Buying in: Socially Conscious Consumption and the Architecture of Choice

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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message effects
prosocial consumer behavior
socially conscious consumption
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Academics, marketers, and the general public share a growing interest in socially conscious products that claim to support (or oppose) a variety of causes and issues, from protecting the environment to objecting to free trade agreements between countries. Although the presence of such products has grown both in the US and abroad, both academics and marketers assume that niche audiences have--and will continue to--consume the vast majority of socially conscious products. This logic implies that socially conscious products have limited political impact due to their constrained market share, and that socially conscious consumption is a generic behavior similar to "volunteering" in which consumers do not discriminate between the issues that products support. This dissertation proposes a new way to think about this emergent form of non-traditional political participation. Specifically, it argues that socially conscious consumption has a broader appeal when people are properly targeted with products that support the issues they care about (the "Issue Importance - Product Match," or IIPM). Further, it conceptualizes socially conscious consumption as both an active and reactive form of political behavior. Although consumers' choices are influenced by context ("top down" choices made by private or public institutions), behaviors such as socially conscious consumption have the potential to shape future choices made by institutions from the "bottom-up." Several pre-tests were conducted to (1) identify distinct clusters of socially conscious consumers; (2) develop good-fitting measures of IIPM; and (3) hypothetical product pairs that would force participants to choose between a socially conscious product and a similar generic alternative. Study 1 tests the hypothesis that IIPM drives socially conscious consumption, and that this relationship persists even when there is a cost differential. Having generated supportive results for both propositions in Study 1, Study 2 tests the effect of normative appeals ("nudges") on socially conscious consumption. Results from Study 2 show that normative appeals tapping the social identity of "issue supporters" may enhance the likelihood of socially conscious consumption among supporters of that issue, nearly closing the gap created by a 20% difference in cost. Implications of these findings for researchers, practitioners, and the public are discussed.

Michael X. Delli Carpini
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