Perceptions of Unfair Marketing Practices: Consumerism Implications

ABSTRACT - Previous research in complaint behavior has ignored the perception of unfair marketing practices as an explanatory variable. Perceptions of unfair marketing practices are related to consumer complaint behavior, although differentially related across different ages. Social involvement among elderly consumers was also found to be a relevant variable. Implications of the data are discussed for public policy makers, consumer educators, and vendors.


Gerald Zaltman, Rajendra K. Srivastava, and Rohit Deshpande (1978) ,"Perceptions of Unfair Marketing Practices: Consumerism Implications", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 247-253.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 247-253


Gerald Zaltman, University of Pittsburgh

Rajendra K. Srivastava, University of Pittsburgh

Rohit Deshpande, University of Pittsburgh


Previous research in complaint behavior has ignored the perception of unfair marketing practices as an explanatory variable. Perceptions of unfair marketing practices are related to consumer complaint behavior, although differentially related across different ages. Social involvement among elderly consumers was also found to be a relevant variable. Implications of the data are discussed for public policy makers, consumer educators, and vendors.


A critical issue in consumer education is whether perceptions of unfair marketing practices are related to consumer complaint behavior. One reason the issue is important concerns remedial action. If consumers' cum-plaint behaviors are affected by their awareness of unfair marketing practices, then a strategy of consumer education is most appropriate. Increasing consumer knowledge of unfair marketing practices should lead to increased complaint behavior when such practices are encountered. Additionally, educating consumers in the methods of forming and presenting complaints about grievances becomes an important associated issue. These strategies have many advocates (Andreasen, 1975; Kraft, 1977), although at least some persons active in the area question the effectiveness of consumer education programs in increasing consumer knowledge or in altering their behavior (Staelin, 1977; Robertson, et al, 1974; Robertson, 1975). If consumer perceptions of unfair marketing practices are unrelated to their complaint behavior, that is, if barriers exist which prevent consumers from taking action or consumers cannot be instructed effectively, then regulatory action by public agencies may be the most appropriate direction for protecting consumers from unfair marketing practices. This approach essentially says that what consumers cannot or will not do for themselves must be done by regulatory agencies (Palumbo, 1976; Robertson, et al, 1974; Andreasen, 1975, especially Chapters 10 to 12; Feldman, 1976).

This paper is concerned with consumer perceptions of unfair marketing practices and complaint behavior. A special interest is with elderly consumers. The study is exploratory in nature, but has several important implications for consumer educators, public policy makers, and vendors who need to understand consumer complaint behavior and the factors which may lead to such behavior. One particular factor, awareness of unfair practices, which appears not to have been studied to date, is highlighted here. A second factor, social involvement, also unstudied, is mentioned briefly as well. The paper concludes with a discussion of the major implications of the data presented.


Consumer complaint behavior has received considerable attention in the literature. Wall, Dickey and Talarzyk (1977) have tried to profile consumer satisfaction and propensity to complain. A very important finding of their research is that dissatisfaction and the experience of a product performance problem was not related to a consumer's likelihood of complaining. They found that the most effective predictors of propensity to complain were personal characteristics and internal influences. The Wall, et al study did not, however, measure consumer knowledge or awareness of unfair marketing practices. One of their findings on which we will comment later was that "younger consumers were more likely to be noncommunicators of complaints" (p. 33). This finding was not, according to the authors, a particularly strong one.

Another study by Granbois, Summers and Frazier (1977) studied consumer beliefs and expectations as they related to complaining behavior, but did not report particularly strong associations. However, beliefs about a store's willingness to provide a remedy for a complaint was the most important consumer belief variable. By and large, demographic variables such as age were not found to be of significant importance. The Granbois, et al study did not attempt to measure consumer knowledge about practices or events they might complain about.

Landon (1977) reviewed the literature related to consumer complaint behavior to develop a model of consumer complaint behavior. Interestingly, neither the literature he cites nor the model he builds considers the basic issue of whether consumers know what they should complain about.

The most relevant study to the research presented here is reported by Kraft (1977): "...consumers who believe that a firm intentionally deceived them or acted to dissatisfy them will be more likely to complain than those without this perception." Among dissatisfied consumers, those who complained were nearly twice as likely to think sellers deliberately deceived them than consumers who did not complain. This raises the important question of consumer perceptions of unfair marketing practices. Before consumers perceive deception or unfair treatment, they must perceive particular practices to be unfair or deceptive. Kraft's research appears to be the only study which touches upon this important issue.

A special concern we have is with elderly consumers. Waddell (1975) cites several reasons why elderly consumers may be particularly susceptible to fraud. These reasons include lower education than the population at large, increased concern with getting special bargains to make limited resources go further, and greater gullibility and suggestibility arising out of feelings of helplessness, low self-esteem, and loneliness. It has been suggested that the medical area is the area where consumer fraud among the elderly is greatest (Butler, 1975). Other research has focused on information usage of consumers (Klipzel and Sweeney, 1973; Schiffman, 1971) and social isolation (Schiffman, 1973). For example, Schiffman has noted the social involvement in various groups may enhance opportunities for consumption related discussions and hence persons involved in many groups have a greater chance to learn about the market. As noted earlier, Waddell (1975) suggests that the lack of social involvement may be a contributing factor to susceptibility to fraud. Social involvement may provide not only more opportunity to learn about which marketing practices are unfair or deceptive, but may also provide social reinforcement for taking Complaining action and the opportunity to learn how or where to complain. Thus, we might expect the socially involved consumer to perceive more marketing practices as unfair and to be more prone to complain.

Extant literature on consumer complaining focuses almost exclusively on product performance, the related issue of product safety, and to a lesser degree, other postpurchase activities, such as servicing and honoring of warranties (Fisk, 1970; Westbrook, 1977; Darden, 1977; Trombitta and Wilson, 1975). However, consumers may and do complain about many other factors beyond issues related to product performance. It is important therefore to consider a broad range of factors a consumer may complain about. In the next section of this paper, we shall direct our attention to these factors.


The data addressed here concern consumer perceptions or recognition of unfair and deceptive practices and their undertaking complaint behavior. As evidenced in the review above, this has been largely unstudied in the literature on consumer complaint behavior. Moreover, this study reports on consumer recognition of unfair practices at three points: the point or stage prior to product purchase; the time of purchase stage; and post-purchase stage. This distinction does not appear to have been made before. Additionally, this study addresses the issue of age as it relates to the recognition of unfair practices and to complaint behavior. Existing evidence about the relationship of age and consumer complaining is contradictory (Wall, et al, 1977; Gaedeke, 1972; Mason and Hines, 1973; Miller, 1970).

The Sample and Data

The data on which this study is based are derived from a nationwide sample of 2,849 (4,000 questionnaires were mailed and 2,849 usable responses, a net response rate of 79%, were obtained). As the data presented here are merely a subset of a larger research focusing on the consumption problems specifically concerning susceptibility/perception/information processing/complaint behavior of the elderly with respect to fraudulent marketing practices, the sample is naturally biased towards a larger representation of the elderly age group (1771/2849 = 62.2%). In comparison with available statistics on the national level [Source: U.S. Bureau of Census, General Population Characteristics, Final Report PC(1)-B1 United States Summary (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972), p. 1-276.], the following were the characteristics of the sample:

(1) A high level of education;

(2) Slightly unbalanced geographical distribution (lower representation in the New England and East-South Central states);

(3) Lower representation of the black minority group;

(4) Lower (substantial) representation of single males;

(5) Slightly higher income level.

The data are the first wave of a three-wave study. Steps are being undertaken to ensure greater representativeness (within the nonelderly and elderly) subsamples in the remaining stages. However, as we will discuss while examining the results, most of the unrepresentative characteristics noted above are not expected to change the implications of the findings.

Variables and Propositions

The basic proposition tested here is the following: As awareness of unfair and deceptive practices increases among consumers, the propensity to complain increases.

Subpropositions may be formulated for each of three stages: (1) as awareness of unfair practices at the prepurchase stage increases among consumers, the propensity to complain increases; (2) as awareness of unfair practices at the purchase stage increases among consumers, the propensity to complain increases; and (3) as awareness of unfair practices at the postpurchase stage increases, the propensity to complain increases. To test the basic proposition and subpropositions, two variables were constructed. One variable is labeled "unfairness awareness" and is simply measured by the number of practices consumers perceive or recognize as unfair. This was constructed by counting the number of practices consumers cited in each basic stage represented in Table 1. Propensity to complain was measured by the number of complaint behaviors displayed in a critical incident of consumer dissatisfaction. The complaint behaviors which could be cited are shown in Table 2.





The logic underlying these propositions is that the more practices consumers are aware of which are unfair, the more likely they are to recognize their being the target of unfair practices. The greater consumers' recognition of their being the target of unfair practices, the greater their likelihood of complaining. Moreover, since different unfair practices may warrant different complaint activities, we would expect the range of complaint activities to be broader as the array of practices perceived to be unfair broaden.

We also put forth the following ideas or propositions: (1) unfairness awareness decreases as age increases, and (2) complaint behavior decreases as age increases. These ideas were developed on the basis of exploratory research (not reported in the study) which included in-depth personal interviews with: (1) consumer protection/ education/advisory agencies; and (2) convenience samples of individual respondents. However, reasoned arguments could easily be developed to support the opposition propositions. Such studies that do exist relevant to these propositions are contradictory, although we might expect elderly consumers to be less able to complain because of difficulty in returning to a store, having fewer resources to seek legal assistance, greater susceptibility to intimidation, and so on. Also, elderly consumers may participate less in the marketplace and thus have fewer complaints on an absolute scale. However, it was not clear that elderly consumers would have proportionately more or fewer complaints. Unfairness awareness might be expected to increase with age because of greater shopping experience. On the other hand, those who are concerned with consumerism issues and who have benefited from consumer education efforts appear to be younger people (Miller, 1970; Hustad and Pessemier, 1973).

There is an observation concerning the concept of age which the reader must keep in mind. Chronological age is usually a proxy variable. It is used in lieu of other variables which cannot be easily observed or measured. In some instances, age is an important behavioral variable itself. Examples would include an age specific drinking requirement for alcoholic beverages, age specific auto license requirements, and age specific retirement requirements. In other instances, age is simply an indicator for physical health, social attitudes and outlook, medicinal needs, experiences in one or another life situations, and so on. Thus, it is important to ask just what is meant when an observation is made that something such as awareness of unfair practices or propensity to complain varies with age? Unless this question is addressed, nothing is really being explained. Generally, little effort has been made in the consumer behavior literature to clarify what age represents in the contexts in which it is used. This makes it especially difficult to generalize about age or to compare studies involving age since the phenomenon age is a proxy for may vary from study to study or context to context.

An attempt is made here to indicate what we believe age refers to in this study. In the case of unfairness awareness, we believe age to reflect differing degrees of buymanship skills. We do not believe that older consumers forget or become unclear about unfair marketing practices. Rather, the consumerism movement and its manifestations in classrooms and elsewhere has primarily benefited younger consumers because the movement is a relatively recent phenomenon in terms of its current salience and activity level. The consumerism movement was not pronounced when the present elderly consumer group was younger, and it does not appear to have reached them now (Waddell, 1976; Hustad and Pessemier, 1973). Thus, age may represent differential, effective exposure to consumerist activities and possibly an inability to learn new skills.

With regard to the propensity to complain, age may reflect a lower sense of efficacy or a lower expectation that anything positive may result from registering a complaint. Data in the larger study, but not reported here, are supportive of this contention and research by Klipzel and Sweeney (1971) suggests that feelings of efficacy among elderly consumers may indeed influence their behavior as consumers. Also, knowledge about how to complain may be lower among older consumers as may the physical ability to "get out" to complain.


Table 3 contains summary data relating unfairness awareness to propensity to complain. Several subsets of data are presented in Table 3. Three subsets refer to three different points in the purchase process: before buying; when buying; and postpurchase. Three subsets refer to three different age groups: 25-34; 35-64; and 65 and over. [The breakpoints for the age groups were determined on two considerations: (1) we were specifically interested in behavior of the elderly segment of the consumer market, which in most studies is operationally defined as 65 and over; and (2) it has been postulated that there is a stabilization in life-styles at approximately the age of 35, as by that life stage most individuals have decided their plans regarding career, marriage, etc. (personal communication, Larry Wortzel).] One subset refers to the total number of perceived unfair practices in the entire buying process for each age group. Consider, for example, individuals ranking high on unfairness awareness at the prepurchase stage. For the 25-34 age group, approximately 54 percent of those ranking high on unfairness awareness showed a high propensity to complain about their bad buying experience. For the 35-64 age group, this figure drops to approximately 38 percent. Among the 65 and older age group, only approximately 22 percent of those high in unfairness awareness were high on propensity to complain at this stage. This very same pattern holds for the purchase and postpurchase stages. Similarly, the proportion of consumers at each stage who are over 65 and who are low in unfairness awareness is greater than the comparable group among those aged 35-64, who in turn are proportionately greater than the comparable group among those aged 25-34.

The data in Table 3 support the basic proposition that as awareness of unfair and deceptive practices increases among consumers, the propensity to complain increases. Moreover, this is true for each of the three stages and, of course, for all stages combined. Moreover, we believe the implied causal direction is a valid one. As indicated earlier, being aware of unfair practices enables one to recognize them, which in turn gives the consumer a perceived cause or reason to complain, which is a necessary precondition for complaining. Thus, in seeking to understand complaint behavior we must consider consumer awareness or unawareness of unfair practices. This has been largely ignored to date.




It is evident in Table 3 that age is related to unfairness awareness and to complaint behavior. This can be seen in Table 4 and in Table 5.

Proportionately, more consumers 65 and older are represented in the low unfairness awareness category relative to the other age groups. Also, relative to the other age groups, proportionately fewer consumers aged 65 and older are in the medium and high unfairness awareness category. Overall, the age group 35-64 seems to have a modestly lower unfairness awareness than the 25-34 age group. Space does not allow us to reproduce the contingency tables for all three purchase stages as displayed in Table 3. However, the relationship between age and unfairness awareness is strongest and unambiguous with regard to awareness of unfair practices after purchase. Fifty-six percent of all consumers aged 25-34 were in the high category at this stage compared to 45 percent and 33 percent for the 35-64 and 65 and older age groups, respectively. Fifteen percent of all consumers aged 25-34 were in the low category at this stage compared to 26 percent and 43 percent for the 35-64 and 65 and older age groups, respectively. Thus, it appears fruitful when considering unfairness awareness by age to distinguish among different purchase stages and the possibly unfair practices especially relevant to each stage.

The relationship between age and propensity to complain appears pronounced. The relevant data on this issue are presented in Table 5.



As age increases, the propensity to complain clearly decreases. The reader is reminded that the measure of complaint propensity involved a critical incident which the respondent felt to be a particularly bad experience. Overall propensity to complain might be less for each age group. Since a critical incident approach was used, possible differences among age groups in their participation in the marketplace are highly unlikely to account for the observed differences.

It was indicated earlier that social involvement might be an especially relevant factor affecting perceptions of unfair marketing practices and complaint behavior among the elderly. Published findings about consumerism and the elderly are very few and often without specific empirical data. These studies have suggested, however, that social involvement could be relevant to consumer behavior. Individuals with many personal contacts have more opportunity to learn about causes to complain and to learn about procedures for complaining. Also, social contacts may provide needed social and psychological support or reinforcement for the act of complaining.

Space limitations do not permit a full presentation of the data concerning social involvement among the elderly and awareness of unfair practices and complaint behavior. However, some summary observations are possible. Social involvement was measured simply by the number of different organizations respondents participate in frequently or regularly. These include such organizations as church/temple groups, garden groups, senior citizen centers, clubs and fraternal organizations, volunteer work, family gatherings, and so forth. The measures of social involvement were relevant primarily to older persons and hence reference is made here only to older consumers.

Although a significant chi-square (p<.01) was obtained between social involvement and awareness of unfair practices, the substantive significance is modest. For example, 30 percent of those low in social involvement were low in unfairness awareness compared to 32 percent of those high in social involvement. Thus, the relationship is clear, but not of a very high order of magnitude. However, it remains debatable as to what level of difference is "substantial." One way of looking at this issue is to focus on the absolute size of the elderly segment. A percentage point in the elderly segment could mean about 200,000 people.

A relationship between social involvement and complaint activity was obtained similar to that characterizing social involvement and unfairness awareness among elderly consumers. Nearly 60 percent of the persons low on social involvement were low on propensity to complain, compared to nearly 50 percent for those high on social involvement. The chi-square statistic was significantly beyond the .01 level. The relationship between social involvement and propensity to complain is also clear, but not of a very high order of magnitude.

Further research is needed for a better understanding of the impact of social involvement on the consumer behavior of older persons. Interviewing and participant observer techniques might be especially appropriate for this task. Social involvement does appear to have an impact on awareness of unfair practices and complaint behavior. With regard to complaint behavior, a degree of spuriousness may be operating. Consumers who are able to be active in social groups by virtue of physical health, access to transportation, and so forth, may also be able to undertake the efforts necessary to complain; factors enabling a person to engage in social activity outside the home also enable a person to easily return to a store to complain. However, social involvement may still provide necessary social reinforcement for complaining. Further research is necessary to determine whether social involvement leads to avoidance of situations which might have resulted in complaint behavior. Thus, social involvement, through its impact on unfairness awareness, may reduce the incidence of bad experiences (because the consumers know what to avoid), but once bad experiences occur, it may increase the likelihood of complaints being expressed. The data reported here are consonant with this possibility. Socially involved consumers perceive more practices as unfair and they also complain more.


The evidence from this study points up to several implications for different bodies of publics involved in the interface between marketing and society. The relevance of determining consumer awareness of unfair commercial practices and the differential activeness in the marketplace (in terms of both the perception of unfairness and the ensuing complaint behavior) among age groups leads us to make the following suggestions:

Implication No. 1. Traditional market segmentation strategy should include a component to determine how active or passive various segments of consumers are in acquiring product/service related information.

Our study has shown, for example, that older consumers are less active in terms of being aware of unfair business practices and in the means of redressing their complaints. This has consequences for consumer educators in that they should investigate which specific consumer segments are so disadvantaged with a view to developing programs to raise the general level of awareness regarding the particular ways in which unfair practices manifest themselves and the form in which to complain. Vendors should be concerned with attempting to understand how the more active consumers perceive unfair commercial practices so as to better understand their own (or their product/service) image in the eyes of those consumers. Regulatory agencies should clarify the legality of various business practices as perceived by consumers with a view to enacting legislation or implementing regulation to ensure that fairness operates in the marketplace to the satisfaction of both vendors and their customers.

Implication No. 2. The perception of unfair business practices by consumer segments should be further clarified in terms of the current legality or illegality of such practices.

Consumer educators should attempt to learn which practices are clearly illegal and which ones are just due to unclear understanding of the product/service usage. Educators can then serve to disseminate knowledge of these distinctions among the aggrieved market segments.

Vendors should try and assist consumers in the use of various products/services so as to avoid the misunderstandings that result in certain practices being perceived as unfair.

Regulatory agencies should monitor consumer complaints to determine whether regulation is required for currently illegal business practices and also whether changes in law are merited by a sufficient number of complaints regarding what was previously considered to be "legal" commercial activity.

Implication No. 3. The perception of unfair business practices by different consumer segments should be understood in the contents of specific product/service categories to which they might most clearly apply.

Regulators should determine not only what practices were seen as being unfair by consumers, but also the types of products or services which were related to these practices. Specific industries might be more amenable to an unclear distinction between the legal and the illegal, and therefore more open to such perceptions of unfair activity.

Vendors should be interested in ascertaining whether their particular product or service requires more in terms of clarification in consumer use than law currently prescribes.

Implication No. 4. The perception of unfair business practices by different consumer segments should be understood in the contents of the channels of distribution and promotion that specific product/service categories require and to which they might most clearly apply and also in terms of the purchase stage.

Educators should inform consumers about the particular advantages and disadvantages associated with different forms of distributing and promoting products so that more geographically isolated consumers, for example, are not compelled to be dependent on practices they consider unfair. Vendors and public policy makers should also be interested in knowing which types of media and distribution consumers are leery of and the reasons for their apprehension. The perception of unfair practices by consumers should be considered by educators, regulators, and vendors in terms of whether concerns are particularly expressed at the pre-, during, or postpurchase stages.

Implication No. 5. Within different demographic segments the more and the less aware members should be distinguished in terms of awareness of the fairness of business practices and the means of expressing complaints.

Consumer educators should enlist the aid of the more actively aware within particular demographic segments (e.g., the elderly rural poor) to develop a program to increase general awareness.

Vendors should identify the more active consumers and redress their grievances and also ensure that the less active are not being unfairly taken advantage of. Regulators should coordinate the more active into complaint channels to be able to enact new legislation or implement necessary regulation.

Implication No. 6. Programs should be concurrently developed to both increase the awareness of clearly unfair business practices and the awareness of the means of complaining.

Consumer educators should serve also as data banks on the particular people to contact to redress specific complaints and also the best manner that such complaints should take.

Vendors should participate in the design and conduct of educational programs to ensure that their industries are not unfairly maligned and also so that, if necessary, corrective measures are taken promptly.

Regulatory agencies should see that viable consumer complaints can reach them and that aggrieved consumers never feel that they are helpless when taken unfair advantage of in commercial transactions.

Implication No. 7. The social involvement of elderly consumers in society should be enhanced with a view to increasing both their awareness of fair and unfair business practices and the modes of possible redress of complaints.

Efforts should be made to encourage community groups to address consumer issues, thereby deliberately enhancing the positive impact they have on consumer perceptions of unfair practices and on consumer propensity to complain. Vendors, public officials, and consumer educators might stimulate such activities by participating in such programs. Most importantly, particular efforts should be made to attract to these special meetings those persons who are typically uninvolved for various reasons in community groups.


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Robert A. Westbrook, "A Multivariate Analysis of Post Purchase Satisfaction with Major Household Appliances," paper presented at the Research Symposium on Consumer Satisfaction/Dissatisfaction and Complaining Behavior, University of Indiana, Bloomington, Indiana, April 20-22, 1977.



Gerald Zaltman, University of Pittsburgh
Rajendra K. Srivastava, University of Pittsburgh
Rohit Deshpande, University of Pittsburgh


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05 | 1978

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