Using Content Analysis to Understand the Consumer Movement

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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. …