An Exploratory Study of the Evolution of the Negative Image of Personal Selling

ABSTRACT - An exploratory study of $the origins and evolution of a negative image of personal selling was undertaken among elementary, junior high and high school students using focus groups. The results suggest differences in the image of personal selling related to the age, sex, socio-economic status and past experiences of subjects.


John J. Painter and Richard J. Semenik (1979) ,"An Exploratory Study of the Evolution of the Negative Image of Personal Selling", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 641-644.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 641-644


John J. Painter, University of Utah

Richard J. Semenik, University of Utah


An exploratory study of $the origins and evolution of a negative image of personal selling was undertaken among elementary, junior high and high school students using focus groups. The results suggest differences in the image of personal selling related to the age, sex, socio-economic status and past experiences of subjects.


A prejudice against marketing erupted several years ago, fueled by highly publicized and widely read manuscripts (Caplovitz, 1968; Packard, 1957). "Society honors those who build a better mousetrap, but suspects those who market mousetraps better." (Steiner, 1976). A more specific prejudice can be identified when personal selling as an activity and a career is considered (Crossley, S-D Surveys, 1962; Ditz, 1967; Spaulding, 1965; Smith, 1962; Staunton, 1958).

An early survey of male college students found only 1 in 17 willing to try selling (Crossley, S-D Surveys, 1962). Three-quarters of the students considered selling at best only a job, at worst a racket, while only one-quarter considered selling as a professional career. A more recent survey of high school students suggests the image of selling has not changed significantly (Sales Management, 1973).

It would appear that the image of personal selling suffers in terms of security, prestige, and financial rewards (Crossley, S-D Surveys, 1962). The image of the salesman is illustrated by a statement by Ditz (Ditz, 1967), "Being 50 years old and only a salesman reflects unfavorably both on his competence and on his status."

Personal selling, in an applied sense, has distinguished itself in our economic system. Business expenditures on personal selling are estimated at $105 billion for 1977, and represent about three times the annual expenditures on advertising. The tremendous range of salaries in personal selling suggests there are many high level positions in the field. Many of the significantly important positions in personal selling are in industrial selling, an area to which the majority of the populace has little exposure. The marketing discipline's current view of the professional salesman is one of a "problem solver." This is a characterization that does not appear to be part of the general public's view of the profession. Consequently, the very strong possibility exists that many capable people are not considering this challenging professional opportunity since professional salespeople are suffering from an undeserved image.


Despite the available documentation of a poor image of personal selling, there is not an identification of the origins or evolution of such an image in our society. No one would suggest the negative attitude is an inherited phenomenon, but when does it begin? When the attitude begins, its origins, dimensionality and evolution through time are useful questions to investigate. Further, as the role of women continues to change, it may be relevant to consider a difference in attitudes toward personal selling between the female and male populations. Economic background may also contribute significantly to personal selling's image as lower economic classes may view the profession as an improvement in status (Ditz, 1967).

In order to investigate the origin, evolution and nature of the negative attitude toward personal selling, a two-stage investigation was designed. The first stage is an exploratory effort using focus group interviews to investigate attitudes among boys and girls of different ages and having different economic backgrounds. The results of this first stage are reported in this paper. The results of the current study provide useful insights regarding the influences on the attitude toward selling and its evolution as children grow up. Further, the focus group technique of the first stage provides useful insights for developing a more quantifiable investigation in the next stage of the study.


Focus group interviews was the method selected for this stage of the research. First, the exploratory nature of the focus group technique provided insights for further investigation of the area. Second, the desire for qualitative information, at this point, dictated an in-depth technique. Given a focus group approach to data generation, however, the generalization of results is limited (Calder, 1977).

Three criteria were considered in selecting participants for the focus groups: age, sex, and economic background. Age was considered in an attempt to gain insights regarding the point in the life cycle when a negative image of personal selling seems to emerge. Further, it provided the opportunity to identify changes in the nature of the image at different stages in the life cycle. Schools in the public school system of a large city agreed to allow their students to participate in taped discussions of career alternatives. Four age categories of students were defined by grade levels: grades 1-3, grades 4-6, grades 7-9 and grades 10-12. It was believed that students in each of these grade categories would be relatively similar in age and maturity. Participants in each focus group were drawn from a single grade category.

In order to consider a difference in attitude stemming from sex differences, half the focus group participants in each grade category were male and half were female. Each focus group, however, was restricted to strictly male or strictly female participants. The interviewer in the all male groups was male and in the all female groups the interviewer was female.

Socio-economic status was the third factor upon which the sample was partitioned. An elementary school, a junior high school and a high school in parts of the city judged to be of low socio-economic status were selected as sources for one-half of the group participants. Schools of these three types were also chosen in parts of the city judged to be high socio-economic areas and constituted the source for the other half of the group subjects. As discussed earlier, socio-economic status was hypothesized to be a contributing or influencing factor to the image of selling. In light of this belief, the participant pool was established to isolate the variable.

Use of the three partitioning factors of age, sex, and socio-economic status resulted in sixteen different focus groups (see Figure 1). There was a total of 88 student participants in thc study. No focus group consisted of less than four or more than seven subjects. Each group was purposely kept small in order to reduce the chance of individual participant intimidation due to large group size.



Each discussion leader (interviewer) was given an identical list of questions or topics to be discussed during the taped session with each group. Discussion leaders were instructed not to vary from the prescribed order of questions or topics listed, but were permitted to probe relevant issues not included on the schedule that might arise during the session. The questions used in the focus group and their order were as follows:

What do you want to be when you get out of school? what would you not want to be when you get out of school?

What do you think marketing is?

What do you think personal selling is?

What kind of people do you think are in personal selling? How does selling compare with other jobs?

Do you think there are different kinds of selling?

How do you feel about the different kinds of selling?

Why do you think you feel the way you do about selling?

Have you ever done any selling?

How did you feel about it?

What does your father do for a living?

Does your mother work? What kind of work does she do?

What would your parents' reaction be if you became a salesperson?

What is your overall opinion of selling and salesmen?

Each discussion leader attempted to induce participation from every subject in order to obtain opinions from each. A focus group session lasted from 45 minutes to just over one-hour.


Given the purpose of attempting to identify factors that contribute to the negative image of personal selling, results will be discussed regarding what appear to be two dominant influences: demographics and experience. Differences in the image of personal selling were related to the sex, age, and socio-economic variables used to partition the participant group. Further, the subjects' direct personal experience with selling and family experiences with salesmen also emerged as contributing factors. Finally, the type of selling task emerged as an overall consideration with regard to participant's image of the task.


Age. As one of the variables hypothesized to be related to the development of the image of personal selling, age exerted only a minor influence. It would appear, however, that there did exist a consistently negative progression of image as age increased. The major influence on the attitude seemed to be strongly related to personal experience. While the experience variable will be discussed later, participant responses over the four age categories suggests two influences related to age. First, it can be speculated that as the participants aged, they were more subject to direct contact with salespeople. That is, with the progression through childhood, through adolescence, to young adulthood, they became the primary target for certain personal selling efforts. When participants reached an age when they became the direct target of personal selling, most indicated they found the experience unpleasant.

A second factor related to age was participants' greater commitment to what they perceived to be the nature of the personal selling task. That is, older participants believed they had an accurate perception of what personal selling entailed and indicated that the low pay, great amount of travel, and lack of challenge in the job made it undesirable Also related to a "knowledge" element of age, the younger participants perceive salesmen as people who "helped" other people. Older subjects did not perceive salesmen as an aid, but rather a hindrance to shopping.

Sex. The male and female participants did reveal some differences in the nature of their respective attitudes toward personal selling. Females were far more subject to parental veto of a career in personal selling. With only one exception, female participants indicated that their parents would not want them to take a job in personal selling. Conversely, only one-half of the male participants indicated that their parents would not want them to have a career in personal selling.

A second influence on the negative attitude that varied according to sex was personal experience. Female participants indicated a far greater number of positive and rewarding experiences selling than males. Citing tasks such as selling girl scout cookies, seed packets, and candy, females revealed a more pleasant reception and overall more positive experience than males. The number of such personal experiences in selling was very nearly equal between male and female subjects.

A third element that emerged related to sex was the general perception of selling. Females more often mentioned a "lack of prestige" in personal selling as a deterrent to pursuing the profession. Males, on the other hand, only rarely mentioned prestige or status and viewed poor financial rewards as the greatest drawback to personal selling. This discovery supports and lends greater clarity to the conclusions of the Crossley survey discussed earlier (Crossley, S-D Survey, 1962).

Socio-Economic Status. Partitioning the participants in this fashion provided some interesting results. The amount of direct selling experience differed appreciably between the high and low socio-economic groups. Participants from low income areas of the city were more likely to have engaged in the childhood sorts of selling activities than their high income counterparts. Due to the negative effect of personal experience, this resulted in greater negativism among the low income participants.

Children from the low income area also perceived greater support from their parents should they choose personal selling as a career. This finding tends to support speculation that low socio-economic classes may view personal selling as an elevation in status (Ditz, 1967).

An interesting phenomenon was identified among the higher socio-economic groups relating to person-perception of those in the selling profession. Subjects frequently stated they perceived salespeople as uneducated and the type of people who could simply not find another job. Further, statements relating to dishonesty in personal selling were restricted to the higher income group participants. The precise origin of this element of negative image was hard to locate. Aside from a few experiences with high pressure door-to-door salesmen, no consistent input was identified.


Direct Personal Experience. As eluded to in previous discussions, participant's direct personal experience was an important input to the image of personal selling. While the very young subjects (grades 1-3 and some subjects in grades 4-6) tended to have a reasonably positive experience selling, the effect deteriorated rapidly with age. The participants indicated several aspects of their experiences that made them unfavorably disposed toward selling. First, the exclusively door-to-door nature of their task exposed them to several unpleasantries: doors slammed in their faces, vicious dogs, and neighbors pretending to not be at home. Further, there were at least two elements of the reward structure that discouraged those who had tried selling. Most of their efforts were performed for very low pay. In addition to low pay (or none at all in the instance of organizational efforts), many of their selling experiences were related to "contests". That is, the person selling the most would win a skateboard or tennis racket. Since there was typically only one "winner", most of those trying personal selling found their efforts unrewarded.

There was some variability among participants' experiences with in-store sales personnel. Many of those interviewed indicated a positive and pleasant experience. Others (and the majority) related experiences whereby they felt they were ignored and/or treated rudely. The possibility exists that in-store personnel do not view young consumers as high potential prospects and therefore do not attend to them as customers as carefully as they do older shoppers.

Family Experiences. Family experiences were of two basic types: parents' or relatives' employment in personal selling and contact with door-to-door salesmen. Consistent with Ditz's findings discussed earlier (Ditz, 1967), lower income participants thought their parents or relatives who were in selling held a good job. Relative to their peers who revealed their parents were manual laborers or unemployed, personal selling (in their minds) was clearly superior. Higher income subjects (with only one exception) did not have parents employed in selling. Doctors, lawyers, and government officials dominated the employment status of the group. In light of this, the higher income subjects related more to family experiences with door-to-door salesmen.

Regardless of socio-economic status, sex, or age, participants consistently relayed negative experiences with or attitudes toward door-to-door salesmen. The examples of a negative contact used by those interviewed could be predicted. From both personal contact and the encounters they witnessed parents having, participants indicated great disdain for salesmen of vacuum cleaners, encyclopedias, magazines and other "cold call" sales approaches. Participants indicated their parents had criticism of these sales people, instructed them not to answer the door, or witnessed their parents not answering the salesman's call. Telephone sales were also cited in this category, but to a lesser degree.

Type of selling. Across all types of participants in the study, the image of personal selling varied consistently depending upon the type of selling discussed. In general, participants viewed real estate, automobile and in-store selling more positively. Door-to-door selling was categorically dismissed as an activity that was neither praiseworthy or feasible for consideration as a career. In conjunction, it is interesting to note that when the straightforward question "What is personal selling?" was asked, participants immediately related to the door-to-door task. This is relatively easy to explain. As stated earlier, the more sophisticated types of selling activities (industrial, wholesale, etc.) are beyond the range of experience of the general public. Since participants had little experience with two of the three types of selling viewed positively (real estate and automobile) and since the third positive type (in-store) provided them with generally negative input, the type of selling influence on image was generally negative. This, coupled with the overall negative experience with door-to-door selling, seems to provide for much of the negativism toward personal selling.


The variables isolated in the current study provide some meaningful inputs to the understanding of the evolution and origin of a negative image toward personal selling. In general, results of the focus group interviews suggest:

1. A progression from childhood through young adulthood provides for more negative encounters with salesmen due to lack of in-store sales assistance. Further, the older participants were subject to less rewarding personal experiences in their own selling efforts.

2. Females perceived little parental support for choosing personal selling as a career.

3. Participants from lower socio-economic backgrounds perceived more prestige in personal selling. Their counterparts from higher socio-economic backgrounds, however, downgraded the profession from a financial rewards standpoint. Further, the amount of direct experience with actually selling varied by background and contributed more negative input to the lower class' image.

4. Both family and personal experience contributed heavily to the negative image. Parents' experience with salesmen and participants' own experience was viewed negatively. One exception to the general conclusion was lower socio-economic groups' pride in a parents' or relative's employment in selling.

5. The type of selling encountered by participants contributed both negatively and positively to the image. Door-to-door selling had the greatest negative effect while real estate sales was more positively received.

The current study provided results which identify meaningful elements of the negative image of personal selling. There is no attempt or especial need to try to generalize the findings of this study (Calder, 1977). Rather, the exploratory approach taken here was intended to clarify the nature of the negative image of selling and provide direction for continued research in this area.


Bobby J. Calder, "Focus Groups and the Nature of Qualitative Marketing Research," Journal of Marketing Research, 14 (August, 1977), 353-364.

David Caplovitz, The Poor Pay More (New York: The Free Press, 1967).

Crossley, S-D Surveys, Inc., "Selling is a Dirty Word," Sales Management, 89 (October 5, 1962), 44-47.

Crossley, S-D Surveys, Inc., "People Shouldn't Be Forced to Buy," Sales Management, 89 (October 19, 1962), 44-47.

Crossley, S-D Surveys, Inc., "Salesmen are Prostitutes," Sales Management, 89 (November 2, 1962), 46-54.

Gerhard W. Ditz, "Status Problems of the Salesman," MSU Business Topics, 2 (Winter, 1967), 68-80.

Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders (New York: Pocket Books, Inc., 1957).

Editors, "Selling? I Never Thought About It!" Sales Management, 110 (April 2, 1973), 46.

Wendell R. Smith, "The Role of Selling in Modern Marketing,'' Emerging Concepts in Marketing, William S. Decker (ed.), Chicago: American Marketing Association, (Winter, 1962), 174-184.

G. E. Spaulding, "Are We Downgrading Salesmen?" Management Review, 54 (April, 1965), 63-64.

Donald J. Staunton, "A Survey of Public Attitudes Toward Selling as a Career," Management Review, 47 (March, 1958), 9-13.

Robert L. Steiner, "The Prejudice Against Marketing," Journal of Marketing, 40 (July, 1976), 2-9.



John J. Painter, University of Utah
Richard J. Semenik, University of Utah


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06 | 1979

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


How Numeric Roundness Influences Probability Perceptions

Julio Sevilla, University of Georgia, USA
Rajesh Bagchi, Virginia Tech, USA

Read More


A Phenomenological Examination of Internet Addiction: Insights from Entanglement Theory

Mohammadali Zolfagharian, Bowling Green State University
Atefeh Yazdanparast, University of Evansville
Reto Felix, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, USA

Read More


C4. The role of attachment to a human brand in improving eating habits

Amélie Guèvremont, École des Sciences de la Gestion, UQAM

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.