Research on Consumer Information: Public Sector Perspectives

ABSTRACT - The present study examines public sector perspectives toward research on consumer information (processing, dissemination, etc.). Three respondent groups were selected from seven federal agencies, state-level departments of consumer protection, and national consumer organizations. The "policy relevance" of consumer research, perceived consequences of information programs, and sources of research data were examined, along with constraints on research utilization in the policy making process.


Steven E. Permut (1979) ,"Research on Consumer Information: Public Sector Perspectives", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 481-487.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 481-487


Steven E. Permut, Yale University


The present study examines public sector perspectives toward research on consumer information (processing, dissemination, etc.). Three respondent groups were selected from seven federal agencies, state-level departments of consumer protection, and national consumer organizations. The "policy relevance" of consumer research, perceived consequences of information programs, and sources of research data were examined, along with constraints on research utilization in the policy making process.


Consumer information programs and other efforts to require full disclosure of product/service information has increasingly attracted the attention of consumer researchers (cf. Ross, 1974; Day, 1976; Wilkie, 1975; Hutton, McNeill and Wilkie, 1978). These researchers bring with them a behavioral orientation to consumer analysis, coupled with a growing sophistication with statistical and computer-based research techniques and methodologies. One common denominator among researchers focusing on consumer information problems is their concern for a systematic, empirical approach to such questions as:

- What is consumer information? Can it be defined and objectively measured? (cf., Chaffee and McLeod, 1973; Hughes and Ray, 1974.)

- Does everyone benefit from increased information disclosure, or do only certain consumer segments benefit from such efforts? (Day and Brandt, 1974.)

- Does information disclosure help the consumer in making "better" or more "correct" buying decisions? Can one say that a consumption choice is really "better" or "more correct" than another choice? (Jacoby, Chestnut, and Silberman, 1976.)

- Is more information better? Or will too much information overwhelm the consumer, yielding dysfunctional consequences? (Jacoby, Speller and Kohn, 1974; Russo, 1974; Wilkie, 1974.)

- How should consumer information be displayed or otherwise communicated to the user? Do "information formats" vary in their ability to convey information more or less effectively? (Bettman, 1975; Russo, Krieser and Miyashita, 1975; Bettman and Kakkar, 1977.)

- Are there any long-term effects to be expected by information disclosure programs? Should such programs require parallel efforts in mounting consumer education programs? (Staelin, 1978; Bloom, 1976; Deutscher, 1973; Walker, Sauter and Ford, 1974.)

These and related questions continue to be raised by researchers addressing consumer information issues. Unfortunately, however, "answers" to these kind of complex questions are not easily resolved. While some progress has been made thus far, and some tentative findings have emerged, it seems unclear to what extent policymakers or consumer advocates will even consider research findings--let alone use such research as part of their overall decision making activities (cf. Wilkie and Greyser, 1974; Wilkie and Gardner, 1974).

This study addresses the likely impact of research on consumer information as it relates to the decision making process of select public and non-profit sector spokesmen. It seeks to provide a comparative index of opinion and attitude toward research evidence as one element of the continuing thrust toward more complete disclosure of information in the consumer marketplace. It seems only reasonable to assume that research evidence that is not used or examined by those people responsible for influencing consumer information programs cannot provide important guidance from which informed perspectives can emerge. Specifically, the following were examined: opinions about consumer information disclosure, opinions about the contribution of research to policy making, perceived consequences of consumer information programs, and sources of information and research data available to policymakers in government and consumer affairs. Implications for more effective use of research dealing with consumer information issues are then discussed.



Three separate respondent groups were identified as important for this study: first, directors or senior staff members of divisions and bureaus of federal agencies involved with consumer information disclosure programs; second, directors or senior staff members in individual state departments of consumer protection (often found within the Office of the State Attorney General); and third, senior spokesmen associated with national consumer organizations and public interest groups. Recourse to several published directories and source books defined an approximate universe of organizations and respondents in each of the three target groups.

Seven federal agencies were considered most active in the area of consumer information programs: Federal Trade Commission; Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; Department of Housing and Urban Development; Department of Transportation; Department of Agriculture; Federal Energy Administration (now the Department of Energy), and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Over one hundred separate state departments of consumer protection when identified, most of which were associated with the State Attorney General's office. Thirty-five consumer organizations and public interest groups were identified as likely to be most active in consumer information efforts, although the extent of involvement, areas of expertise, or other relevant factors could not be determined in advance. The selection did include major national groups that would be likely to represent a reasonably wide sampling of those active in consumer representation efforts.


Questionnaires were sent to 44 individuals specifically identified as directors or senior staff members within the seven federal agencies previously described. In addition, 106 questionnaires were sent to the director or chairman of each state-level consumer protection agency (all states having more than one such agency). Finally, 28 questionnaires were sent to the director of selected national consumer and public interest groups. In all, 178 questionnaires were sent, each accompanied by an individually prepared cover letter requesting cooperation in the study. After two weeks, a reminder postcard was sent to all respondents with a third reminder sent during the following two weeks.


Usable questionnaires were received from 29 (66%) federal agency respondents, 43 (41%) state government respondents, and 17 (61%) national consumer organizations. Thus, an overall response of 89 (50%) was obtained.

How do respondents view consumer information disclosure issues? As shown in Table 1, federal, state, and consumer groups held fairly similar positions on a variety of key issues. Highest agreement was expressed for the proposition that consumer information disclosure is in the public interest, regardless of whether the information is actually used by the consumer. The least amount of agreement was expressed for the position that more research is needed to understand how much information the consumer actually needs. Interestingly, consumer groups expressed the least amount of support for this type of research, while federal policymakers were more inclined to see a need for research in this area. Finally, it appears that concern for possible "information overload" as a consequence of too much disclosure in the marketplace is not viewed as a potential problem among the three respondent groups.

Table 2 illustrates the variation among the opinions held by federal, state, and consumer spokesmen toward the contribution of research to policymakers. In general, these respondents exhibit a clear skepticism, almost a distrust, of research on information disclosure topics.

In fact, about the best that can be said for research in this area is that it "raises new issues or perspectives" for roughly two-thirds of the respondents surveyed. The strongest concern was apparently that respondents see research as not containing explicit policy implication and/or recommendations. All three groups are roughly split on whether research can be applied to the solution of consumer policy questions, perhaps due to the rather negative assessment of what respondents view as lacking in real-world relevance and "actionability."





In terms of the perceived ability of policymakers to judge consumer information needs, it is not surprising that each group views itself as most capable in this regard. In addition, the consumer is perceived as slightly more capable than is business of properly judging the information needed to make an informed buying decision.

What are the expected benefits and consequences of information disclosure programs? Table 3 suggests that respondents from all three groups perceive positive benefits as a result of required information disclosure efforts--ranging from increased consumer sensitivity to nutrition, energy, and related issues, to improvement in the quality of products and competition. At the same time, respondents did not feel that increased product costs nor more limited product choices would result.



Consumer education was viewed as a necessary component of information disclosure programs, although the need for consumer-based research in assessing such efforts was less positive. Interestingly, nearly twice as many respondents at federal level concurred with the need for consumer-based research than was the case with state government or consumer group representatives.

And finally, respondents were asked to indicate their use of selected information sources, particularly those containing consumer-based research related to information disclosure issues. Although the sources listed in Table 4 are necessarily only suggestive of a larger number of similar resource documents available to the respondents, no previous study could be located that sought to index even a simple measure of comparative access and use for consumer research-oriented materials by policymakers. As Table 4 suggests, policymakers in each of the three respondent groups differ widely in terms of access and usage of potentially relevant research information. The Journal of Consumer Affairs, published by the American Council on Consumer Interests, received the highest overall access and usage rate (although federal agency respondents reported roughly half the level of use compared to state and consumer respondents). Perhaps most surprising is the relatively high rating of the Journal of Consumer Research, a relatively new journal published under the joint sponsorship of nearly a dozen professional organizations.

The level of access and usage of professional society proceedings, including attendance at their national meetings, was highest for the American Council on Consumer Interests, followed by the Association for Consumer Research (ACR). Interestingly, 65% of the consumer representatives surveyed indicated at least one "use" of ACR proceedings and/or conferences during the previous 12 months, a finding all the more surprising given the level of technical sophistication normally found among ACR papers and conference meetings.

As one would expect, legal journals and other documents receive the major share of attention for most policy-makers involved with consumer information programs. However, only occasionally do such publications provide consumer-based (or behaviorally-oriented) research information (although see, for example, Davis, 1977).

In terms of access to outside consultative and advisory sources, federal agencies claim the highest level of overall access. However, consumer groups appear to have a higher level of actual usage of professionals from departments of home economics, family economics, and similar areas, than found in state or federal government. Federal agencies report a moderate use of professionals from business and management departments. Whether these professionals were from economics, marketing, or other fields of management was not ascertained.


If one were to offer an overall profile of the perspectives of public sector policymakers toward research on consumer information, the following would emerge from the present study: (1) respondents in the public sector expressed low support for more research dealing with consumer information needs; similarly, no real concern was expressed for the possibility of "information overload" occurring in the marketplace as information disclosure programs become more commonplace; (2) respondents exhibited skepticism toward the contribution of research on information disclosure issues, primarily, it appears, because such research is perceived as lacking explicit policy recommendations, as well as not being particularly "actionable"; and, (3) respondents in federal, state, and consumer categories view their own group (but not others) as being most capable of judging the real information needs of the consumer.



In addition to these findings, all respondents perceived positive benefits associated with information disclosure programs in general, as well as supporting the need for more consumer education efforts at the same time. Public sector respondents surveyed did, in fact, appear to have a moderate exposure to consumer-based research information, claiming access and usage of two well-known research journals along with their respective conference proceedings and/or attendance at one or more of their national meetings. This finding supports observations by Dyer and Shimp (1977), among others, whose research brings them into frequent contact with a variety of government policymakers.

One might reasonably ask at this point why the potential contribution of consumer-based research on information disclosure is not more actively embraced by policymakers. Clearly, the complexity of consumer behavior is not easily accounted for by any single discipline--such as law or economics, the two disciplines most frequently found in the educational backgrounds of our respondents. Yet the respondents surveyed here appeared relatively content to view consumer information policy issues from the primary vantage point of a lawyer or an economist. Why not from a behavioral perspective as well?

Questions of Receptivity

While no single answer to the above question is likely to be satisfactory, it is useful to consider the possibility that lack of consumer research utilization may be due, in part, to the existence of a gap between consumer researchers and policymakers "...due to differences in values, language, reward systems and social and professional affiliations" (Caplan, Morrison and Stambaugh, 1975).

When respondents were asked for their views on the following statement, an average of 73% of all respondent groups "agreed" or "strongly agreed" with the proposition that: "A major factor affecting utilization of consumer-based research on information disclosure is a lack of mutual understanding and interaction between consumer researchers and policymakers." This high level of agreement is congruent with the findings of Caplan, et al., (1975), where 88% of their sample of 204 upper level policymakers in federal government "agreed" or "strongly agreed" with a similar statement related to social science knowledge utilization among policymakers. As the Caplan, et al., report concludes, "The need for reciprocal relations between knowledge producers and knowledge users in policymaking positions is clear, but the problem of achieving effective interaction of this sort necessarily involves value and ideological dimensions as well as technical" (p. 29).

Given the parallel findings of the present study to the results reported by Caplan, et al., two additional questions were posed, each relating to the need for greater familiarity with the policy making process on the part of consumer researchers. Respondents were first asked to indicate their level of agreement with the following: "Consumer researchers won't be able to achieve effective knowledge utilization until they become thoroughly familiar with the policy making process.'' Across all respondents for the present study, 71% "agreed" or "strongly agreed" with this position. This is similar to the 73% agreement expressed by respondents in the Caplan, et al., study (again related to "social scientists" rather than "consumer researchers"). And finally, respondents were asked the following: "Consumer researchers tend to be naive about the political feasibility of the utilization of their findings." Sixty-nine percent of all respondents "agreed" or "strongly agreed" with this position; this compared with 78% of those respondents in the Caplan, et al., study.

Constraints on Research Utilization

Beyond the issues raised above, receptivity to consumer research on the part of policymakers must take explicit account of at least four interrelated factors that serve to constrain research utilization (cf. Weiss, 1976). These are:

1. Limitations of the research: including timing of the study (Hutton, McNeill and Wilkie, 1978); insufficient external validity (Wilkie, 1977), including issues of task environment, measures, and stimulus vehicles; inappropriate attention to demand characteristics (Sawyer, 1975); limited utility and generalizability to relevant population segments (Permut, et al,, 1976); and, perhaps unavoidably, the problem of inconclusiveness of findings (either alone or in comparison to other studies).

2. Policy system obstacles: "system obstacles" faced by consumer researchers include unseen but real ongoing and reciprocal relationships with their counterparts in other agencies, legislators, professional staffs, client groups and others that compete for consideration in policy formation and recommendation. Further, policymakers may be looking for answers (preferably inexpensive solutions) that please the most people with the least disruption of the status quo. But perhaps the most important constraint herein is simply the universal assumption among researchers that policy decisions are "made" by some identifiable "decision maker." However, as Weiss (1976) points out, "Much policy doesn't seem to be made by a set of identifiable decision makers or by logical-rational procedures that could even take research into account" (p. 226). This argument becomes all the more important when viewed against the often-heard caveat that " is absolutely imperative that the researcher be in constant touch with policymakers to learn what their problems are and what types of research are most appropriate" (Wilkie and Gardner, 1974, p. 46).

3. Communication obstacles between researchers and policymakers: beyond the obvious problems created by "social science prose" for readers without social science research backgrounds, communication obstacles can be raised by inattention to translation of sophisticated models and analytic techniques into meaningful information for those trained in other disciplines. While technically-sound consumer research may follow narrative patterns of relevance to the research community, it will not be useful to non-researchers in this form. This includes, for example, greater attention to the order of presentation: government policymakers typically receive (and therefore expect) reports with recommendations and alternatives presented before the background and analytic discussions--the reverse of consumer research style.

4. Different "world views" of problem solving and decision making: including, under this broad umbrella, disparities in basic values and objectives, an "advocacy" tradition among policymakers, and differences in emphasis placed on "logic and rationality" versus "tradition and experience." Accordingly, for research that conflicts with intuitively held assumptions and expectations, policymakers may well prefer to rely on other, more personal, data. In addition, some argue that research utilization in government decision making is often to support a predetermined position. Rather than mere "fact gatherers," policymakers inhabit a world of political reality that serves to mediate the potential impact of any research study, just as researchers inhabit another reality. Similar differences among private sector managers and management scientists have also been recognized in terms of research utilization, leading Hammond (1974) to argue that researchers must offer a form of "personalized rationality" that takes into consideration the needs and views of the decision maker toward the problem at hand.


On balance, it would appear that the effective use of consumer research by policymakers dealing with issues of consumer information can be enhanced on a number of dimensions. Foremost among these, it would seem, is an increase in interaction with, and a greater understanding of, policymakers and the policy making process. The expectation is clearly that greater interaction is the responsibility of the researcher, for as Wilkie and Gardner (1974) have noted, "public policy regarding consumer behavior is going to be made, with or without research evidence" (p. 46). Furthermore, in terms of consumer-based research on information issues, such as full disclosure of comparative product characteristics, labeling requirements, consumer education campaigns, and the like, greater efforts must be made by the research community to deal with and monitor the perceptions (or misperceptions) held by public policymakers concerning the potential relevance of research to the policy making process. Research on information processing of policy-makers themselves cannot continue to be overlooked if the desire to achieve policy relevance for consumer research is to be rapidly gained.


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Steven E. Permut, Yale University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06 | 1979

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