Special Session Summary I Am Not Therefore, I Am: the Role of Avoidance Products in Shaping Consumer Behavior

Basil G. Englis, Berry College
Michael R. Solomon, Auburn University
[ to cite ]:
Basil G. Englis and Michael R. Solomon (1997) ,"Special Session Summary I Am Not Therefore, I Am: the Role of Avoidance Products in Shaping Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 61-63.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 61-63



Basil G. Englis, Berry College

Michael R. Solomon, Auburn University


Consumption preferences represent important data employed both by the self and by others to signify a person’s social identity (see, e.g., recent reviews in Englis and Solomon 1995; 1997). Choices of products, services, and activities tell us what "social type" a person is and what "type(s)" he or she is not. Consumption choices also act as social signals that can identify reference groups the individual is motivated to emulate or avoid. Although the impact of reference group influences in identifying "approach products," or other positively valued consumption cues, is well-acknowledged in the literature (e.g., Bearden and Etzell 1982), scant attention has been paid to the role that avoidance groups and their associated patterns of consumption play in the formation of the extended self. This may be a crucial oversight, insofar as we cannot ignore the possibility that consumers may be as motivated to avoid associations with negatively-valued others as they are to express the desire to approach positively-valued others by emulating their (assumed) consumption choices. The goal of the session was to redress the imbalance by presenting a range of perspectives on avoidance consumption.

We take a symbolic perspective on consumer behavior, which has as its central tenet the notion that many products are consumed because of their symbolic value to the indvidual and his or her social setting. The use of consumption activities as a form of self-expression is often related to strong associations between products and social roles. Whether YUPPIES, sports teams, or motorcycle gangs, group identities often coalesce around forms of expressive symbolism. The self-definitions of group members are derived from the common symbol system to which the group is dedicated; these symbols define the group’s "personality." As a result, each social category has its associated collection of products and activities which are taken by society to define that category (e.g., Englis and Solomon 1995; McCall and Simmons 1982; Solomon 1983).

Such groupings of consumption activities and/or products may hold little or no inherent relationship to each other, but may instead be related through a socio-cultural process of association and ascription of meaning (see, e.g., Englis and Solomon 1996; Solomon and Assael 1987). A particular product grouping, then, is valued for its ability to communicate social messages within a particular culture at a particular historic moment. Thus, for example, tie-died t-shirts, patched blue jeans, and Army fatigue jackets identified a member of the "counter-culture" of the 1960s and, more currently, a member of the 1990s’ "Generation X." Because of its cultural basis, this form of self-expression is predicated on the consumer’s ability to decode a culture’s Zeitgeist correctly (to know which product groupings connote which identities) and to encode the "appropriate" identity (to enact the desired role).

Though one would seem to be on safe ground in hypothesizing that consumers are likely to skew their purchase decisions toward those products that bring them closer to an "ideal self," the less apparent role of products that are to be avoided may be equally important. Although perceived correspondence to the ideal self is surely an important force in self assessment, appraisals may also be framed in terms of perceived distance away from an undesired self-image - what one does not want to be (Ogilvie 1987). For example, in the 1990s a consumer may wish to dissociate from the somewhat tarnished YUPPIE ideal of the 1980s and, therefore, avoid such products as Brie cheese, white-wine spritzers, Rolex watches, and BMWs. This panel explores the role of negatively-valued consumption choices in consumers’ formulations of their self-concepts and in their definition of social reference groups.



Richard Wilk, University of Indiana

What we do not want to consume is often as personally and socially important as what we desire. The question posed by the present research is, how do we learn not just to want things, but to not want things? Are these really two separate bodies of knowledge; do we keep separate conceptual categories of good and bad, of things to be sought out and things to be avoided? Or, are the positive and negative aspects of goods always intimately related to each other, so that we learn a series of relationships between desire and disgust, or desired and detested objects? This inquiry was prompted by a long-term study of consumption in the Central American country of Belize. As part of this work a survey of 389 adult consumers was conducted. With several exceptions, the survey protocol was modeled on Bourdieu’s research instrument (1984, also Wilk 1995). However, it became clear during pretest interviews that respondents had a great deal more to say about their distastes and dislikes than about their desires. Because of this response in the pretest, a few distaste questions were added to the survey, specifically concerning music and food tastes.

It is notable that none of the preferences for particular items (consumption activities) correlated strongly (r2>.45) with any measured social, ethnic, or personal variables. In sharp contrast, distastes were much more powerful social predictors than preferences. For example, the "loving food" index correlated signficantly (1-tailed, p<.01) with only one variable, education level. More highly educated people tended to love fewer foods. On the other hand, the index of "food hatred" correlated significantly with eight out of ten social variables. Urban people tended to hate more things, and members of the Creole ethnic group had significantly more hates than members of other ethnic categories. People who were richer, had higher household incomes, were better educated and in higher status occupations all tended to have fewer hates. The fraction of the population that would in Belize be considered the urban poor, were much more likely to dislike a broad range of foods, though the number of things they liked was almost the same as the best educated and richest Belizeans. This suggests that rising in class is more a matter of learning to stop hating things, learning tolerance, rather than the conventional account of class mobility, which stresses the acquisition of new tastes.

These results are based on only a few survey items, added as almost an afterthought to a more conventional study of likes and preferences. The original intent was to develop contrasts with work on consumers in developed countries. This has not proven possible, because there has been almost no systematic empirical work on distastes and dislikes in developed countries, with the exception of a relatively narrow body of work on consumer dissatisfaction with items that have already been purchased.



Margaret K. Hogg, University of Manchester

Paul C. N. Michell, University of Manchester

The creation of meaning via consumption involves both positive and negative choices. Consumers use product, brand, and activity choices to mark inclusion and exclusion. Consumption constellations have been used to model the complementarity of positive choices among multi-category products (e.g., Solomon and Assael 1987). Consumption anti-constellations have been proposed to represent the complementarity of negative choices across multi-category products (Hogg 1995). Anti-constellations involve two aspects of consumers’ negative choices: non choice and anti choice. Non choice includes products and services which are simply not bought, often because they are not within the means of the consumer. Anti choices, which are more important and relevant here, include products and services which are positively not chosen because they are seen as incompatible and inconsistent with the consumer’s other consumption choices and preferences.

The experiment described here is modeled on an earlier study of constellations (Solomon and Assael 1987), which examined consumers’ understanding of the groups of products associated with different occupations. The present study extends this earlier work by examining anti-constellations: the inventories of products and services which would specifically not be associated with prototypical social role occupants. Sixty Management Science students from a British university were asked to generate anti-constellations for three occupations. The first occupation, that of "student," was chosen because all the respondents would have a high degree of familiarity with this reference group. The second occupation was chosen to represent the students’ "aspirational occupation" - students were asked to imagine themselves in their career in five years’ time. The third occupation was that of each respondent’s father (familial). For each occupational category, respondents were asked to generate a list of products which they would not associate with that occupation.

A number of findings emerge clearly from the experiment. First, consumers can generate anti-constellations in response to occupational cues. Second, consumers can provide information about anti-constellations at product and brand level; but there is more detailed brand knowledge of anti-constellations related to occupations with consumers are in close proximity. Consumers provide less detailed information about ati-constellations associated with occupations with which they have less affinity. Third, respondents generated fifteen product categories for the anti-constellations associated with the cue "student," and eleven each for the other two occupational cues: aspirational and familial (father’s occupation). The major product categories which appeared across all the anti-constellations were clothing/footwear, cars, and food. Public transport and fast food/takeaways appeared only in the aspirational and familial anti-constellations. Consistent with the findings of Solomon and Assael (1987), knowledge and understanding of product-to-role associations are linked to respondents degree of familiarity with the occupational cue.

Studies of symbolic consumption have concentrated largely on individual products and positive choices. This study has extended an earlier American study of consumption constellations, which represent positive choice, to anti-constellations, which represent the complementarity of negative choices across multi-category products.



Cornelia Pechmann, University of California, Irvine

Chuan-Fong (Eric) Shih, University of California, Irvine

In many movies, even PG-rated movies, young, sexy, glamorous stars are cast as smokers. Smoking by these stars (e.g., Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites; Demi Moore and Rob Lowe in St. Elmo’s Fire) may suggest to vast teen audiences that by smoking they can present themselves more favorably to their reference groups and, thereby, enhance their self esteem. Most teens are very concerned about reference group approval because they need such approval to feel good about themselves (Schlenker 1980). Running anti-smoking ads before movies, specifically ads that portray smoking as socially unacceptable, could potentially offset the effects of smoking by glamorous movie stars.

We conducted an experiment to examine whether smoking by the lead characters in a youth-oriented movie might enhance teens’ perceptions of smokers, and whether running an anti-smoking ad before the movie might negate such effects. We professionally edited a recent PG-rated movie that cast popular young movie stars as smokers (Reality Bites - MCA Universal Studio) to remove the smoking while preserving the quality and content, i.e., dialog, music, and length. We also showed either a anti-smoking or control ad before each movie, to examine whether a single 30 second anti-smoking ad would neutralize the effects of the movie’s large number of smoking scenes. The anti-smoking ad was produced in California and tested very well with teens, but had not run for several months and thus was unlikely to manifest wear out. The ad used humor to portray reference group disapproval of smoking, suggesting that teens who smoke are ostracized by peers. The control ad warned teens that alcohol abuse can lead to promiscuity and AIDS. We asked teens to record their affective responses to the movie, scene by scene, to examine if smoking influenced affect, particularly arousal. The other dependent variables included smokers’ self presentation and self esteem, and intent to smoke (see Pechmann and Knight 1996). Subjects were 130 ninth-graders (nonsmokers) from three high schools in Southern California who volunteered, with parental and teacher permission, to participate during school hours. None of the subjects had seen the movie.

We found that teens who saw the control ad and the smoking (vs. non-smoking) movie rated teen smokers more favorably on self presentation and self esteem. These same subjects also reported being more aroused during the movie. Showing the anti-smoking ad before the movie nullified these effects. The same pattern of results obtained regardless of whether subjects had a prior interest in smoking. These findings imply that to combat underage smoking it might be beneficial to run anti-smoking ads before youth-oriented movies that contain heavy amounts of smokng. In our study the anti-smoking ads did not alter overall liking of the movie so there may be little downside risk. If anti-smoking ads are not run, movies may inadvertently promote underage smoking by suggesting that it leads to peer approval and enhanced self esteem.


Several important themes run through this group of papers: One is the notion that symbolic aspects of consuming (or of not consuming) certain products may have as much to do with positioning the self in closer proximity to an aspirational, ideal self as in opposition to an avoidance, anti-ideal self. In contrast with consumer tastes, which may be closer reflections of the behavior of aspirational groups, distastes may be more "socially constructed" in that they may be more reflective of in-group perceptions than of marketplace realities (e.g., Englis and Solomon 1995). As indicated by the analysis of Hogg and Michell, there exists an important, yet under-studied, distinction between consumers’ non-choice and their active avoidance of certain products. And, this may relate to important social-developmental life transitions during the course of which consumers abandon some tastes in preference for others: thus, a taste for Twinkies and milk may give way to a penchant for biscotti and lattF. Such transitions may involve an active "refusal" of old tastes. This is in sharp contrast to the "fixation" of taste represented by nostalgic attachment to certain consumption objects.


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