Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Research Frontiers on Older Consumers' Vulnerability

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Research Frontiers on Older Consumers' Vulnerability

Article excerpt

Research Frontiers on Older Consumers' Vulnerability Results of studies from various fields suggest gaps in knowledge and needed research to help understand the factors that explain degrees of vulnerability among the aged to marketing communications. Suggesting the employment of more global measures of consumer vulnerability in relation to consumer welfare, a blueprint that encompasses emergent theories and methods of studying behavior in social science is presented to guide future research on older consumers' vulnerability. Insights gained from new conceptualizations and methodologies relevant to the study of older consumers' vulnerability may better inform public policy initiatives.

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In 2009, 39.6 million Americans were aged 65 years or older. By the year 2030, it is estimated that there will be 72.1 million older (65+) Americans, representing almost 19% of the US population (U.S. Administration on Aging 2010). Business opportunities serving the needs of this growing segment show promise (Court, Farrell, and Forsyth 2007) and raise public policy concerns. Some business practices have adverse effects upon consumers' welfare by "bilking them out of hundreds of millions of dollars per year" (FTC 2010). These business interests and government concerns have been increasingly creating need for information useful in corporate strategy and public policy. Thus developing useful information about the older population is important to both private and public interests, both economically and socially (Vincent and Velkoff 2010).

This article addresses the issue of older consumers' vulnerability to various forms of marketing communication. From a public policy perspective, "vulnerability" implies a tendency to act based on an inaccurate perception of information that may have been provided with the intent to deceive, when action based on such information can have harmful effects on the person's well-being (e.g., Iowa Attorney General 2000). Public policymakers are particularly interested in understanding the intended and unintended consequences various forms and strategies of marketing communications aimed at older consumers may have, as many such communications are believed to have adverse effects on older consumers' welfare. Such concerns can be seen in the actions taken by several states against companies such as Publishers Clearing House (PCH) that allegedly have targeted the elderly (Press Release 2001). For example, Iowa's Attorney General requires PCH to implement a program to identify elderly consumers at the point where their spending is just beginning to be excessive--when an Iowan aged 65 or over has spent $500 or more in a calendar quarter for PCH products (Iowa Attorney General 2007). Although consumer activists allege that various forms of marketing communications are aimed at misleading older consumers who are disadvantaged due to mental deficits associated with aging in late life, advocates of marketing practices argue that such allegations are invalid due to absence of scientific evidence (e.g., Iowa Attorney General 2000; State of Wisconsin v. Publishers Clearing House 2000). However, current knowledge on older adults' consumer behavior is rather limited (e.g., Moschis 2003), and little progress has been made in generating information relevant to addressing issues of interest to policymakers.

To help generate knowledge, first, this article presents evidence from various disciplines to assess the prevalence of vulnerability among the older population. Second, it identifies gaps in our knowledge and reasons for our limited understanding of the factors that explain degrees of vulnerability among the aged. Finally, the article presents a blueprint that encompasses emergent theories and methods of studying behavior in social science that can be used to guide future research on consumer vulnerability in later life.

BACKGROUND

Consumer Vulnerability

Vulnerability can be defined at both cognitive and behavioral levels of consumer response. …

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