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Marketing Professors Receive Consumer Research Grant

Published: November 3, 2008

For many Americans, dietary supplements are part of an everyday healthy lifestyle with spending on such products reaching $20.3 billion annually in the United States. But, do these supplements always lead to a healthy lifestyle?

That’s the question being asked by Cal State Long Beach (CSULB) marketing faculty members Ingrid Martin and Sayantani Mukherjee, who recently received a $1,500 grant from the Association of Consumer Research (ACR) to study the answer. The grant was awarded through ACR’s Tranformative Consumer Research Program.

“This is an important issue from a public policy perspective given that consumers should use dietary supplements in a safe and healthy manner,” said Martin, a professor of marketing and principal investigator for the project. “The directive from the FDA (Federal Drug Administration) says dietary supplements are intended to supplement the diets of some people, but not to replace the balance of the variety of foods important to a healthy diet. Unfortunately, there is evidence that these supplements aren’t being used properly.”

Martin said the goal of the project is to better understand the underlying process that motivates different types of consumers to use dietary supplements as a part of their healthy lifestyle behaviors. This will provide the foundation to develop and design corrective interventions which can counter unsafe consumer practices (e.g. substituting vitamins for a meal, using creatine as a means to build up muscle mass).

Titled “The Magical Powers of Supplements: Do Supplements Always Lead to a Healthy Lifestyle?” the project also is looking at the “magical” beliefs that some consumers attach to these readily used products. “This, too, is critical from a policy perspective,” Martin explained, “because ‘magical’ thinking has been attributed as a common cause of erroneous beliefs and can explain some of the unsafe consumer practices with regard to dietary supplement usage.”

Martin and Mukherjee have done prior research on this topic, and in a pilot study they conducted a set of in-depth interviews. In these interviews, they found that two very different types of user groups emerged. The first group consumed supplements in addition to engaging in many healthy lifestyle practices such as exercising, eating a healthy diet, etc. The second group used supplements as a way to make up for “cheating” including skipping meals, lack of exercise, etc.

A second theme that emerged from these interviews was the irrational belief that using supplements could “bring them luck” when used as part of a regimen of healthy habits. In contrast, the group that substitutes supplements for a healthy lifestyle attached a magical belief that supplements can “ward off evil.”

The grant funds will be used to pay participants to take part in the study as well as for some needed software to collect the data, Martin noted.

“The fact is people are potentially misusing these supplements and we want to help correct the situation,” Martin concluded. “We hope the interventions we are able to develop as a result of this study better educates consumers and creates a better understanding of the use of dietary supplements that are out there in the market today.”