Consumer Resistance: a Conceptual Overview

Lisa Penaloza, University of Colorado at Boulder
Linda L. Price, University of Colorado at Boulder
[ to cite ]:
Lisa Penaloza and Linda L. Price (1993) ,"Consumer Resistance: a Conceptual Overview", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 123-128.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 123-128


Lisa Penaloza, University of Colorado at Boulder

Linda L. Price, University of Colorado at Boulder


This session was conceptualized as a consequence of a presentation last February by Mark Poster in which he addressed the idea of consumer agency and resistance (1992), engendering a discussion among ourselves that lasted through the weekend and for many weeks to come. What we would like to do today is depict a picture of what consumer resistance looks like in a first-world country and invite your speculations along with our own for what that means to us as consumer researchers. The picture we depict is unstable because the boundaries between consumption and resistance to consumption are porous.

In an insightful portrayal of the work of de Certeau, Poster elaborated on resistance and agency in the region of consumption. He began with a definition of resistance. Although his description seems a less encompassing definition of resist than "to withstand the force or affect of," it serves to focus our attention on the interplay between the agents of resistance and the structures withstood. Poster notes, cultural studies focused on resistance investigate "the way individuals and groups practice a strategy of appropriation in response to structures of domination" (1992, p. 1). This description implicitly represents a recursive interplay between the actions of the resisters and the structures of domination.

Much current criticism of marketing practice focuses on how consumption constitutes a structure of domination (c.f. Rudmin and Richins 1992). Certainly at the hands of the Frankfurt School, and many other post-structuralists, the region of consumption constitutes a pervasive structure of domination and is "a degraded world without hope or signification, a region so corrupted and baleful as to be virtually unintelligible." (Poster 1992, p. 14). The question remains whether there is hope for resistance within this degraded world, and, if so, what would be its nature and forms.

In the consumption domain (characterized by passivity, inertia, empty time, and waste), de Certeau recognizes moments of production, active re-creation and dispersed, tactical and make-shift resistance. Poster (1992) writes:

Like a traveler in a strange land, the consumer, for de Certeau, is one who brings a repertoire of practices into a space that was designed for someone else .... The consumer inscribes a pattern into space that was not accounted for in its design.

Thus, in contrast to many post-structuralists who depict consumers as passive receptacles into which media images are poured, Poster's reflections, when juxtapositioned against our own research passions encouraged us to see the form, substance and consequences of consumer resistance in a new way. New manifestations of consumer resistance were evident in every corner of time and space, and the inevitable recursive interplay between consumer resistance and marketing agents and institutions appeared even more pronounced.

The Nature and Form of Consumer Resistance

Fundamental to our discussion today is, first, there are many, many forms of consumer resistance. Very few of these forms of resistance have caught the attention of consumer behavior researchers. Exhibit one pictures consumer resistance along four dimensions. One axis represents an organizational dimension and ranges from individual to collective action. A second axis represents a goals dimensions and ranges from reformist to radical. A third dimension represents tactics of resistance and varies from actions directed at altering the marketing mix (for example, fighting for product safety features or against ads on television), to actions directed at altering the meaning of products (for example, using products in unintended ways and incorporating novel production into purchased objects). Finally, a fourth dimension recognizes the importance of the consumer's relationship to marketing institutions and agents, acknowledging that consumer resistance may appropriate marketing institutions and agents as their tools of resistance, or may try to stand outside these institutions using non-marketing institutions and agents as instruments of change.

To date, discussions of consumer resistance have been limited and focused primarily on collective (organized) actions directed at changes in marketing mix structure and composition (c.f. Friedman 1991; Herrmann 1992). For example, consumer boycotts have been directed at affecting changes in the composition of the marketing mix and also at more radical reform of the structure of marketing practice (Friedman 1991). Note that boycotts appropriate the structural form of "a vote in the marketplace" as the weapon of resistance. Similarly, the creation of alternative providers of goods and services (e.g., consumer-controlled enterprises), appropriates the tools of marketing to withstand its institutions.

Individual acts of resistance are less commonly explored, and are rarely labelled or linked to resistance. Instead, individual actions focused on may be described and discussed as complaining behavior, negative word-of mouth, or exit (Hirschman 1970). Moreover, the range of actions viewed as resistance is fairly narrow. Consumer acts directed at altering the meanings of consumption and consumption objects are neglected. There are many simple individual acts that transform purchase into production. For example, individuals combine many purchased commodities into a meal that is "homemade", (Wallendorf and Arnould 1991), or use the refrigerator as a community bulletin board and display case. Consumers transform mass produced commodities into highly individuated possessions or experiences. For example, the purchase of a $10 mass produced poster at the end of a mountain biking vacation is described as "an adventure that I alone experienced," (Arnould, Price and Walker 1992). Each of these categories of action may be viewed as resistance against a culture of consumption and the marketing of mass-produced meanings. Other individual acts, such as anorexia and bulimia, can be viewed as failed resistanceC exemplifying "the extreme isolation of the individual whose only, and overwhelmingly obsessive, relationship is to the rejected world of commodities," (Willis, p. 20).

A second theme evident in our discussion today is that identification of consumer resistance is obfiscated by its immediate and recursive interplay with marketing agents and institutions. We will give you many illustrations over the course of this session and our presentation. This recursive interplay between marketing and consumer resistance is visually represented in Exhibit 2.

Although the rationale behind this exhibit will become more apparent in later portions of the presentation, let me posit a couple anticipatory questions. How are we to understand a glossy media indictment of glossy media? Is it the sheep in wolves' clothing or it is the wolf? Also, how are we to understand individual acts of resistance when they are appropriated by marketing institutions and packaged for mass appeal? Consider, for example, ripped up jeans ("anticonsumption") sold at premium prices. Something that starts as an individual act of resistance, emulated by rock stars (such as Samantha Fox and the lead singer of Death Leopard), becomes a "fashion statement" that identifies membership in a particular consumption group (Weiss 1992).



In the next section of the presentation we sketch a poststructuralist and postmodern view of consumer resistance as a way of expanding our research and policy parameters.


This section outlines four issues relevant to consumer resistance that appear in sharp relief as we consider consumers within the context of their postmodern lives. Each of these focuses on aspects of the dialectic between forces that oppose consumers' agency and tactics of resistance.

The Question of The Consuming and Marketing Subject

For marketers and consumer researchers, consumer resistance represents trouble with the sudden intrusion, the unanticipated agency of a consuming subject who inexplicitly reverses the marketer's gaze and contests the place and authority of the marketing position. [We extrapolate this description of the problematic relation of consumers and marketers from the work of Judith Bulter (1990), who so poignantly described an analogously problematic relation, that of woman in male dominated discourse.] Consumer researchers interested in resistance can benefit from applications of poststructuralist thought that examine the ways in which the consumer and the marketer are constituted in the practice of consumer research. Our challenge is to incorporate a more fully human agency and subjectivity in our research at both the individual and collective levels.



As marketers and consumer researchers continue to deny consumers' agency it is very likely that there will be ever expanding research opportunities in the area of consumer resistance. Marketing and consumer researchers deny consumers' agency by: 1) aggressive marketing strategies and consumer research, for example "hard sell" telemarketing campaigns that come at dinner time and/or are masqueraded as consumer research, 2) irresponsible/unethical use and distribution of consumer information, for example Lotus Marketplace: Households, a joint venture of Lotus and Equifax that offered information on 80 million households on a CD rom, which was to sell for $695, or Circuit City's policy of collecting consumer information on all customers at time of purchase, 3) promotions disguised as news or programming, for example the increasingly prevalent video news releases and infomercials, respectively (Lieberman 1992), and 4) sterotypical, offensive representations of consumers. [In January 1991 Lotus Marketplace was withdrawn from the market, after both companies received pressure from privacy advocates and computer consultants. One of the major concerns was that Equifax was using information from its consumer credit files. In July 1991 Equifax announced it would no longer use information taken from its credit files (Smith 1992).] [One of the authors was told she could not purchase an item without providing personal information, because that was the "policy" of the organization. She replied that it was not her "policy" to provide such information and asked to see a manager. The sales clerk quickly turned and went to the back office, only to return, saying that such information was no longer necessary."]

Given the dialectical relation between marketing practice and consumer resistance it is imperative to incorporate a more comprehensive treatment of market practices in our studies of consumer behavior. In this manner we can begin to understand phenomena like product tampering billboard sabotage, and advertisement parody (see Exhibit 3).

Michel de Certeau (1984) offers a very useful approach in his distinction between strategies and tactics. For de Certeau, subversion does not lie soley in the strategies of people's rejection or even alteration of the policies of those who have power over them, but rather in their daily practices, tactics that are grounded in a signification system foreign to the system they have no choice but to accept (p. xiii). de Certeau illustrated his tactics referring to the Spanish colonization of indigenous peoples on the American continent, which is appropriate to mention today because this weekend marks the 500th anniversary of Columbus' "Discovery of America." Acts of resistance may be found in Native Americans' acts of going to Catholic Church and worshipping the sacred icons of the conquerors, because these Christian icons were imbued with the characteristics of those sacred beings they had worshipped previously. Today the Virgin Mary and the Virgin of Guadalupe retain such a juxtaposed relation.

There is a sense in which consumers' options, too are structurally limited. To limit acts of resistance to radical interventions that result in structural change is to overlook the constraints in which consumers find ourselves. For example, I can choose to ride the bus in southern California and I can choose to spend 45 minutes traveling 6 miles! We must examine consumer resistance within the context of the marketing structure that preceded it, especially given marketers uncanny ability to incorporate and appropriate consumer resistance in their marketing practices.

Market Fragmentation

Continuing with de Certeau's conceptualization of resistance as tactics (i.e., daily practices grounded in an alternative signification system), we turn next to the issue of market fragmentation. It is more than a little ironic that while some consumers' resistance has been to get outside the marketing system, others' resistance has been to be included in the marketing system.

Examples of resistance attempting to move outside the market include the Uptown cigarettes that were heavily protested by the African American community, and more recently Native Americans' resistance to the use of the name of one of their tribal leaders, Crazy Horse, on bottles of malt liquor. Other examples of resistance are from "minority" communities that have resisted their exclusion from the mainstream market, and call for their inclusion in the market. Such examples include African, Hispanic and Asian Americans invisible in advertising and other marketing strategic practices and the virtual absence of African, Hispanic and Asian featured dolls. Until recently Mattel's African American Barbie, Crissy, had caucasian features that were merely colored brown, and the "skin color" crayons bore the unmistakable hue of White Americans. Today Mattel has doll with African American features and Krayola has added plural skin tones to their box of crayons.



The challenge to consumer research is to recognize and investigate consumer resistance that is both from inside out of the market as well as from the outside in.

Simulacra and Hyper-Reality

Drawing from the work of Jean Baudrillard (1988), we will next relate the condition of simulacra and hyper-reality to the topic of consumer resistance. In the arguably postmodern, postindustrial era, as Baudfillard asserts, we are caught up in a world of images that have lost their referents. This raises the question, do consumers know what is real anymore?

There is some evidence that the real is increasingly confused with its representation. Examples of simulated market offerings include the "real" life television talk shows and dramas, such as Crime Stoppers, 911, and A Current Affair. All of these, while in some way(s) based on truth, are not the whole story. They simulate the real. Part of their draw is the authenticity of the event, yet the simulation lies in its reproduction. Another example is Cybil Shepherd and Bruce Willis talking directly to the audience in Moonlighting even as they proceed to go back to the show.

Hyper-reality and simulacra create an extremely difficult arena for marketers to operate in. At least some of the resistances we have been talking about are fueled by "unreal" expectations that are the result of hyped-up images and unsubstantiated and unsubstantiable claims. Yet (even) here the real comes crashing in; it threatens at every point, peering around the corner of consumer transactions like that James Thurber cartoon character that is simultaneously built into and peering around the house.

Hyper-reality and simulacra present ready material spurring consumer resistance. It is not clear that referents are totally absent; although in many cases what is signified by signs and products increasingly relies on the associations and significance of other signs and images, many developed by marketers. But even when developed by marketers, signs are not employed without some trace to the consumer domain, for that is what enables consumers to relate to the product. What becomes convoluted in this process are not only the ways products and their "benefits" are simulated, but also the ways in which consumers may be simulated in and through the discourse of marketing and consumer research.

Against Utopia

You can never dismantle the master's house with the master's tools

Audre Lorde

We would like to close this presentation with a discussion of the postmodern challenge to the modern view of social change, the utopian impulse (Hebdige 1988). As the expression goes, you cannot fight fire with fire. Translated to the problem of consumer resistance, this means that effective strategies and tactics of resistance are limited to those stemming from outside the market.

On the other hand, consider the Adbusters parody advertisement. The media are a very powerful vehicle for marketers, their tool, if you will. Yet many consumer resisters are trying to challenge marketers' "monopolization of the airwaves," as George Gerbner (1991) of the Annenberg School of Communication and of the Cultural Environmental Movement terms it.

In another example, Tim Robbins was the guest host for Saturday Night Live recently. While the show will probably be best remembered for Sinead O'Connor's performance in which she sang to the audience to fight evil wherever they find it and ended by tearing up a photograph of Pope John Paul, at least as controversial was Robbins' opening act. He began by stating that General Electric is the parent company of NBC network, and that the company is perhaps best known as a producer of light bulbs and consumer electronics, with the slogan, We Bring Good Things to Life. What most people do not know, he continued, is that GE is also the producer of the detonators for nuclear weapons, and maybe their slogan should be, We Bring Good Things to Death. Suddenly the television went blank, as if someone at the network had "pulled the plug."

The next thing we saw was one of the executives of NBC waking from a dream/nightmare. Although somewhat buffered by the dream format, and definitely overwhelmed by O'Connor's controversial performance, Robbins' skit was at least as potentially damaging to the parent company, General Electric and all of this took place on ABC network television.Our point is to suggest that the challenge to those of us intent on examining consumer resistance is to recognize that there is no total escape, no place out there totally outside the market from which positive social change, including effective consumer resistance and freedom from market domination will emanate.

The topic of consumer resistance is rendered further complex given the convergence of consumption and production. Consumers are increasingly taking on marketing tasks (e.g., price clubs, coops and credit unions), just as marketers are taking on more of what has traditionally been in the consumers' domain (e.g., meal preparation, child care, shopping services).

While Audre Lorde makes a very compelling point, not all consumer resistance stems from a position outside of and against the market, although some surely does, for example, the recent movement favoring nationalized health care in the U.S. Consumer resistances are also found within the logic of the market. We miss an important part of consumer resistance if we just focus on structural change. As noted by de Certeau, key consumer resistances are also found in the day to day minutia of product use and signification.


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