Empirical Consumer Research in the Federal Republic of Germany: the Research Projects of the Federal Department of Research and Technology

ABSTRACT - The paper gives a comparative survey on topics, hypotheses and practical relevance of seven application-oriented projects of empirical consumer research. Six of the projects are promoted by the Federal Department of Research and Technology (FDRT). They are organized according to a model of multidisciplinary joint research. This model as well as background and preliminaries of the FDRTs' initiative concerning consumer policy are subject of an introductory chapter. The report ends up with some reflections on the connections between consumer policy and technology policy, a topic the research teams are bound to consider within the framework of their research on overlapping questions.


Gunter Schoppe and Christine Czerwonka (1980) ,"Empirical Consumer Research in the Federal Republic of Germany: the Research Projects of the Federal Department of Research and Technology", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 66-76.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 66-76


Gunter Schoppe, University of Frankfurt/Main

Christine Czerwonka, University of Frankfurt/Main

[The authors are members of the Coordinating Team established by the FDRT to counsel the research projects of the promotion program 'Empirical Consumer Research'.]


The paper gives a comparative survey on topics, hypotheses and practical relevance of seven application-oriented projects of empirical consumer research. Six of the projects are promoted by the Federal Department of Research and Technology (FDRT). They are organized according to a model of multidisciplinary joint research. This model as well as background and preliminaries of the FDRTs' initiative concerning consumer policy are subject of an introductory chapter. The report ends up with some reflections on the connections between consumer policy and technology policy, a topic the research teams are bound to consider within the framework of their research on overlapping questions.


In summer 1976 the FDRT announced the establishment of a Promotion Program 'Empirical Consumer Research' within the framework of its' activities in the area of applied social science. It published a catalogue of nine topics [In particular: (1) organizational alternatives of the representation of consumers' interests; (2)consumer protection; (3) effectiveness of information strategies; (4)representation of consumers' interests in public bodies, (5) in the administrative process and (6) in decision-making of public suppliers; (7) consumer policy concerning public goods; (8) effects of advertising; (9) interdependence among consumer policy and other political areas.] each of which were to embrace a comparatively broad spectrum of research areas, with the intention to get definite offers for concretely specified projects to be elaborated within a four years' period by qualified and interdisciplinary oriented research teams.

At the end of 1977 six projects out of more than 40 proposed projects have been selected after a rather extensive process of decision-making. Two at a time investigate either questions as to the effectiveness of consumer information, chances of alternative consumer organizations, and problems of taking into account consumers' interest in the political administrative system. [Titles of the projects as well as names and addresses, cf. appendix, No. 2-7.]

Even though it has turned out to be only a selection of three out of originally nine-problem areas--according to the call these fields have been given high importance as to their scientific as well as socio-political features--this program is, as far as government promotion of consumer research in the FRG is concerned, an outstanding project of unique significance.

However, its' initiation can hardly be understood when considering the circumstances of the years 1976/77, because in those years only problems of economic growth and of full-employment dominated in achieving public attention (Federal Government 1976). Thus it seems more realistic to start from the fact that this incentive for research is mainly a mere reflex of the lively discussion and the reformatory intentions of the previous years. Both, increased priorities for consumers' interests and the insight into the need for economic and social changes, had a common starting-point in the critical reflection on the achievements of the 'Wirtschaftswunder' in the sixties and consequently, a stronger sensitivity regarding mistaken developments in the consumer markets as well as negative symptoms concerning economic progress (cf. e.g. Mishan 1969) had occurred.

A first reaction of the political system has taken place in 1969 when a voluminous program of social reforms and strengthened efforts to render translucent problem areas as well as the search for adequate instrumental knowledge were proclaimed by the new government of Brandt/Scheel (Federal Government 1969). One of these efforts has become evident by the setting up of the 'Commission on Economic and Social Change' which was constituted in 1971 of respectively five representatives of employers and trade unions as well as of seven scientists. This commission--similar to the 'National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress' (1966) appointed by President Johnson--was charged to report on the implications of technological, economic and social developments in order to show possibilities of influencing technological and social change in the West-German economy, and of demonstrating in how far economic and technological progress in a market economy can be promoted by means of policy in accordance with human needs (Komission 1977, p. 4).

In an effort to fulfill this task, the commission has started to work out a complex program, covering nearly all areas of economic and social policy. For the realization of this program the commission ordered 144 studies (Kohn 1976) which were to investigate the state of knowledge, to close gaps of information, and to give incentives for the solution of problems. Within the framework of these activities a research project on consumer policy, which was to collect problems as well as to comprise a catalogue of 'white fields' in research had already been ordered very early. This study which was conducted by Scherhorn and his team has been completed in 1973 (Scherhorn 1975) and has served as a base for the conception of further, more specified projects on consumer-relevant subjects. These studies, [Weser (1976); Lederer and Mackensen (1975); v. Schweitzer and Pross (1976); Heckhausen (1976); Reich, Tonner and Wegener (1976); Wieken (1976); Blume, Mnller and R÷per (1976); R÷per (1976); Czerwonka, Sch÷ppe and Weckbach (1976).] however, have not achieved the expected results because they only partly have contributed to overcome information gaps, but as a whole finally there have been more controversies and open questions than could have been anticipated after the Scherhorn study.

Still before the commission had presented its final report [The final report--an English summary is published by Kohn and Latzelsberger (1977)--had been presented at the end of 1976 after several extensions. Though there had considerable surplus-time been investigated, the report had failed to fulfill the expectations and consequently a positive echo by the public and by policy has been missing.], which also included some advice on consumer policy, the FDRT had initiated own research activities, partly to obtain answers to specified questions of economic and social change, partly to get information on research requirements to overcome social deficiencies. The outcome of one of these initiative steps is a pilot-study by Biervert, Fischer-Winkelmann, Koehler, and Rock (1977) that had been worked out to prepare a promotion program for application-oriented empirical consumer research. In this study--presented at the beginning of 1976--the authors have given a survey on deficits in the area of consumer research. Although considering the studies of the Commission on Economic and Social Change, they started from a background which was--compared to the Scherhorn study (1975)--broader and deeper and this in turn has lead to the development of a catalogue of 43 specified research projects (Biervert et al. 1977, pp. 217-222). It also includes a series of topics which transcend the area of those subjects that normally are known by the term 'consumer policy'.

Though this catalogue has been shortened--in particular for reasons of financial restrictions-- the principle of a combination of 'traditional' and 'transcending' topics has never been abandoned. And hereby an opportunity for a better empirical foundation of non-'normal' approaches (in the sense of Kuhn 1973) had resulted. Provided this chance is effectively turned to advantage, the discussion on consumer policy in the FRG might become revived for a long period. Furthermore, it is quite new in Germany to institutionalize a dialogue among differing approaches--right from the early beginning of the research process--by a concept of 'joint research' which has been developed by the FDRT and had already been put into practice in other promoted programs, even if this dialogue takes place solely for a restricted public, namely of the projects and representatives of consumer policy. This construction has been chosen to integrate the separate contributions quite early in a complex connection. A further reason is rooted in the intention to secure a close dialogue too with scientists and experts whose critical impulses would normally not been sought. As discussion processes of this kind need an actively mediating institution, a coordinating team [For address cf. appendix, No. 1] had been established which has defined its' tasks not only in a formal coordination of the individual projects, but which intends to go further in initiating and intensifying constructive cooperation among the specific project-teams. This implies that it attempts to create a climate that contributes to the effect of expressing and perceiving criticism not as a reciprocal disqualification, but as an aid. Furthermore, the coordinating team has to carry out its own research on overlapping topics and reveal results in bilateral as well as in plenary discussions.


In the presented report we attempt to elucidate a comparison on the individually featured topics and their corresponding favored solutions. In trying to realize this attempt, we have chosen a representation that pictures the most significant strategies of problem solving where we have started from relatively narrow-cut queries and continue to finally tackle the more general ones. Here it becomes evident that three out of six projects declare the classical instrument of consumer policy, namely 'information', to be their main object of analysis. Two further projects consider the traditional problem of consumer organization, however, here they try to choose quite unusual paths. A last project examines the question of the preconditions for a more adequate perception of consumer problems in the political-administrative system, a question which up to now has been neglected in the area of consumer research. To supplement our survey, we will report on an analysis not promoted by the FDRT which concentrates on problems akin to the information-projects of the promotion program [In the following, called 'Frankfurt' project; for title and address cf. appendix, No. 8.]

Project 'Mannheim': Product Test Effects Upon Suppliers and Consumers

[The projects will here be named accordingly to the respective city where the research teams reside and a key word. For exact title and address cf. appendix.]

Object of the analysis, concerning the project 'Mannheim' is the instrument 'neutral product test information' and in this context above all the activities of the 'Stiftung Warentest'. [The 'Stiftung Warentest' is the biggest product test institution in W. Germany. It is partly supported by public funds and publishes a monthly 'test' magazine.] An investigation on the use and the effectiveness of product test information is of primary importance in this project that intends to elucidate negative effects and deficits in the effectiveness and to explain them. Based on this, suggestions for improving product test information finally have to be found and here the scope of possibilities for rendering the consumer more sensitive for overall societal targets--like the protection of resources and environment--ought to be tested.

The original idea of this research intention is the reflection that an analysis of effectiveness must not exclusively be restricted to the sphere of consumers in so far as product tests not only influence the quality of consumers' decisions as well as more far reaching consumers' conduct (e.g. complaining and bargaining behavior), but they also alter the market challenges for the suppliers. These facts in turn finally have retroactive effects on the market supply, via anticipation and reaction behavior of the offers, and perhaps even via changes of the market structures. Thus, in contrast to comparable analysis (cf. esp. Thorelli, Becker and Engledow 1975) the intended investigation of effects not only is restructured to a sub-system of 'consumers', but is integrated into the overall system-interrelation of market and competition. This implies an approach that correspondingly demands the development of a set of indicators capable of comprising the relevant interrelation of effects.

The project team attempts to solve this problem by deriving indicators separately for the sphere of consumers and producers respectively and by facts that border the consumers' interests either in a positive or a negative way. [As facts of this kind in the sphere of consumers are regarded the impacts of test reports, e.g.,-on reflection, transparence, arousal and guiding of needs and demands, -on market transparence and the support of buying decisions, -on the realized price--and quality level, as well as -on buying--and consumption behavior that is conscious of resources and environment. Whereas in the suppliers' sphere above all changes of the product--and service quality, of the price--and distribution policy as well as of the communication behavior--which all are indicated by either consumer fluctuations or by direct perception of test reports--are of significance.] These indicators are to be checked in the sphere of the consumers, above all with the help of a panel survey (comparison between users and non-users of test information) where the impulse is given by metatest-information. However, in the suppliers' sphere interviews are intended for the empirical check between representatively selected manufacturers and retailers.

For the research steps 'Explanation' and 'Suggestions for Procedures'--subsequent to the measurement of effectiveness--the project team has developed a theoretical framework (Silberer 1979, pp. 50-60) by the two substantial principles guiding behavior, namely 'gratification' and 'capacity'. [By the term 'capacity principle' the fact is sketched that human behavior is prone to more or less strong restrictions due to limited capabilities, information and resources, while the 'gratification principle' assumes that human behavior decisively depends upon the respective expectations of gratifications (rewards and punishments of material or immaterial kind). However, both principles are interdependent in so far as changes in the expectations of gratifications may also lead to changes of the present capacities.] With the aid of this framework the adequate hypotheses for explaining the effectiveness as well as for making suggestions of how to proceed in future concerning the area of product test information are to be found and selected.

As still critical points of the project--in particular in view of its practical application--are to be considered above all

- the problem of the attribution of test effects on individual indicators,

- the problem of an adequate aggregation of partially corresponding effects, as well as

- the problem of forecasting: what is more adequate, a 'pattern prediction' or a prediction of specific economic effects? (cf. Hayek 1967, 1968).

Project 'Frankfurt': Support of Habit Forming in Buying Decisions

An analysis which is of partly competitive--but also of supplementary character at present is the subject of a research-work, accomplished at the University of Frankfurt/M. This project investigates also the use and the effectiveness of product test information and analyses the possibilities of an improved design and a more systematic use of this instrument. Apart from a comparatively restricted orientation of the Frankfurt project--it solely concerns the area of consumers--this project differs from the Mannheim study with respect to the methodological approach and, above all, as to its basic conception.

The Frankfurt team starts by the thesis that habit forming, which is typical for many products, especially for those of daily needs, does not exist per se and is neither specific for certain products nor for certain consumer types, but is normally an outcome of a process of learning by experience. During this learning process the level of consumers' information processing--indicated on the one hand by the amount and on the other hand by the intensity of using product test information--is lowering. As a consequence of habit forming, the development of precise brand attitudes which tend to polarize in preferred brands ('evoked set') and rejected brands ('inept set') and the reduction of perceived risk information processing is shifted from information processing of concept forming information on choice criteria to concept attaining information on brand properties and finally to situative information in price, availability and special offers.

The connection supposed between the intensity of information processing and habit forming and its' normative transformation, according to which the development of routinized buying decisions should not be restricted but ought to be supported by adequate means (cf. Kroeber-Riel 1977), leads to the claim for differentiating consumer information strategies according to distinguished stages of habit forming.

As a base for the generation of hypotheses and measurable theoretical constructs serves the three-phase-scheme of Howard (1969, 1977), who recognizes three phases [Howard distinguishes between EPS-(extensive problem solving), LPS-(limited problem solving) and RRB-(routinized response behavior) phases. Each one of these three phases is characterized by a specific intensity of information search and problem solving extensiveness.] of decision behavior with respect to new commodities. This scheme is regarded by the Frankfurt team as an 'idealtypic' model of a learning process which in reality is continuous and thus interpreted as a process of habit forming and consequently becomes--even more than in the Howard scheme--enlarged by the integration of several approaches of learning theory. [Among other things there is to explore in how far social learning and learning by imitation (Bandura 1977) may contribute to the explanation of habit forming processes.] The empirical test of the model does, in contrast to Howards' idea, not aim at consumer behavior towards product innovations, but its subject is the observation of consumers' behavioral change when they are confronted with new life-situations. The Frankfurt project has selected the event 'birth of the first child' and mothers' purchases within the product groups baby-foods, diapers, and baby's-ointments as area of research.

The selection of the choice-criterion 'first child' is in so far very advantageous as a time wasting research by attending a test-group through the chronological process of habit forming (panel survey) can be renounced in favor of a single cross-section inquiry since the independent variable 'age of the child', which stands for the phase of habit forming, may be represented in all relevant values by means of an adequate choice of respondents.

However, the critical question of this conception is whether the empirical data elucidate distinctly the characteristics of the various behavioral stages of habit forming for a sufficient number of variable in a synchronous manner. This question, which is also of great importance for the further development of adequate consumer information, has substantially been answered in the positive when the Frankfurt team had carried out a pretest of information behavior and purchases in the product group 'baby-foods' (Kaas and Dieterick 1979).

The three-phase-scheme, as indicated above, also plays a role in the second part of the Frankfurt project where the effects of the product test information published in the 'test'-magazine are analyzed. In this part of the study among other things a consumer panel is observed in order to investigate in how far the respondents' stage of habit forming influences information behavior with respect to selected products. The outcomes may possibly contribute to explain the considerable variance of the measured results concerning the dependent variables (use and effects of product test information) in previous studies (Thorelli, Becker and Engledow 1975). If so, this advance would be a consequence of the competitive research of the Mannheim and the Frankfurt team, provided that the results are comparable to some extent, a question that cannot be answered precisely right now since in both projects efficiency indicators and the design of variables are not yet completely defined.

Project 'Hohenheim': Consumer Information on the Base of Perceived Risk

Like the two previously presented analysis, the project 'Hohenheim' too tests the classical consumer-political instrument 'information'. As opposed in particular to project 'Mannheim', this analysis, however, is not restricted to the effectiveness and shaping of a definite medium of information, but moreover it starts somewhat earlier in asking what kind of information the consumers in fact need and with which sort of strategies different kinds of information needs can effectively be satisfied. However, the Hohenheim team even goes one step further in so far as--apart from a mere analysis of effectiveness--the social costs of alternative information strategies too are to be investigated, in order to give an aid for a more economic use of the means that are disposable for consumer information and to base this aid on cost-effectiveness-relationships.

Beyond the additional factors to be clarified the main feature of the project 'Hohenheim' is that the question of consumer information policy is tried to be answered in a substantially new manner. This proceeding has been initiated by the critique that consumer information is said to merely rest on an intuitive image about consumers' information needs (Grunert and Saile 1978, p. 338) in contrast to commercial advertising. Thus, the central problem is to find out ways and means for a satisfactory comprehension of consumers' information needs.

Certainly, there is a parallel connection to the 'Frankfurt'-projects' first part, but finally both projects differ with respect to their chosen background as well as to their normative starting-point. Whereas in the project 'Frankfurt' revealed behavior (habit forming) and the postulate of adequate support is liable to be promoted, in the project 'Hohenheim' there prevails the idea rooted in the liberal tradition that a satisfactory workability of market and competition is based on the fact that the consumers use their privilege of free choice reasonably, i.e., that they act in accordance with their needs and that they effectively too control the offerors' allocation decisions by actively articulating their interests via exit, voice and communication. However, consequently both ideas are based upon the necessary precondition that the consumer is well-informed in an unbiased manner. This endeavour concerns the action alternatives which the consumers may dispose of to satisfy their needs as well as those action-parameters which are at hand to pronounce their individual or collective interest in order to avoid a too rapid adaptation of their needs to the respectively prevailing conditions.

Of course, it is the main objective of any liberal oriented consumer policy to find out the existing information--and correction deficits, but this intention has not yet been put into practice in a satisfactory way, since above all a reference-criterion that supplies corresponding indications is missing in the subjectivistic-utilitaristic concept which constitutes the base of this way of thinking and apart from this lack the consideration of the revealed preferences is hardly of any value.

The 'Hohenheim' project tries to escape from this dilemma by an altered point of view. It thus takes a direction substantially already suggested by Lancaster (1966), i.e., the 'Hohenheim' team does not tie the assessment of information needs to products, but moreover to their inherent qualities. However, the team avoids practical difficulties by copying the idea only to some extent and by not assessing the information needs from a catalogue of positive qualities but from a collection of experienced or potential disappointments, namely risks of unsatisfied needs and risks associated with the purchase of a certain product.

This kind of procedure is not solely based on practical reasons, but too is supported by the convinced realization that information on avoidable risks of an adaptation to producers' decision making is the most suitable way to fulfill the requirements of the postulate that consumer information is not to 'teach' consumers their own interests, but it moreover is to aid them to arrive at a self-determined definition and satisfaction of their interests. And finally, in following this direction, a possibility is likely to arise which eventually effects the development of workable consumer information strategies. The foundation of this thought is that one can refer to a theory--derived from the concept of 'perceived risk' and empirically based--on the information behavior of consumers (Grunert and Saile 1978) according to which risks that are perceived resp. stressed consciously correspondingly provoke specific information needs.

In fact, the practical application of the 'Hohenheim'-concept relies on the presented connection in attempting --by a first analysis step--to assess the total of information needs by the risks perceived after a purchase and to localize the remaining information deficits by a comparison of information given by offerors on the one side and obtainable by in-store conversations on the other side. The potential information needs--defined as the union of all information necessary to reduce the comprised risks--is ascertained here with the aid of semi-standardized consumer-and expert- interviews. [Here not only experts out of the manufacturers' area are to be interviewed, but also journalists, independent experts etc.]

Here at first purchase risks are collected [This collection is worked out by means of interviews with a sufficient number of consumers, determined by the 'point' where further interviews do not lead to additional risks mentioned.] and afterwards checked by consulting experts. Then they are classified by defined categories of the total risk [E. g., functional risks financial risks physical risks, psycho-social risks, ecological risks. These categories cover the total risks to a broad extent.] and are weighed according to their significance, before experts are asked for instrumental information to reduce risks. On the other hand, the available information supply is ascertained by an analysis of the contents of information materials as well as by simulated purchases, where--referring to each individual risk--completeness, validity and ease of comprehension are determined.

A further component of this first research step is an investigation, in how far and from what kind of sources consumers in fact have sought information. The intention to do so results from the targets to test the concept's hypotheses concerning behavior and to get hints for the project team's essential objective in the area of consumer policy, which not solely aims at a compensation of the discrepancies between information needs and supply, but also of those discrepancies between information needs and demand. Correspondingly, not only risk-reducing information shall be presented but also information that arouses risk consciousness. In the course of this research goal the team also comes back to the central hypotheses of the conception of perceived risk, however, the expectation hence derived that it would be possible to increase awareness of risks leading to an intensification of information demand seems to be a critical position [E.g., there are to be mentioned the problems of cognitive dissonance or information overload (Jacoby, Speller and Kohn 1974).] of the project as a whole. It remains to be proved only after the effectiveness analysis of information strategies has been carried out, whether this expectation is a realistic one.

When developing adequate strategies for several objectives of information policy the project team starts from the idea that neutral consumer information should always be a complement to suppliers' information and thus, possibilities of influencing supplier-controlled information are also to be checked. Accordingly, not only strategies like information or advice directed to consumers are to be evaluated but also prohibitions and perceptions aiming at information supply by offerors.

The relevant evaluation criteria are selected with reference to the functions

- promotion of reflections on needs,

- elucidation of purchase risks,

- avoidance and correction of false images, as well as

- instructions on information processing.

With respect to these functions (resp. to several sub-functions, corresponding to the phase of the buying decision process) indicators for measuring effectiveness shall be developed, [The relevant variables are, above all, changes in the level of knowledge and of risk consciousness, risk reduction induced by information, behavioral changes, e.g., readiness for voice.] in order to be able to choose effective strategies according to the specific functions. [In this context in particular group-specific differences shall be indicated and considered.] The fact that the analysis of effectiveness is carried out only by means of simulated buying and decision situations, may be a further critical item of this project.

Subsequent to the analysis of efficiency are the research steps inquiry into social costs of information strategies as well as a cost-effectiveness analysis. In the latter there are to be compared indicated degrees of effects and direct (likely) costs in order to show the most reasonable measures to attain specific effects. The application of this comprehensive conception shall be demonstrated and tested at the example of three complementary goods, namely the complex product 'private motor car', the simple product 'motor car tools' as well as the service 'motor car cleaning'.

Project 'Augsburg': Information Technologies for Citizens and Administration

Project 'Augsburg', the last of the information oriented projects which are to be reported on is in the area of public goods and performances a quasi-counterpart to the Hohenheim investigation. In this study too the research target is to show means for an improved coordination of public supply and individual needs and expectations as well as for an effective articulation of consumers' interests, both also by explicitly considering the specific disparities among social groups. Similar to the Hohenheim project too, this investigation intends to question in how far there are possibilities of an early discovery of deficits in public supply, [Project 'Hohenheim' expects to get hints also for unmet needs as well as product improvements by way of investigating perceived risks.] but it additionally tries to localize and to find out measures for an adequate compensation of deficits in demand.

As a normative background the 'Augsburg' project relates to the postulate of the welfare state--guaranteed in article 20 of the German constitution--that according to a judgment of the Supreme Court also includes a constitutional guarantee of citizens' participation in public performances. From this interpretation the project--referring to the final aims 'equality' and 'liberty'--derives the claim to harmonize the actual supply situation of the citizens and the supply norms on the one hand and supply norms and citizens' needs on the other hand and at the same time to give them (and especially members of underprivileged strata) a better chance for an active co-determination of public activities. Consumer policy in this sense would mean--far beyond its traditional effective range--a cross-section scope which affects nearly each political field.

The project team recognizes the possibilities to come close to these aims above all by the further development and a group-specific differentiated design of information and communication instruments, which up to now are either insufficient or seem to demand too much of consumers' problem solving capacities, but at least are not able to create a satisfactory identification with respect to actual or planned public performances. In order to overcome these lacks as well as resulting deficits in the public transfer system, instruments are to be found and tested which prevent the autonomous development of public supply and moreover are able to motivate citizens to actively influence the bureaucratic process in order to come closer to citizens' sovereignty.

As far as the first aspect--harmonization of supply and expectations of citizens--is concerned it is intended to develop an information technology for the administrative system. In this context, first of all is to be tested in how far a sample of subjective indicators (Index of Citizen Satisfaction; cf. Pfaff 1975) might point at quantitative and/or qualitative deficits and disparities in supply, but otherwise might give hints to lacks in public performance too.

When investigating the second aspect, namely incentives for participation, the intention is to test several information technologies within the framework of the PLANLABOR-technology, in order to inquire into how far they are able to make public planning understandable to concerned people and, above all, to check whether a transformation in adequate information media is capable to lower thresholds of articulation and participation. In this context not only traditional ways of presentation (information leaflets, questionnaires, etc.), open competitions and creativity-games are to be tested, but also static as well as dynamic two- and three-dimensional models [The former can be modified by the citizens, while dynamic models are, above all, model movies that allow a realistic view to the spectators. Although it is not planned to put into practice a kind of model movie simulation--as it is the case at several American research institutes (Appleyard 1977)--these experiences shall be considered.] that allow a constructive co-operation in designing and assessing alternatives (Inifes 1975).

Practicability of and limits to both bundles of instruments are--single or in common--demonstrated and tested by the example of several areas of public performances. In particular these areas are

- infra-structural outdoor recreation resources,

- public transit service (by the example of the planned setup of an urban traffic line),

- health prophylaxis,

- citizen advisory agencies.

The analysis of the effectiveness of information and communication technologies, that is placed in the foreground of this study is essentially based on a model of communicative interaction (Lasswell 1946), enlarged by approaches of learning theory (McGuire 1968; 1968/69), which are the starting point of an operationalization of the relevant interactive connections.

Apart from several methodological problems (e.g. are the research results to be generalized?), the most critical items of the project seem to be implied by the approach itself. The Augsburg conception is oriented towards democratic principles, according to which citizens should not play the role of an object but ought to be subject of the political process and correspondingly the flow in decision making should be directed 'from bottom to top', however the instruments that are suggested to realize this intention must be regarded with certain ambivalence. This reservation results from the paradox that exactly in case the approach should prove its 'effectiveness' there would hardly be a motivation to put it into practice or at least it couldn't satisfactory fulfill its functions. The reasons are that the proposed information media might show very clearly latent conflicts between citizens' demands and authorities' goals or, furthermore, a higher information level might cause an explosion of claims for public goods which cannot be satisfied for reasons of restricted resources. Thus there is a certain danger to create a marketing and manipulation technique to be used by administration instead of being a medium of citizens' participation.

The Projects 'Bonn' and 'Wuppertal': Participation and Critical Discourse

The idea of participation, already emphasized in the Augsburg project, is taken up again by the projects 'Bonn' and 'Wuppertal', but in these cases the aspect of collectively represented interests being of main importance. Both projects are supposed to unveil 'alternative types of organizations for the representation of consumers' interests'. Accordingly both of them are confronted with the same specific problems which are implicitly embodied as soon as an empiric treatment is claimed. Above all these arise, because less application of the already mentioned experimental techniques is possible than it was in the case of the previously discussed projects, for in this context it would be necessary to initiate new types of organizations.

Considering the implied problems of empirical research into alternative possibilities of collective representation of consumers' interests, these analysis usually are confined to the evaluation of experience in different countries or different social sub-systems under the aspect of transferability, or else to give hints for reorganizational measures for well-known, thoroughly evaluated organizations. The projects 'Bonn' and 'Wuppertal' follow these research-strategies, but furthermore they try to go the above mentioned experimental way by testing new models of organizations which originate in existing institutions.

In the pursuit of their common aim of the analysis both of the projects start out from equally perceived symptoms of problems namely the deficient performance of W. German consumers' organizations [The area of consumers' organizations in the FRG is dominated by so-called nonmember organizations (top associations of organizations that are not explicitly consumers' associations, e.g., trade unions, housewives' associations, etc.).] as to their assigned task. These insufficiencies are--among other things--caused by

- orientation towards the middle strata;

- the non-existence of a connection to the basis and therefore absence of legitimation for activities;

- lack of flexibility as far as local developments are concerned, and

- biased orientation towards the traditional role of the consumer.

Apart from this common ground the two projects go different ways. Certainly, they are still supplementary to each other with regard to the organizations of interest drawn into the evaluation, but the therefore chosen points of departure for the research are not identical. There is a competition especially among the respectively favored strategies which are to achieve the--again common to both--supreme goal of more self-determination and self-realization. Project 'Bonn' tries to get there by showing social and institutional conditions which would support improved participation as well as increase the social-oriented activities of people. The starting-point of the project 'Wuppertal' is even one step earlier inasmuch as it not only strives for the erection of an effective countervailing power which is tied to the base, but it even tries to show a way--better than in the market model--towards the state of in fact being 'judge of one's own affairs' which corresponds to liberal norms.

Caused by these different perspectives of problem solving, the project 'Bonn' is mainly focused on the inquiry into possibilities and assumptions for consumer member organizations. The initial thought is that, facing a great number of spontaneous initiatives but also permanent cooperative movements in various fields, the ruling conception of consumers belonging to those groups that cannot be organized and so 'suffer in silence' (Olson 1965), can no longer be maintained in this generalizing manner (cf. Barry 1970). This is even more true, if the prevailing 'narrow' definition of the consumption sphere is abandoned. Such a change of the point of view is supposed to show the fact that there is a growing potential for the actualization of social oriented activities. The social change as pointed out above is said to be caused by two reasons: on the one side people are supposed to increasingly notice the impossibility of realizing many of their interests individually (Offe 1969), on the other side it is assumed that a growing number of people are not employed in industry in a developed capitalist society and therefore are withdrawn from the pressures of socialization which are typical for industrial working conditions and lead towards a shrinkage of altruistic behavior (Gartner and Riessman 1974). According to the project both aspects not only point towards better prospects for self-organized consumer-actions in the future, but they even show relevant starting points for a strengthening of altruistic behavior.

This is the background of the considerations for a research on social potentials for self-organization. The study consists of three main points and intends to develop proposals for alternative types of organizations also including consumers' interests that are partially not yet organized. In a first research step there is the social assimilation of consumers' problems to be analyzed with the help of a historical and intercultural comparison while in a second research field there is to be made a vast inventory of self-organized interest groups (e.g. citizen movements) and cooperative movements (e.g., groups of alternative economics). Especially reasons for the origin and rise of these initiatives, their proceedings and aims, internal structures of decision finding as well as their social and political relevance should be looked for. In the third field of research finally three case-studies are carried out with regard to conditions and effective range of member-organizations concerned with the sphere of dwelling and residential surroundings. This is done in view of the possibilities for the realization of forming this sphere according to one's very needs, for changes of consumers' attitudes as well as for the initiation of the process of social learnings, and--paralleling this--in view of the possibilities of stabilizing a willingness to organize which reaches even further.

In one case this is an evaluation of tenant-associations. In a second case a process of self-organizing of residents of a former housing area of a coal mine in the Ruhr valley which is threatened to be destructed is analyzed. With this especially the reasons which cause underprivileged groups to engage should be examined. From these results the team hopes to receive hints for the third case, the restoration of an old urban residential area in Cologne. This example is to test which kind of external support is possible and necessary in order to initiate and keep going a member organization, including also members of lower social classes, and in how far there can be secured an effective participation. One of the critical points in this research concept might be the fact that--in the latter case--the research team itself shall be one of the activating factors. There already exist examples in the scope of action research (Moser 1975), however, the implied methodological problems (e.g., identification and imputability of influences; Horn 1979) seem to be very severe.

The same problem arises in project 'Wuppertal' too. Here, existing consumer organizations are in a first research block to be evaluated by considering aspects of goals and strategies in order to show possibilities of the further development of member and non-member organizations, but the Wuppertal team additionally aims at an empirical test of a new programmatic conception that has been developed by the team itself (Biervert Fischer-Winkelmann and Rock 1977). This conception is based on the initiation of so-called critical discourses, a model derived from ideas of Habermas (1971) and the 'constructive philosophy of science' of the Erlangen School (Lorenzen and Schwemmer 1975).

The workability of a critical discourse depends both on the observance of certain rules [Thus a critical discourse has to follow three steps of argumentation: historical genesis ('interpretation of culture'), normative genesis ('criticism of culture') and finally suggestions for change ('reform of culture'): furthermore the participants must develop a common speech, they must argue trans-subjectively (argument must be open to methodological check) etc.] and on ideal communication conditions, which must guarantee that conflicts are solved by arguments and not by power. It has to be provided that each participant has an equal chance to set forth his arguments. The aim of a critical discourse is an unanimous consent that represents a 'rational', generally accepted solution.

Discourse models are conceived as a general model of conduct in an ideal society, yet the Wuppertal team starts from the estimation that it is impossible to create ideal communication conditions within society as a whole at the present, since not only individual and collective power relations but also individual behavior patterns prevent the realization of the discourse rules. Thus, they restrict the application of the discourse model to a social sub-system, in this case to consumer organizations in order to learn in how far verbal processing--if according to the discourse rules--is able to bring up a new variation of consumer sovereignty. Starting by an evaluation of about 70 consumer associations in a second research block [Above all it shall be investigated, whether member organizations are not only an organizational but also a qualitative alternative. Criteria of evaluation are substantially: 1. Type of organization (member/nonmember organization, where the organization is regarded as being the more efficient the bigger the chances of members' participation are); 2. Role-orientation (traditional consumer roles vs. multi-role orientation); 3. Social orientation (an organization is judged the more efficient, the more it succeeds in reconciling the connections between social development and daily life). According to this background there should systematically be reconstructed incentives and reasons of constitution, objectives, areas of activities, social environment and internal and external structures of decision-making.] they finally want to test the discourse model by action research within three consumer associations resp. initiative movements.

Research aim as well as way of processing are the reason for the Wuppertal approach being interesting and risky at the same time. It is interesting, since they try to explain and to overcome consumers' central problems in a very comprehensive and unorthodox approach by including as well the consideration of interdependent multi-role conditioning as the references between individual actions and the interactive connections of social (sub-) systems. The Wuppertal approach, however, is risky in so far as action research means a social experiment where researchers and research subjects are in an interactive context, by doing so they alter reality, what lead to the result that causes and effects are not clearly to be judged and thus the chances for a falsification of the hypotheses diminish.

Project 'Duisburg': Chances of Consumer Policy

Project 'Duisburg' that remains to be presented in order to complete our report cannot be tied to the unbroken thread drawing through the projects' sketches up to now, since its topic is not to point out a specific instrumental strategy for consumer policy but an inquiry into the chances of the implementation of consumer policy, or more precisely; of reformatory strategies concerning consumer policy. In the course of this overlapping question the Duisburg project is on the one hand located on the side of the other projects, however, by contributing to assess the chances of their suggestions to be put into practice it also fulfills a kind of service function on the other hand.

Starting-point of this politics-oriented project is a normative framework where among other things

- the priority loss of consumer policy which coincides with economic recession,

- consumer policy's one-sided orientation won from the market paradigm and consequently to a policy that is determined by business cycles,

- the 'incrementalistic' development of consumer policy and the asymmetric consideration of underprivileged groups' interests as well as

- the lack of an independent political field 'consumer policy'

serve as elements for the construction of a claim for an active universal consumer policy, i.e., a kind of policy that is conceived and implemented as an independent and comprehensive activity area by taking advantage of contemporary social dynamics and public discussion among all relevant social groups.

A clarification of the presuppositions and the chances of such a policy is the central aim of the Duisburg study. In doing so the research team wants to test chances and efficiency of especially the following strategies:

1.  (Re-)Unfolding of a normative discussion on a consumer policy that is defined as a social oriented reformatory policy.

2.  Increase of public provision with goods and performances to be used commonly.

3.  Relief of the political-administrative system from supplementary corrections by promoting of self-regulations qua 'voice' (cf. Hirschman 1970).

4.  (Further) development of common (corporate) self-regulation patterns, both in small communities in order to improve consumers' self-articulation and in centralized consumer organizations including all relevant social groups with government's option to intervene.

This test is dominated by the aim to show the political-administrative system's effective range and the possibilities for its enlargement. Thus, on the one hand there exist plans for an analysis of the structural conditions of consumer policy on a nationwide level which shall be carried out at the example of selected decisions since 1969, as well as a more profound inquiry into the perception and transformation of problems of consumers resp. consumer policy by means of five case-studies. [In particular these case-studies are carried out in the fields of the history of origin and rise of the laws concerning -general buying-contract conditions, -rent control and -drug monitoring. Subjects of further case-studies are the re-organization of a consumer advisory board as well as processing in technical standardization.] Both research blocks are aiming at an elucidation of consumer policy within the context of the total of governmental activities, i.e., in particular there are to be demonstrated the ways of problem awareness and problem tackling in connection with actual decision, interest, motivation and resource structures of the political administrative system as well as its objectives and programs in interaction with the system-environment.


As it has already been mentioned the construction of joint research aims at securing the integration of specific contributions to a complex conglomerate of suggestions. According to this fact the research teams of the promotion program "Empirical Consumer Research" have to pursue overlapping questions besides treating the described topics which are specific to the project and besides the coordination of the risen problems. Especially the discussion of reciprocal action of consumer policy and other policy areas belongs into this context, in order to unveil the effects of the proposed measures on different fields of policy.

The promoter assigns high importance to the question of relationships between the business cycle at a certain time and the respective kinds, as well as appearances and developments of consumers' problems perceived by the research teams, and to the question in how far these problems are related to the specific state of employment. This last point has increased in importance at the present because of the continuing recession, for in virtue of the shift of political priorities from reformatory policy towards a policy of securing employment there has not only been a decrease in the political interest as far as consumers and their problems are concerned, but furthermore both initiatives of consumer policy and research in consumer policy which is sponsored by public funds are particularly forced to prove their legitimation by showing that they are able to accomplish some important tasks independently from the stages of business cycles, even in times of economic crises.

This has so far not yet been proved by consumer policy and consumer research. It might be hard to do so because of the ruling conception which is directed towards compensation of deficits concerning the market position of the consumer. According to this conception consumer oriented action in times of recession necessarily has to be pushed into the background in favor of the elimination of deficits in the field of income earning. But just the symptoms of the actual economic crisis seem to show a solution of this dilemma: They reveal the fact that the present economic problems essentially can be traced down to a crisis caused by the structure of the economy which could best be overcome by developing new products that would hit upon unsatisfied potentials of needs. The far-reaching absence of such innovations reveals among other things considerable deficits of information and communication. They are not satisfactorily compensated by firms' market research, and public technology policy as well as practical consumer policy offer but little help.

These are the relationships which last but not least give rise to a reference towards technological developments within the promotion program 'Empirical Consumer Research'. Simultaneously they were the reasons for an analysis of the ability of strategies pursued on the one side and already practiced instruments on the other side for giving hints for unsatisfied needs as well as for possible developments of new (improved) commodities.

More fundamental are the considerations of the coordinating team (cf. e.g., Fleischmann 1977; Czerwonka, Sch÷ppe and Weckbach 1976), which could be summarized as follows:

1.  Actual consumer policy neglects the process of innovation in privately owned as well as in public enterprises. Consumer policy is dominated by the aim to compensate unsatisfactory market performances --under the aspect of static allocative efficiency--essentially by supporting the mechanism of the sanction 'exit'. Thus it can only indirectly and subsequently influence the innovation process.

2.  This orientation of consumer policy, biased towards an isolated consumer role is confronted by supplier-oriented policy of government-promoted R&D, for the latter addresses inventors or inventor teams when a deficit of innovations is perceived. In either one of both cases the relationship to the opposite of the market remains hidden. The decision about new products stays within the industrial system, whereas consumers decide by buying or not-buying if they are willing to accept the new good.

3.  Both action programs substantially are only adequate to situations of comparatively low living standards, when the main objective is to close gaps of supply, i.e., to manufacture well-known products at minimum costs and to take care for a distribution of scarcity. When wealth is growing, the question of which commodities should be produced and of what kind they should be, as well as the question which benefits and risks they might cause become more and more important. These risks now are--in contrast to static situations--distributed more symmetrically and reveal additional unsatisfied information needs on both sides, which--unless they are not met by an improvement of communication between producers and consumers--lead to an obstacle to the innovation of new products.

4.  We can find certain models for an improved information flow between supply and demand in the area of interindustrial relations, where the amount and the ratio of successful innovations are significantly high in those cases where an alert communication had taken place and producer's as well as user's know-how had supplemented each other in a reciprocal dialogue (Freeman 1974, pp. 161-196; Rothwell et al. 1974). These experiences also teach us that hints for product innovations cannot be received by mere interrogation but innovative achievements must also exist at the side of the potential user.

5.  In the industrial area abilities of this kind are promoted by a specialized pursuit of only few production processes. However, a specific manpower-potential is supposed to be found in households too, when regarding them as productive units, that produce the output 'satisfaction of needs' by the input 'consumer goods', 'working time', and 'human capital' (Michael and Becker 1973). It is a fact that consumers do not have sufficient capacities to develop expert's know-how with respect to each consumer good. This knowledge can only be met as far as specific interest is concerned. Consequently, these consumer-experts should be traced down and motivated to an innovative cooperation with producing firms.

6.  This cooperation, however, is hindered--apart from prejudices--by several practical barriers, since for both parties the dialogue does not only cause costs but also represents a public good, i.e., there arise externalities consisting of costs of negotiation and transaction. The benefit of these external effects cannot be internalized without corrective regulations. The concept usually practiced in situations like the one mentioned, namely to internalize externalities via taxes, subsidies, and regulations will be failing in this case. A hint to solve this dilemma has been given by Coase (1960), who favors governmental activities aiming at a lowering of transaction costs.

7.  Coase's advice at least suggests a test of the possibility to destruct obstacles to cooperation and communication by a promotion of negotiations. Used as a supplementary instrument of technology policy this strategy could bring about a more adequate adaptation of technology promotion to consumers' needs and could at the same time be able to improve the implementation of sponsored inventions.

8.  It seems as if not only those negotiation modes deserved promotion which refer to dialogues between firms and households, but this benefits should also be granted to corresponding services of intermediary institutions, which give incentives to consumers' articulation and--taking advantage of group dynamics--reinforce effective discussions in order to localize unsatisfied needs. However, intermediary functions of this kind may not only be a task of consumer organizations but also of market research (cf. Czerwonka et al. 1976, pp. 222-243).



[Project-Code, Subjects, Name and Address of the Research-Teams]

1.  Leitinstitut

Coordination of the FMRT-promoted projects of empirical consumer research

Forschungaverbund Empirische Verbraucherforschung

UniversitSt Frankfurt/M. Schmannstrasse 60; D-6000 Frankfurt/M.

2.  Mannheim

On the efficiency of product-test information in the consumers' and offerors' sphere.

Forschungsgruppe Konsumenteninformation

UniversitSt Mannheim

Tattersallstrasse 2; D-6800 Mannheim

3.  Hohenheim

Strategies of consumer information: a comparative analysis

Lehrstuhl fnr Konsumtheorie und Verbraucherpolitik

UniversitSt Hohenheim

Postfach 106; D-7000 Stuttgart 70

4.  Augsburg

Consumer policy in the area of public goods.

International Institut fnr Empirische Sozial÷konomie

Haldenweg 32; D-8901

5. Bonn

Organizational alternatives of representing consumer interests.

Studiengruppe Partizipationsforschung

Weberstrasse 118; D-5300 Bonn

6. Wuppertal

Organizational alternatives of representing consumer interests.

Arbeitsgruppe fnr Verbraucherforschung und

Verbraucherpolitik; Gesamthochschule Wuppertal

Gauss-Strasse 20; D-5600 Wuppertal 1

7. Duisburg

Political decision processes and the consumer interest: possibilities to improve the consumers' position.

Forschungsgruppe Verbraucherpolitik

Gesamthochschule Duisburg

Holteistrasse 70; D-4100 Duisburg

8. Frankfurt  [Not promoted by the Federal Department for Research and Technology; reported as a project complementary to the Mannheim project.]

Habit forming in consumers' buying behavior and the role of consumer information.

Professur fnr Marketing

UniversitSt Frankfurt/M.

Senckenberganlage 31; D-6000 Frankfurt/M.


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Gunter Schoppe, University of Frankfurt/Main
Christine Czerwonka, University of Frankfurt/Main


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07 | 1980

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