of an altered environment are substantial; serious consideration must be given to new forms of research design, measurement, and criterion variables.

A third class of issues involves the relative importance of the various elements of CIP research concerns, in that the priorities of policy interest in CIP will differ. A major area of difference, for example, involves emphasis on "source effects" such as selective attention or source credibility. Given that the "information" of public policy is intended to be objective, standardized, and neutral, it should not differ by individual in terms of its perceived truth, but only by its value or salience within CIP and choice processes. In keeping with this point, there may well be little direct interest evidenced in the impacts of specific marketing vehicles such as advertising, especially in terms of their non-cognitive operations.


In addition to shifts in orientation to account for the public policy setting, researchers must also face the added complexity of the topic of consumer information processing. As noted earlier, we do not have a rich body of concepts or findings currently available on this topic. Drawing from work in a number of related disciplines, however, it is possible to derive a few basic generalizations likely to apply to CIP (Wilkie, 1975a):

1. Variability by Adaptation. Past research has found that the processes invoked by humans appear to heavily depend upon (a) the task they are faced with and (b) the context within which that task is undertaken. At its start, then, information processing appears to be adaptive in nature. This suggests that CIP researchers must take particular care in the design of the research setting, in mitigating demand characteristics, and especially in generalizing from a study's results.

2. Importance of Memory. Processing occurs "between" stimulus and long-term memory, thus is subject to two flows rather than only one. Study of the latter is at least as important as study of the former.

3. Capacity Constraints. "Buffers" are presumed to exist for the purposes of short-term retention and symbol manipulation. These buffers have severe capacity (size and temporal) limitations, leading to limitations on consumers' ability to process information. Consumers are not computers, they will not automatically process everything they are exposed to.

4. Subproblem Processing. These limitations lead to non-optimizing subproblem processing for relatively complex tasks. The problem is broken into smaller, more manageable sub-decisions, with information relevant to each of these being selectively manipulated. For CIP research, this point suggests that we need to explicitly view consults as proceeding in relatively discrete stages, and try to measure results at each stage. Recent research methods offer considerable potential to improve our understanding here.

The net results of these "generalizations" suggest that considerable activity goes on between stimulus and response, and that investigation of these issues provides problems and opportunities for CIP researchers.

It is evident that any single CIP study cannot hope to address all the aspects of the phenomenon. At the same time, however, researchers must be careful to attend to the possible impacts that some of these aspects may have on results and conclusions. In particular, there are five classes of underlying issues that will apply to most or all of research in this area:

1. Motivational Factors

2. System Capacities

3. Existing Consumer Knowledge and Predispositions

4. System Invariance

5. Individual Differences

Our brief coverage of these zones should properly be viewed as speculative, since virtually none of the underlying research has been conducted within the consumer context.

Motivational Factors

Consumer information processing is dynamic; it occurs through time. The role of motivational factors is thus to explain the "energy" dimension of CIP: how is it started and how is it sustained? Public policy's interest here relates to consumers' desire to acquire and process the new information available to them. Relevant literatures include comprehensive consumer behavior models, activation, arousal, drives, cognitive consistency, directed thinking, variety-seeking, and perceived risk.

Of particular import for empirical research on consumer information acquisition is the likelihood that respondents' motivations within a study will differ substantially from those occurring in the naturalistic environment. Not only may the energy level be heightened, but -- of equal concern -- certain forms of task goals may be applied. This suggests that severe problems may be encountered in attempting to describe naturalistic information acquisition. Included in this sector is the question of gaining information when not engaged in problem-solving. Processes of such acquisitions are also fair game for investigation.

System Capacities

The issue of system capacity refers to the consistent finding that humans are subject to finite limits to assimilate and process information during a given time period. The introduction of numerous information dimensions might therefore overload rather than assist acquisition and processing. However, capacity constraints do not apply to all CIP sectors; sensory receptors and long-term memory (LTM) possess vast capacities. This suggests further investigations into consumers' employment of LTM to reduce burdens on short-term memory and storage. Possibilities include fostering CIP "rules," provision for external "writing' and/or reaccessing of information, assisting sequential comparisons, development of information "chunks" (see Miller, 1956; Simon, 1974), and lessening the precision of task-required judgments. Also -- of considerable import for external validity in the public policy consumer setting--the time constraints employed in task studies must in some manner be altered to correspond to the time and learning freedoms of the naturalistic consumer world.

This topic has already received some attention by CIP researchers, notably in the studies by Jacoby and associates (Jacoby, Speller, and Kohn, 1974a, 1974b). Further perspectives on research issues here are available in Russo (1974), Summers (1974), Wilkie (1974), and Jacoby (1975).

Existing Knowledge and Predispositions

This third "problem zone" concerns the aforementioned sector of a consumer's long-term memory (LTM). In addition to playing a major role in the nature of CIP when a consumer is exposed to an informational stimulus, this zone affords researchers their primary opportunities for measuring the effects of information. There are three central concepts of interest in this zone: (1) consumers' conceptual structures, or rules used to guide information processing, (2) cognitions of (i.e., knowledge about) the product class and alternatives within it, and (3) predispositions, including affect and preferences, for those alternative brands. Much recent consumer research attention has been devoted to consumer predispositions, while very little work has focused on consumer cognitions and/or conceptual structures.

Research on "multi-attribute attitude models" has especially been aimed at assessing the nature of brand predispositions (see Green and Wind, 1973; Wilkie and Pessemier, 1973; and Cohen, 1974 for overviews of this research stream). Attitude models have, however, focused on static measurements rather than active CIP, such that their treatment of "attributes" and "ratings' differs from the sense of these terms in the public policy setting.

Attributes, in our general framework for CIP, represent objective content or performance characteristics of a given product. Attitude models, in contrast, generally define attributes in terms of consumers' subjective (i.e., perceptual) dimensions. Because of the role of "organization" in LTM, we do not expect a one-to-one correspondence between such objectively and subjectively-defined dimensions. Two implications derived from this distinction. First, this may in part account for the rather consistent findings (in attitude research) that rather few -- about five -- attributes are sufficient to account for brand predispositions. Second, the extent of non-correspondence between the two kinds of dimensions should be assessed in terms of possible problems in translating the objective information to the subjective dimensions in LTM.

"Ratings" likewise differ in the two contexts. Our CIP framework treats ratings as the objective amount provided by a given brand on a given attribute. Attitude models, conversely, treat them as "beliefs" or "expectancies", reflecting each consumer's subjective perception of how well a brand performs with respect to an attribute. It is especially important that researchers recognize this distinction, as research on the attitude model has in the past significantly relied upon differences between consumers in their beliefs (ratings) concerning brand/attribute values. The public policy CIP context clearly suggests no differences between consumers on the ratings per se. As with attributes, the research implication of this distinction indicates that CIP research stress should be given to questions of how a consumer's existing perceptions will effect his interpretation and integration of new information.

Measurement of a consumer's prior brand information represents a related approach which is less developed in the consumer research literature. As discussed by Woodruff (1972) this approach attempts to assess a consumer's cognitions concerning the actual ratings of brands on specified product attributes, and uses obtained data as measures of the task information on that parameter. Based upon normative concepts of Bayesian decision theory, this approach attends directly to issues of "uncertainty" in existing consumer knowledge and the role of external information as it serves to alter such uncertainty. The methodologies and perspectives of this research stream appears to offer considerable potential for future CIP research application, especially regarding the incorporation of uncertainty into models and measures.

System Invariance

While the above zone concerned issues of validity in measuring static structures underlying CIP, the problem zone of "system invariance" extends to issues of both fixity and change in such structures. There are two areas of concern in this regard: (1) can CIP structures be accurately measured in a static manner? and (2) how can true change in such structures be assessed? The first concern in this zone -- termed "fixity'' -- involves several subissues, including test-re-test reliability, differences due to use contexts, and the rule of uncertainty in existing conceptual structures. The second concern -- true change in conceptual structure -- relates to the possibility of consumer "learning'' as a result of exposure to new product information. Learning in this sense can refer, not only to the acquisition of content (i.e., brand ratings), but also to increased awareness of additional brands and product attributes, as well as a consumer's development of new relational rules. We should recognize that a chronic problem with studies conducted at a single point in time is their inability to account for such learning, thus very likely understating the potentials of a given informational stimulus over time (e.g. public policy programs or advertising campaigns) to effect changes in consumers' knowledge and behaviors.

Individual Differences

The fact that consumers differ raises difficult problems for both strategists attempting to design informational stimuli and for researchers attempting to assess their effects on CIF. The most notable results of these problems are real difficulties in arriving at meaningful "generalizations" and in developing programs aimed at "the" consumer. Also, due to individual differences in values and utilities, researchers are often unable even to work with precise levels of criterion variables. "Choice quality" is a good example; we cannot necessarily conclude that one brand is a better choice than another, especially if prices differ. Considerable extra effort is required (e.g., Jacoby, Speller, and Kohn, 1974; Summers, 1974) simply to obtain a single dependent variable. Other difficulties associated with this zone include: a tendency to employ cross-sectional analyses (e.g., correlation, regression) which assume respondent homogeneity, a cost of "trait" focus in tending to decrease attention to processing activities, and a need for larger sample sizes. One promising development in this regard, however, is the progress of Bettman's attempts (Bettman, 1974; Bettman and Jacoby, 1975) to develop a statistics of observed processes.


The discussions in this paper have briefly posed a series of contextual and conceptual issues for CIF research. It has not dealt particularly with research on information acquisition, primarily because this subfield of CIF must also grapple with these basic concerns. As noted at the start of this paper, this field is still new and at an active stage of development. Several recent studies are indicative of the promise of this research, including the creative research paradigms of Jacoby and his students (e.g., Jacoby, 1975) methodological advances of Bettman, and the conceptual work of Russo (1975). The public policy setting has sparked much of this interest, but brings with it a need to shift away from some fairly entrenched consumer research orientations. It is hoped that this paper will assist in the recognition of such distinctions and the development of a major field of research.


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Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon, Human Problem Solving (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972).

J. Edward Russo, "More Information is Better: A Reevaluation of Jacoby, Speller, and Kohn," Journal of Consumer Research, 1, 4 (December, 1974).

J. Edward Russo, "An Information Processing Analysis of Point-of Purchase Decisions," (paper presented at the Fall Educators' Conference, American Marketing Association, Rochester, New York, August, 1975).

Herbert A. Simon, How Big is a Chunk?" Science, 183 (February 8, 1974), pp. 482-88.

John 0. Summers, "Less Information is Better?" Journal of Marketing Research, 11 (November, 1974).

Carol H. Weiss, Evaluation Research (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972).

William L. Wilkie, How Consumers Use Product Information (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1975a).

William L. Wilkie, "Consumer Information Processing Research: Product Labeling," (working paper series, Marketing Science Institute March, 1975b).

William L. Wilkie, "Analysis of Effects of Information Load," Journal of Marketing Research, 11 (November, 1974).

William L. Wilkie and David Gardner, "The Role of Marketing Research in Public Policy Decisionmaking," Journal of Marketing, 38 (January, 1974), pp. 38-47.

William L. Wilkie and Edgar A. Pessemier, "Issues in Marketing's Use of Multi-Attribute Attitude Models," Journal of Marketing Research, 10 (November, 1973), pp. 428-41.

Robert B. Woodruff, "Measurement of Consumer's Prior Brand Information," Journal of Marketing Research, 9 (August, 1972), pp. 258-263.



William L. Wilkie, University of Florida


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03 | 1976

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