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Risk Management
The Role of Consumer Surveys in Public Policy Decision Making
  by Louis A. Morris, Pharmaceutical Executive, May 2004

 
onsumer research is used frequently to understand or evaluate public policy issues. Three specific approaches have been used to explore the role of consumer research in public policy decisions. First, researchers have explored the contribution of consumer research on
a particular topic, such as environmental marketing claims (Mayer, Lewis, and Scammon 2001), warning labels (Andrews and Netemeyer 1996; Stewart and Martin 1994; Wogalter, DeJoy, and Laughery 1999), deceptive advertising (Richards 1990), or corrective advertising (Wilkie, McNeill, and Mazis 1984). Second, researchers have critiqued methodology and suggested standards for effective public policy research (Bloom, Edell, and Staelin 2001; Jaffe 1994; Maronick 1991; Mazis 1996; Preston 1992). Third, researchers have discussed the role of research for a specific regulatory agency such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) (Andrews 2001; Maronick 1990). There is a need, however, for research that takes a comprehensive look at the policymaking process across regulatory agencies and considers the role of research at different stages in this process.

This article presents a six-stage model of the policymaking process. We discuss the role of consumer research at each stage of the process, evaluate the extent to which consumer research has played a role at each stage, and highlight areas in which additional research would be helpful in the development and evaluation of public policymaking. In addition, we explore in depth three case studies that focus on different regulatory initiatives to illustrate the role that consumer research has played and could have played in the policy development process.

Although various consumer research approaches have been used to explore public policy issues, the focus of this article is consumer surveys. For the purposes of this article, surveys include measurement on a sample of consumers using a structured questionnaire. The goal of a survey is to generate inferences about the target population from which the sample is drawn. Therefore, methodologies such as mall-intercept interviews and experiments that involve self-reported measures are also included in our analysis. However, qualitative methods, such as focus groups or depth interviews, and studies involving solely behavioral measures (e.g., sales audits, observational measures) are not discussed.

Given the potentially vast domain of this topic, we have chosen to focus on surveys that meet several criteria. First, we focus primarily on surveys pertaining to consumer perceptions of marketing communications such as product labels, advertisements, package inserts, and leaflets. Research on other policy issues, such as antitrust, intellectual property, products liability, welfare reform, and criminal justice, is not covered in our analysis. Second, we include only surveys based on samples from relevant target populations. In most cases, therefore, surveys based on student samples are not discussed. Third, we focus on consumer surveys that have affected or are believed to have affected the policymaking process. Therefore, many of the surveys discussed have been conducted or sponsored by regulatory agencies that have developed particular policy initiatives. Surveys from other sources, such as academe, industry, or consumer groups, are included only to the extent that they played a major role in policy development or evaluation. We discuss the broader academic literature in this area occasionally to provide additional insight into research that might have assisted in policy deliberations but did not do so.

The Policymaking Framework
Before examining the role of consumer surveys in policymaking, we need to delineate the policymaking process. In the public policy literature, the policymaking process has been conceptualized as involving several key stages (Cochran and Malone 1995; Cochran et al. 1993; Guess and Farnham 1989; Starling 1998). Figure 1 illustrates the six key elements in the policymaking process.

Identifying the Problem
The first step in Figure 1 indicates that public policy begins when a problem is recognized. Problem identification involves an assessment of the importance of the problem to society (costs to society), which is influenced by a variety of forces such as the political climate, media appeal, public opinion, interest group focus, and ideological orientation of agency personnel.

Key external events can sometimes trigger problem recognition. For example, the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado precipitated presidential and congressional requests for an investigation by the FTC and the Department of Justice (DOJ) into the promotion of violent video games, motion pictures, and music to children (FTC 2000). Scientific developments, particularly those that attract media interest, can also play a significant role in the problem identification process. For example, epidemiological studies published during the 1970s and 1980s linking diet to diseases such as cancer and heart disease provided the impetus for the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) nutrition labeling regulations (Derby and Levy 2001, p. 373). Also, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, research began appearing in the scientific literature in the United States and Europe linking alcoholic beverage consumption and birth defects (fetal alcohol syndrome) (Wagner 1991). Such research led eventually to the enactment of the Alcoholic Beverages Labeling Act of 1988 (PL 100-690).

Building a Policy Mandate
The second step in the policymaking process involves building a policy mandate. There are many problems in a society that do not attract the attention of policymakers because they lack support from key constituencies such as industry, consumer groups, Congress, or the executive branch. Support from key constituencies is often contingent on public opinion, which in turn is influenced by treatment of the issue in the media. When key interest groups and policy experts agree on the importance and scope of the problem, it gets on the agenda of public policymakers.

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