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Consumer scapegoating during a systemic product-harm crisis

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To determine how consumers respond to betrayal of their trust in brands, we surveyed 2156 consumers in nine metropolitan centres in China following the 2008 melamine contamination crisis. Drawing on psychological drivers of scapegoating and attribution theory, we investigate how early information and the perceived involvement in a multi-brand crisis and attribution factors influence scapegoat effects. The survey results reveal that the first accused brand, Sanlu, took disproportionate blame and was made a scapegoat for an industry-wide crisis. The observer/tension-discharging perspective, the ‘early information’ effect, and the contrasting roles of manufacturers and non-manufacturer parties in the supply chain in causal attributions have the most significant effect in consumer scapegoating. Study of a highly unfortunate ‘real-life experiment’ shows how a food safety scandal spills over and negatively affects attitudes and beliefs about the whole supply chain and about competing brands.

Keywords: Chinese consumers; attribution; food safety; scapegoating; trust

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2011.645859

Affiliations: 1: Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand 2: University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand 3: Peking University, China 4: Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

Publication date: October 1, 2012

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