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Using content analysis to understand the consumer movement.

Using Content Analysis to Understand the Consumer Movement

Although the consumer movement has been a topic of continuing interest to many consumer researchers, the movement has been the focus of little empirical research. Social movements are not easy phenomena to study using empirical approaches, and the result has been that much of the writing about the consumer movement has been either conceptual or journalistic. The few relevant empirical studies have consisted primarily of surveys designed to examine aspects of consumer discontent in the United States. This kind of research can add only limited insights to our understanding of the consumer movement. One research approach that has been used in sociology to study social movements is content analysis (Jenkins and Perrow 1977; Perrow 1979), and this type of analysis is used here to examine the dynamics of the consumer movement over a fourteen-year period.


The consumer movement has been described as the "evolving activities of government, business, independent organizations, and concerned consumers undertaken to protect and enhance the rights of consumers" (Aaker and Day 1978, p. 2). In the United States over the last thirty years, the consumer movement has collectively organized and acted to obtain safer products, better complaint-handling mechanisms, less deceptive advertising, more consumer education, improvements in repair services and product warranties, and numerous other reforms. It would be hard to argue that the consumer movement had little to do with the many new laws, regulations, and business practices adopted over this thirty-year time period.

Much has been written in the attempt to describe, to explain, and to predict the actions of the consumer movement. As mentioned earlier, the majority of this writing has been conceptual and/or journalistic in style. Authors from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds have provided interpretations of the meaning and implications of the demonstrations, boycotts, legislative debates, lawsuits, fund-raising drives, and other actions emanating from the consumer movement. For the most part, these authors have formulated their interpretations based on media reports about the movement, discussions with consumer advocates, involvement with consumer groups, records of court and legislative developments, and some ideas from sociological and political theory (Mitchell 1982; Leonard 1982; Clark 1980; Handler 1978; Herrmann 1974; Greyser 1973; Kotler 1972).

The empirical work related to the consumer movement tends to be very limited in its focus. Most of it seeks either (1) to describe the characteristics of consumers who are dissatisfied or who exhibit "consumerist" attitudes and behaviors or (2) to explain the cause of dissatisfaction and "consumerist" attitudes and behaviors. Through this research, much has been learned about who feels dissatisfied (Warland, Herrmann, and Willits 1972), who favors consumer protection legislation (Harris 1983; Sentry 1977), who likes the work of Ralph Nader and other consumer advocates (Barksdale and Perreault 1980), who thinks business cares about consumers (Darden, Stanley, and Howell 1982), who engages in forms of consumer and citizen activism (Warland, Herrmann, and Moore 1982), and why dissatisfaction develops (Deshpande and Krishman 1982; Richins 1982). In addition, much of what consumers think and feel about consumer problems has remained reasonably stable for more than a decade (Gaski and Etzel 1982; Greyser, Bloom, and Diamond 1982; Bloom and Greyser 1981). These studies conclude that consumer discontent remains high, that buyer dissatisfaction is widespread, and that the major areas of consumer discontent have not changed substantially in the 1970s and 1980s.

In spite of the relatively stable and favorable thoughts and feelings about the consumer movement, the movement as a whole has had relatively dramatic ups and downs in terms of achieving desired reforms. In order to understand the dynamics of the consumer movement better, literature pertaining to social movements is examined. The classical social movement literature focuses on discontent as the primary force underlying a successful movement. It suggests that when discontent increases rapidly and is widely shares, collective efforts to alleviate it will occur. The model further predicts that fluctuations in the level of discontent account for the rise of movements and the major changes in movement participation (Smelser 1962; Lang and Lang 1961; Jenkins and Perrow 1977).

An examination of the consumerism literature reveals that many writers emphasize the role of consumer discontent in driving the movement. Aaker and Day (1978, p. 13) state that consumers' problems lead to a "diffuse, latent discontent with the state of the marketplace." They identify the focal problems as (1) disillusionment with the system, (2) a lack of adequate and reliable information, (3) dissatisfaction with the usefulness and truthfulness of advertising, (4) dissatisfaction with the quality, performance, and safety of goods, (5) impersonal and unresponsive marketing institutions, and (6) high levels of inflation. Herrmann (1974, p. 31) identifies consumers' discontent as it pertains to advertising, high-pressure salesmanship, and spiraling prices. Kotler (1972) refers to the 1960s as a time of great public discontent and frustration. He elaborates on the feelings of economic discontent, social discontent, ecological discontent, political discontent, and marketing system discontent that pervade our society.

Certainly, the existence of discontent cannot be denied. It is a factor that underlies long-term trends and needs, but discontent alone is not enough to bring about change. Thus, discontent cannot explain the cyclical nature of the consumer movement. As explained above, consumer discontent was not substantially greater in the late 1960s and early 1970s than throughout much of the late 1970s and 1980s when activities declined. Clearly, the standard literature on social movements fails to explain the varying levels of outcomes associated with the consumer movement. Having consumer discontent and general support for consumerism is one thing; funneling these feelings into actions that will create better deals for consumers is another (Bloom and Smith 1986).



An alternative explanation for the varying level of activity associated with the consumer movement is the research mobilization perspective. Sociologists who have analyzed social movements recognize that to understand a social movement, it is necessary to look beyond data on discontent toward information about the resource mobilization abilities of the organizations making up the movement. Discontent alone is not sufficient for a successful movement (Carlson and Kangun 1988; Jenkins 1983; Zald and McCarthy 1979; Jenkins and Perrow 1977). Tilly (1978), Jenkins and Perrow (1977), and Oberschall (1978) argue that grievances are relatively constant and that movements form because of changes in group resources, organization, and opportunities for collective action. They maintain that the important variables for success pertain to the amount of social resources available and the type of support provided. The resource mobilization theory stresses that social movements maintain vitality by having well-managed organizations that know how to capitalize on discontent and that have the ability to mobilize resources to fight for their causes. According to Jenkins and Perrow (1977, p. 250), "disorders do not arise from disorganized anemic masses, but from groups organizationally able to defend and advance their interests." Success is due to the interjection of external resources. A movement's strength is determined to a great extent by the ability to mobilize resources and support from all sectors of society.

Jenkins and Perrow (1977) draw on the resource mobilization perspective when examining the farm worker movements between 1946 and 1972. Arguing for a resource mobilization perspective over a discontent perspective, Jenkins and Perrow contend that the farm workers' movement was more successful in obtaining desired reform during the 1965-1972 time period than in previous years because of its ability to mobilize support from outside organizations such as liberal pressure groups and organized labor groups. They found that:

During the first challenge government policies strongly favored agribusiness

and that support from liberal organizations and organized labor was weak and

vacillating. By the time the second challenge was mounted, the political

environment had changed dramatically. Government now was divided over

policies, liberals and organized labor had formed a reform coalition. . . . The

key changes, then, were in support organization and governmental actions

(Jenkins and Perrow 1977, p. 250).

To test the viability of the resource mobilization perspective on the farm workers' movement, Jenkins and Perrow analyzed the New York Times Index for macro-level changes in activities of the groups involved. Statistical analyses of the relationships among various measures developed in the content analysis provide support for the notion that the farm labor movement was most successful in achieving its own objectives when numerous supportive actions and activities were undertaken by groups and individuals who were not formally part of the movement.



Like the farm workers' movement before it, the consumer movement has had successful (1969-1977) and not-so-successful (1978 to present) time periods. The 1960s was a time of great public discontent and frustration, but individual consumers had little power to force change. Collective social action was not undertaken until a medley of events occurred: writings of social critics, the hearings and proposals of a handful of Congressmen that held out some hope of legislative remedy, the presidential messages of Kennedy and Johnson, and the growth in the number and actions of consumer organizations (Kotler 1972). The movement picked up momentum and mobilized as the mass media began giving front-page coverage to the activities of consumer advocates, as politicians adopted consumerism as a high-potential vote-getting social issue, and as the number of existing and new organizations rose in defense of the consumer, including labor unions, consumer cooperatives, credit unions, product-testing organizations, consumer education organizations, senior citizen groups, public-interest law firms, and government agencies. The results were quite successful: legislation designed to bring safer products and more and better information to consumers was passed, serious reform of regulatory and legislative agencies was obtained, and consumer representation in government and industry grew.

The late 1970s, however, brought a challenge to the movement. Individuals began to challenge the need for some consumer protection initiatives, the credibility of Ralph Nader and his organizations was challenged, less legislation designed to protect the rights of buyers in the marketplace was passed than during the previous time period, and the long-standing proposal to establish a Federal agency was defeated in Congress. Clearly, the late 1970s was a time when the consumer movement began to decline in influence, particularly at the national level. Some observers believe that the consumer movement has entered either a quiet, mature stage (Bloom and Greyser 1981) or a long, slow declining stage in its life cycle (Herrmann and Warland 1980).

Why, in the presence of continued discontent and support for consumerism among substantial segments of the population, does the movement appear to be declining? The resource mobilization perspective suggests that the consumer movement has been less successful since the late 1970s because it lacks the support of many types of organizations, including business firms, business-oriented groups and associations, and political elites. Support for this perspective can be found within the consumerism literature (e.g., Kotler 1972; Aaker and Day 1978; Bloom and Smith 1986; Richardson 1986).

This paper applies the resource mobilization perspective to an examination of the environment surrounding the consumer movement. Analysis centers on the comparison of two time periods: 1969-1977 and 1978-1982. The year 1977 was a critical year in the consumer movement because it represented the final defeat in Congress of the bill to establish a Federal consumer protection agency.


Content analysis has been defined as an objective, systematic, and quantitative technique for the analysis of communication content (Kassarjian 1977). Holsti (1969) contends that content analysis is particularly useful when the data of interest are limited to documentary evidence or when the material is too voluminous for one researcher to evaluate systematically. Since these classes of problems accurately describe the nature of the material on the consumer movement, content analysis was seen as a methodology that could help in obtaining a better understanding of the movement. Jenkins and Perrow (1977) found content analysis useful for examining the farm workers' movement, and their approach was essentially replicated in the present study.

In order to construct a systematic, reliable index of the publicly visible activities that formed the environment of the consumer movement, abstracts of news stories that dealt with consumer issues in the New York Times over a fourteen-year period (1969-1982) were coded. This content coding permitted determination of the types of groups involved with the consumer movement, whether their actions favored the structural changes advocated by national and local consumer groups, the types of activities in which these groups were engaged, and, finally, the pattern of interaction prevailing among these various groups over the fourteen years.

To ascertain the validity of the coverage provided by the New York Times, a second data source was examined. Material from the American Council of Consumer Interests, the ACCI Newsletter, was compared with the coverage given by the New York Times. The ACCI Newsletter, which is published nine times per year, contains a section with short summaries of recent events and actions that have had an impact on consumers. After comparing the coverage of these two sources for a two-year time period, it became apparent that some differences existed in their coverage. Therefore, it was decided to conduct a content analysis of the ACCI Newsletter for the entire fourteen-year period between 1969 and 1982. A generalized comparison of the two data sources is provided in the next section. Analysis and results are reported only for the New York Times data due to the overall similarity between the two sources.

Every event described in the two sources was coded by judges using essentially the same scheme as that employed by Jenkins and Perrow (1977). In events research, an event has been defined as

. . . an activity which an actor undertakes at a specific time and which is generally

directed towards another actor for the purposes of conveying intent or

interest (even non-interest) in some issue. Thus, an event involves (1) an actor,

(2) a target, (3) a time period, (4) an activity, and (5) an issue about which the

activity occurs (Azar and Ben-Dak 1975, p. 2).

Similarly, this study identifies five variables: (1) the type of group or individual generating the action, (2) the direction of the action, (3) the form of the action, (4) the primary issue motivating the action, and (5) the year of action. The coding categories for these variables are as follows:

Type of Group: The recent literature on social movements clearly recognizes that mass discontent does not necessarily produce an active, viable social movement. To maintain vitality, a social movement must be led by well-managed organizations and/or institutions that can mobilize resources and support. These organizations include large, broad-based groups such as the Consumer Federation of America, Federal agencies, public and private organizations that focus on local issues and serve relatively small constituencies, and business corporations. Based on the work of Bloom and Greyser (1981), these groups have been collapsed into the following five categories: (1) national consumer advocate (e.g., Ralph Nader or associates, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, American Council on Consumer Interests, and other national leaders such as Peterson and Furness), (2) Federal government agency, body, or official (e.g., President, Congress-related, FTC-related, President's advisor, Supreme Court, other Federal officials and organizations), (3) state or local consumer advocate (e.g., PIRGS, legal aid, and nonprofit grassroots organization), (4) state or local government agency, body, or official (e.g., governor, mayor, county executive, legislative council-related, consumer affairs office, and attorney general), and (5) business-related firm, association, or individual (e.g., business interest group, Better Business Bureau, individual firms and/or executives, consumer affairs offices, and other business-related organizations such as ABA and Conference Board).

Direction: After identifying the type of group involved in the action, the next step was to break down group activity by direction into actions favorable, unfavorable, ambiguous, or irrelevant to the expressed interests of consumers. Ambiguous and irrelevant events were excluded from the analysis. This enabled us to estimate the balance of favorable or unfavorable actions in the system during the two time periods and to chart the fluctuations in favorable actions by different types of groups.

Form: In addition to group and direction, the form of action adopted was considered. Actions were grouped as either (1) symbolic - purely rhetorical acts that attempt to shape public opinion (e.g., speeches, hearings, conferences, and introduction of legislation) or (2) concrete - actions that attempt to allocate direct control over material resources (e.g., court rulings, legislative decisions, mass protests, budget decisions, new appointments/resignations/reorganizations, investigations launched, consumer education programs conducted, and recalls).

Issue: Issue was the fourth variable, with six general categories being identified; (1) product-related (e.g., product safety, packaging, labeling, warranties, product testing, standards, and quality control), (2) pricing-related (e.g., price fixing and credit/lending), (3) promotion-related (e.g., advertising, personal selling, games, promotions, negative-option selling, and mail order), (4) antitrust (e.g., merger and monopoly, but not price fixing), (5) consumer representation and institutional reform (e.g., consumer affairs programs, complaint resolution programs, regulatory reform, and general consumer protection), and (6) consumer education and information.

The coding was done by two individuals who had a high degree of familiarity with the consumer movement. The reliability of their coding was tested by having both code the same two years of events and actions. Intercoder reliability was calculated for each coding category, as well as for an overall score, by dividing the number of coding agreements by the total number of coding decisions. Reliability was .92 for type of group, .86 for direction of action, .86 for form of action, and .95 for issue. Overall reliability for all coding decisions was .92. These reliability coefficients demonstrate a high level of consistency between the judges and fall above the minimum criterion recommended by Kassarjian (1977).

The high intercoder reliability suggests that the news and other reports of events observed by the judges accurately count and describe the actions of interest recorded in the two data sources. However, inherent bias exists in published news due to the focus and interest of the respective editors. This bias can be manifested in two distinct ways. The first means of bias is through distortion in the content of the news (i.e., inaccurate reporting and unbalanced interpretation of events) (Snyder and Kelly 1977). Distortion of the news is not a primary concern of this research because the methodology employed here is relatively free from the effects of distorted reporting. The judges for this study coded events, not news stories per se. Thus, the prominence given to stories by the editors or the evaluations of the events by news personnel are irrelevant.

The second means of bias in published news occurs through the actual selection of news events on which to report (Snyder and Kelly 1977). A selection bias illustrates one of the primary limitations of content analysis, and it may have surfaced in the two data sources analyzed. The New York Times is a "national" newspaper, and stories about local issues are less newsworthy for a national audience. In a similar vein, the ACCI Newsletter may have missed covering many local issues out of a desire to cover topics of most interest to its national constituency. Thus, one cannot view either the New York Times reportage or the ACCI Newsletter reportage as a complete picture of all advocacy activity and the environmental responses to such activity.

A final, but related, issue concerns the validity of newspaper data. In other words, does the media only report the news or does it, in part, determine the news? While it may be argued that the New York Times, in particular, was simply reporting on a daily "hot topic" that eventually waned, the resource mobilization perspective would espouse that the news media was an important catalyst or resource for the movement. Without the interests and writings of journalists, it would have been much more difficult to mobilize the needed external resources, to raise public awareness, and to generate interest. At the very least, media exposure has the capacity to influence the response of the so-called "industrial and political elites." Thus, the level and intensity of reportage should be indicative of the overall environment surrounding this particular social movement and, in essence, is reflective of the consumer movement's ability to mobilize support for its cause.



The analysis of the events reported in the New York Times Index and the ACCI Newsletter indicates similarities in the frequency and favorableness of reported actions yet shows differences with respect to the form (i.e., symbolic or concrete) of the action taken by groups and the types of issues addressed. Both the New York Times and ACCI Newsletter data provide comparable rank orderings of the frequency of activities associated with the five major types of groups - national advocates, Federal government, local/state government, local advocates, and business leaders. Similarly, the ACCI Newsletter data and the New York Times data indicate that the Federal government initiated the largest percentage of reported actions, followed by local governments, businesses, and national and local advocates. The other area of similarity pertains to the direction (i.e., the favorableness or unfavorableness) of the reported actions. Seventy percent of the reported activities in the New York Times were favorable as compared with 68 percent for the ACCI Newsletter data. ACCI Newsletter did, however, report a much higher frequency of concrete activities (79 percent concrete, 21 percent symbolic) than the New York Times (54 percent concrete, 46 percent symbolic). There were no major discrepancies in the range of issues covered.


Following the lead of Jenkins and Perrow (1977), frequencies, percentages, and correlation coefficients are calculated to understand the patterns of interactions taking place between local and national advocates, business-related organizations, and government agencies during the two distinct time periods. Pearson product-moment correlations were calculated by entering the scores for the number of actions taken by the different groups for conventional calendar years. High positive correlations were seen as evidence of concomitant or supported activity among groups, and it was expected that more positive correlations would be found for the earlier time period. Low correlations were taken to indicate the absence of concomitant activity. Relating these correlations to the resource mobilization perspective, differences in descriptive statistics and correlation coefficient for relevant pairing of groups reveal differences in the societal responses to the consumer movement during the two time periods.

An overview of the findings for the fourteen-year time period is displayed in Tables 1 through 3 and Figures 1 and 2A-E. Table 1 shows a total of 1,042 actions judged to be relevant to the consumer movement. The general distribution of the activities for the two time periods shows that almost 85 percent (877) of the activities occurred between 1969 and 1977, with only 15 percent (165) occurring in the second period. Because the number of years in the two time periods is different, mean numbers of actions were calculated. In Period 1, an average of 98 actions is recorded per year, whereas in Period 2 the mean number of reported actions declines to 33 per year. Similarly, more favorable actions occur in Period 1 (74 percent favorable), compared with only a 54 percent favorableness rating in Period 2. Interestingly, however, Period 2 shows a greater percentage of concrete, as opposed to symbolic, actions when compared with Period 1 (53 percent and 61 percent, respectively). The data here suggest that Period 2 reflects less overt activism in terms of the number of actions and the favorableness of the actions. [Tabular Data Omitted]

While over 70 percent of the reported activities in the fourteen-year period were favorable, Table 2 shows that this percentage varied widely among the groups with the advocates having the largest percentage of favorable actions, followed by local governments, the Federal government, and business, respectively. There is less deviation in the percentage of concrete actions undertaken by the groups. [Tabular Data Omitted]

Figures 1 and 2 portray the overall and group-specific actions over the fourteen-year period. Figure 1 charts the overall number of actions per year, the number of favorable actions per year, and the number of favorable-concrete actions per year, while Figure 2 plots the favorable actions of each group. Figure 1 is quite reflective of the "life cycle" perspective espoused by Bloom and Greyser (1981). They hypothesize that the consumer movement went through a life cycle similar to that of a consumer product and that in the early 1980s the movement was in the mature stage of its cycle. As seen in Figure 1, the number of actions reported under the heading "Consumer Protection" declined sharply during the late 1970s and remained low into the 1980s. The number of favorable actions declined even more sharply, with the percent of favorable actions (see the bottom of Figure 1) falling to a much lower level for the years 1977 to 1981, following the defeat in Congress of the bill to establish a Federal consumer protection agency. Unfortunately, no strong evidence exists that the fewer number of favorable actions tended to become more concrete.

Figures 2A-E provide additional support for the above findings. The plots suggest that the vitality of the consumer movement declined on all fronts. The curves delineating national leaders, Federal government, and business move roughly in concert. The curves for local government and local leaders are slightly different from the other three yet correspond quite closely to one another. These data, along with the information in Table 3, indicate that the advocates and the institutions that could respond to the advocates' wishes all became less active. [Tabular Data Omitted]

Table 3 indicates the Federal government generated the highest level of activity with local governments ranking second in activity. Consumer advocates (both national and local) generated the lowest number of activities. How the relative magnitudes changed between the two time periods is perhaps more interesting, though. Over 66 percent of the actions in Period 2 were generated at the national level (50.3 percent for the Federal government plus 15.8 percent for national advocates), which is in contrast to the 49.9 percent of the actions generated in Period 1. Similarly, the percentage of activities at the local level (both local government and local advocates) declined from approximately 35 percent in Period 1 to 23 percent in Period 2. A similar decline is seen with the percentage of business actions. This is in contrast to the perspective espoused by Bloom and Greyser (1981) that as the consumer movement's life cycle progressed, it would become more centered around the actions of local level organizations and institutions as contrasted with more national efforts. The percent of actions taken by local government and local advocates did not increase over time. In fact, the movement appears to have become less local in the early 1980s. These findings must, however, be tempered by the "national" orientation of the data source.

Table 4 summarizes the actions as they pertain to the various issues: product, promotion, price, antitrust, consumer representation and institutional reform, and consumer education initiatives. Generally, there is not a great deal of deviation between the two periods. Consumer representation accounts for at least 70 percent of all actions, regardless of the time frame. However, Period 2 shows a slight increase in the percentage of product-related and antitrust initiatives. One phenomenon that is relatively difficult to explain is the absence of pricing-related activities in Period 2. The best explanation is that there appears to have been a change in the articles recorded under the "Consumer Protection" category in the New York Times Index. [Tabular Data Omitted]

The correlation coefficients presented in Tables 5 through 7 are used to examine the resource mobilization perspective. The tables show correlations computed from the New York Times data concerning symbolic and concrete actions, favorable and unfavorable actions, and favorable-symbolic and favorable-concrete actions, respectively, among national advocates, local advocates, and business groups. The data confirm the notion that the support of many types of organizations (including business-oriented ones) helps a social movement succeed. More concomitant activity appears to have occurred involving national advocates, local advocates, and business groups during the more successful, pre-1978 period than in the latter period. The correlations between the actions of these organizations are relatively more positive during the first period, and several are statistically significant. For example, significant positive correlations (p is less than .10) are found between:

(1) symbolic actions by national advocates and symbolic actions by business groups (r=.52), (2) favorable actions by local advocates and favorable actions by business groups (r=.57), and (3) favorable-concrete actions by local advocates and favorable-concrete actions by business groups (r=.75).

[Tabular Data Omitted]

On the other hand, the correlations for the second time period are smaller, with several being significant but in a negative direction. This suggests that when more actions were emanating from the advocates, less were emanating from the business groups. An examination of the raw data supports this interpretation. For example, significant negative correlations are found between:

(1) concrete actions by national advocates and concrete actions by business groups (r=-.70), (2) concrete actions by local advocates and symbolic actions by business (r=-1.00), and (3) favorable-concrete actions by national advocates and favorable-symbolic actions by business groups (r=-.74).

The ACCI Newsletter data are not shown but contain similar patterns. Significant positive correlations are found in the earlier period for several pairs of measures, especially when favorable actions are examined. In the latter period, however, the significant correlations tend to be negative, suggesting a decline in supportive activity among national advocates, local advocates, and business groups.

Additional coefficients are computed by issue type among the groups for all actions, regardless of the direction or form of the activity. The coefficients, shown in Tables 8, 9, and 10, are calculated for consumer representation, consumer education, and product-related issues, respectively, because they represent the largest percentage of activities (92 percent overall). Promotion, price, and antitrust are excluded due to the small number of reported events associated with these issues. Once again, the findings show more concomitant activity occurring in Period 1 than in Period 2. Significant positive correlations are found between:

(1) Consumer Representation: Actions by local government and local leaders (r=.58), (2) Consumer Education: Actions by local government and national advocates (r=.47), (3) Consumer Education: Actions by local leaders and local government (r=.50), (4) Consumer Education: Actions by business and local leaders (r=.57), (5) Product-Related: Actions by Federal government and national advocates (r=.57), and (6) Product-Related: Actions by business leaders and national advocates (r=.54).

Interestingly, as more consumer education actions emanated from the Federal government, fewer activities were initiated by both local leaders (r=-.69) and business groups (r=-.70). [Tabular Data Omitted]

Only three significant correlations are found in Period 2. Two of them reflect a very strong relationship between the activities of the Federal government and national leaders as pertains to consumer education (r=.84) and consumer representation (r=.89) initiatives. An even stronger correlation is found between the product-related initiatives of the Federal government and business leaders (r=.91).

These last three tables reflect that more concomitant activity occurred in the successful, pre-1978 period. More important, however, is the strength of the positive correlations on some issues during the second time period. This would support the view of some consumer leaders that the movement, while declining in intensity, still has the necessary support to remain viable.


Overall, the results provide support for the resource mobilization perspective (Jenkins and Perrow 1977). The momentum of the consumer movement appears to have faded as the years progressed, with no major shifts occurring in the locus of activity or in the issues addressed. This fade appears to be due, in part, to a failure by the movement to obtain mutually supportive activity by different types of organizations. In other words, the consumer movement may have lost much of its vitality when the business community withdrew its support, which seemed to occur during the 1977 fight over the consumer protection agency and its aftermath.

The best explanation for the results is that the consumer movement lost some of its vitality, but probably less than the data suggest. Omissions in news coverage and/or changes in the New York Times indexing system can most likely explain a portion of the reduction in reported activity. The editorial staffs gradually may have found stories about local and pocketbook issues less newsworthy for a national audience and, as a consequence, a good part of the activity of the consumer movement, if Bloom and Greyser are correct about this shift, simply was not covered. Moreover, another portion of this reduction in reported activities can probably be explained by a growing tendency for advocates to focus on fund-raising, membership building, and grassroots networking rather than publicity seeking, lobbying, or the filing of lawsuits. The authors base this judgment, in part, on the earlier work of Smith and Bloom (1984), who examined the size of memberships of consumer organizations and determined that, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, more growth had occurred in the size of several local organizations than in the size of the major national organizations. A similar observation was discovered in a study conducted by the Consumer Federation of America (1983).


The content analysis performed in this study provides a relatively clear signal that something fundamental has changed about the consumer movement in the United States. At the very least, it can be said that the movement gradually received much less (1) news coverage of its activities and (2) overt support from business-oriented groups. Moreover, consumer advocates and government institutions appear to have become less likely to take either symbolic or concrete actions in support of consumer causes. Although this can all be interpreted as evidence that the consumer movement is declining, an alternative perspective cannot be ignored. It may be that the movement is still rather healthy and just emphasizing quieter activities. Further research on the membership sizes and financial status of various consumer groups (Smith and Bloom 1984) is needed before an accurate assessment of the health of the consumer movement can be made.


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PHOTO : FIGURE 1 New York Times Results on Total Number of Actions, Number of Favorable Actions, and Number of Favorable-Concrete Actions

PHOTO : FIGURE 2A Events Favorable to Consumers

PHOTO : FIGURE 2B Local Government

PHOTO : FIGURE 2C Business

PHOTO : FIGURE 2D National Leaders

PHOTO : FIGURE 2E Local Leaders

Darlene Brannigan Smith is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Sellinger School of Business and Management, Loyola College in Maryland, Baltimore, MD, and Paul Bloom is a Professor of Marketing at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.
COPYRIGHT 1989 American Council on Consumer Interests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Smith, Darlene Brannigan; Bloom, Paul N.
Publication:Journal of Consumer Affairs
Date:Dec 22, 1989
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