An investigation of the effect of ecological information and social class on importance rating, rank ordering and brand choice



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Information is a necessary ingredient in consumer decision making and it appears that marketers are currently experiencing pressure by public policy makers and consumers to make available more functional information. This study addressed one information type rarely presented to consumers—information concerning the ecological harm caused by consumer products. The theoretical foundation for this research had multiple underpinnings. Psychological and consumer behavior literature on information processing model building, information overload and new information provided the background for ecological information processing. A typology of ecological problems relevant to this study, was developed as well as consumer products' relationship to them. Prior research on consumers' reaction to ecological information represented the final theoretical area. In the research methodology chapter, eight major hypotheses were stated and operationally defined. The three products selected for analysis were paper towels, soft drink containers and laundry detergents because they have a relationship to the ecological problem typology. Data were collected using a randomized block design with ecological information being the treatment and social, class the blocking variable. Three hundred and nine (309) Houston area women from three social classes determined by Hollingshead's two factor "Index of Social Position" served as the test units. Independent variables were no, moderate and high levels of ecological information. Moderate level ecological information was made up of four statements reflecting the products' present level of environmental harm while the high level treatment included the moderate information and four more statements about the environmental consequences of continued product usage. Dependent variables consisted of the environmental concern index importance rating score of two product features, the rank ordering of the same features and the choice of the "environmentally correct" brand form four alternatives. Methods of statistical analyses encompassed the analysis of variance, Duncan's multiple range test, Kruskal-Wallis test and the chi-square test. Findings were that level of ecological information affected paper towels' environmental concern index rating, soft drinks' harm to the environment rank ordering and the choice of paper towels and laundry detergents. Social class was found to influence the rank orderings of laundry detergents' harm to the environment and phosphate content, paper towels' made from recycled paper, soft drinks' returnability of container. Environmentally correct choices of all three products were also social class related. Upper social class women were always more concerned with the ecology issue and it was concluded that social class is more closely associated with importance rating, rank ordering and choice than ecological information. Consumer information processing theory interpretations, as well as marketing and public policy implications were discussed in the final chapter. Consistency of consumer response across the dependent measures and products indicated that information processing models could be applied to women's processing of ecological information. The effect of "new" ecological information seemed to level off after the moderate information treatment. Implications for marketing managers were that firms would likely not make this type of information available, but the upper class women may represent a potentially profitable segment for ecologically benign products. For public policy makers implications were that ecological information could be provided as an affirmative disclosure program but the cost and pitfalls of providing such information must be recognized. Finally, possible programs recommended for public policy consideration were mandatory environmental labeling and environmental education.