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An Attribution Theory Approach to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Communication: Consumer Response to Consistency-Based CSR Positioning




Ginder, Whitney

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation


Consumer and Design Sciences


Although corporate social responsibility (CSR) appears to be mutually beneficial for companies and consumers, the modern marketplace has left both parties in vulnerable positions, with consumers increasingly subjected to misleading CSR messages such as greenwashing and companies trapped in a strategic positioning dilemma with regard to how to most effectively and ethically approach CSR communication. To address this dilemma and test the effects on consumers, this study extended the consistency dimension of attribution theory to conceptualize four distinct CSR positions (uniform, discreet, washing, apathetic) which reflect varying combinations of consistency or inconsistency of the corporation’s external CSR communication (e.g., advertising, press releases) and actual internal CSR actions. A conceptual model was created to explain the influence of the aforementioned CSR positions on consumer attributions, perceptions, beliefs, and intentions. Three CSR domains (environmental, labor, LGBT inclusion) were included for stimulus sampling purposes, and domain-related differences were examined. Using a national sample of 559 consumers, the model was tested through an online experiment using a 3 (CSR domain) x 4 (consistency-based CSR position) between-subjects design. As hypothesized, the uniform and discreet positions produced stronger internal attributions, and the uniform and washing positions generated stronger external attributions. Stronger internal attributions led to greater perceived commitment to CSR and sincerity while lowering hypocrisy perceptions. On the other hand, stronger external attributions increased hypocrisy perceptions while lowering perceptions of sincerity. However, support for the negative influence of external attributions on perceived commitment to CSR was not found. Perceptions of commitment to CSR and sincerity positively influenced consumers’ CSR beliefs, whereas perceived hypocrisy negatively influenced consumers’ CSR beliefs. Finally, CSR beliefs positively influenced consumers’ purchase intentions, and within the environmental domain, this was moderated by the consumer’s level of CSR support. Notably, a majority of these relationships were retained across all three CSR domains. Overall, the findings attest to the significant effect that consistency-based CSR positioning can have on how consumers respond to CSR communication, which provides important theoretical and managerial implications.