Special Session Summary Consumer Resistance: Societal Motivations, Consumer Manifestations, and Implications in the Marketing Domain

Susan Fournier, Harvard Business School
[ to cite ]:
Susan Fournier (1998) ,"Special Session Summary Consumer Resistance: Societal Motivations, Consumer Manifestations, and Implications in the Marketing Domain", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 88-90.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 88-90



Susan Fournier, Harvard Business School


The participants in this session are engaged in empirical research that expands the boundaries of consumer research attention from the "approach" type topics that typically dominate activities and orientations to the "avoidance" behaviors that characterize much consumer behavior in the 1990s (Englis and Solomon 1996; Gould et al., 1996). This session specifically considered the notion of consumer resistance, an avoidance behavior with much anecdotal support in the popular and business press (Caudron 1993; Waldman 1992) yet little dedicated empirical research. The papers in this session represented three different and complementary levels of analysis that combine to provide a broader perspective on the phenomenon of resistance and its manifestations in the consumer marketplace. The first paper by Juliet Schor offered a sociological perspective, describing trends toward "downsizing" that have shaped consumers’ movements "away from" the modern marketplace and the consumerism it implies. Phenomenological evidence was presented next in the presentation by Susan Dobscha, illustrating the lived meaning of consumer resistance at the level of daily experience in the marketplace. The final presentation closed with a detailed look at manifestations of the resistance theme at the psychological level, with Margaret Hogg specifically considering effects on brand and product choice behaviors. Fournier then opened the floor to audience participation by noting the ironies this research presents vis-a-vis the one-to-one relationship revolution, suggesting implications of explicitly considering the resistance phenomenon in marketing thought and practice.


Several observations suggest resistance as a vanguard of consumer behavior in the 1990s: (1) customer satisfaction rates at an all time low; (2) increasing consumer skepticism of marketing practice; (3) increasing refusal rates in marketing research; (4) majority of consumers feeling "overwhelmed by the marketplace" (Yankelovich Partners survey, cited in Kasanoff 1997) and the pace of new product development (Dhebar 1996; Mick and Fournier 1997); (5) movement of consumer mindsets from one of invincibility to a permanent state of vulnerability (Caudron 1992); and (6) evolution from the work ethic to the "me" ethic, to the "era of victimization" (according to futurist Watts Wacker). These negative feeling states are particularly noteworthy when juxtaposed against what has been called the Era of Autonomy (Roper/Starch 1995). The net effect: consumers are not happy with marketing or the marketplace, and they are willing to engage resistance efforts to regain control.

A primary objective of the session was to begin the process of conceptualizing the complex concept of resistance. Broadly speaking, resistance involves an opposing or retarding force; it concerns activities that exert oneself so as to counteract or defeat (Webster’s Dictionary). While resistance motives have been considered in the context of consumer boycotts (Hermann 1993), complaining behavior (Penaloza and Price 1993) and symbolic consumption rejecting "the system at large" (DeCerteau 1984), we have yet to develop an integrative theoretical perspective of the phenomenon that considers the many and varied ways in which resistance of the marketplace and its offerings impacts consumer behavior. The session discussant offered a "resistance continuum" intended to organize the various papers in the session (Figure 1).

The discussant also framed the papers in the session as having as their point of focus three different objects of resistance. The presentations by Schor concerns consumers’ resistance to the marketplace as a whole. Dobscha focuses on consumers’ resistance to marketing activities, a point which is followed up on by Fournier in her closing comments concerning relationship marketing practice. Hogg is interested in resistance at the brand and product level. Previous work in the area has largely concerned resistance against company behaviors (boycotting and complaining behaviors), a fourth dimension along which avoidance activities may vary.

Lastly, it was noted that resistance activities manifest themselves in many ways, offering opportunities for study at several different levels of analysis. Sociological versus psychological manifestations were noted, as were latent versus conscious motivations.






Juliet B. Schor

In their book, The Unmanageable Consumer, authors Gabriel and Lang (1995) describe those who consciously decide to consume less as "the ultimate consumer rebels" (p.148). These people, in the words of the authors, "have gone so far as to challenge the utmost taboo against which few dare to express themselves - the equation of a beter life with more consumption" (p.148). For the past several years, the popular press has been full of stories about people living constrained consumption lifestyles. Variously labelled "voluntary simplicity" (Elgin 1981), aceticism (Gould et al. 1996), and non-materialism (Richins and Dawson 1992), Schor asserts that this variety of consumer behavior appears now to have manifest itself as more than a mere blip on the socio-cultural landscape.

This paper investigates one form of constrained consumption, namely, downshifting. Voluntary downshifters are defined as individuals who have undergone voluntary lifestyle changes which entailed their earning less money. The majority of these are working fewer hours. Schor takes care to distinguish between voluntary simplifiers and Downshifters. Unlike their voluntarily simplistic predecessors, or aeceticists who opted never to enter the marketplace in the first place, downshifters are reacting against choices they made to pursue a lifestyle of consumption. They are rejecting consumerism and materialism after having sampled the fruits of these labors. Through national survey research (n=800), Schor estimates that 19% of the adult population elected a "voluntary downshift" in the years 1990-1996. A "less is more" mentality about consumer goods is emerging in a significant way, she concludes. The Downshifting population is broad in its socio-economic and demographic character. "It’s is a mainstream phenomenon," she concludes.

Schor also draws on material from 26 in-depth interviews with downshifters in Boston and Seattle. Here, she explores assumptions underlying the various theoretical conceptualizations that have been posed to explain the downshifting trend. Some downshifters are less oriented to symbolic meanings than product function and value. An alternative view of the phenomenon poses economic versus value-driven roots, where downshifting is a response to a reduced payoff to work rather than a fundamental change in the perceived value of goods. A portion of these downshifters are people whose time and money tradeoffs have been altered by the fact that work has become more insecure, more demanding, and less remunerative.



Susan Dobscha

Dobscha’s paper (provided elsewhere in this volume) exposes some themes of consumer resistance based on phenomenological interviews conducted over a two-year period. The data illuminate consumers’ growing skepticism with a marketplace that is perceived to offer confusing, conflict-producing, and antithetical product choices. Specific marketing actions seen to exacerbate this problem are highlighted, including advertising, product claims, pricing strategies, and distribution. Pro-active resistance strategies believed to facilitate coping in this "consumer-insensitive world" are inducted from the data. Theoretical development building on DeCerteaus’ ideas of resistance are offered in closing.



Margaret Hogg and Maria Savolainen

Margaret and Maria address the question of consumer resistance to products and brands, particularly that which is exhibited in consumer choice behavior. Hogg draws on Bourdieu (1984), who identified aversion as an important form of consumer resistance to goods. Aversion is manifest by 'distastes’ which contrast with 'tastes’ representing consumer preferences for goods and services. "Tastes," she quotes, are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by the tastes of others an aversion to different lifestyles .. they are asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of other tastes" (Bordieu 1984, p.56). As is true for aligning tastes, Hogg notes, aversion can be linked to both the functional/utilitarian and expressive/symbolic aspects of goods. While research into positive preferences for products and brands is well established-and similarly consumers’ use of positive images of goods and services has been extensively examined-the negative aspects of product and brand imagery are much less well understood and explored. Her study examines how consumers interpret negative and positive product/brand imagery and how they use their product/brand choices to mark inclusion and exclusion, respectively. Hers is a study of negative congruences (Sirgy 1982): between the undesired self (Ogilvie 1987) and the negative aspects of product/brand imagery.

To inform these objectives, fourteen men and women were interviewed in focus group settings with the aid of projective techniques. Four teams in each focus group were instructed to produce two collages, one concerning situational self concepts, and one concerning brand imagery (for a total of eight collages per group). A 2 (public versus private consumption setting) by 2 (Heineken versus Budweiser brands) design was employed. Interpretations of the focus group discussions and brand collages suggest the operation of several product/brand rejection criteria in motivating brand choice: inherent aspects of products (e.g., taste), symbolic aspects of products (e.g., Heineken is high class), product-user imagery, personalizability of product symbolism (e.g., Sol versus Budweiser versus Special Brew), and container-user imagery (e.g., certain people drink bottles versus mugs). Hogg observed aversion linked to intrinsic and extrinsic aspects of products/brands as well as interpretations offered in contrast to other brands, and concluded confirmation of Bordieu’s claim that tastes are asserted by the refusal of other tastes.



Susan Fournier, Harvard Business School

In her concluding comments, Fournier echoed her introductory remarks on the important and fundamental nature of the resistance phenomena discussed in the session. She was particularly intrigued by Hogg’s implicit assertion that "we are what we reject," citing manifestations of this phenomenon that she has seen in her own research (Fournier 1998) on brand relationship behaviors (e.g., I am not really an Apple computer user, it’s that I am not an IBM person). She also mentioned literature supporting the primacy of disgust as a universal human emotion, urging others to build in this promising vein.

Research by Schor was applauded for its ability to highlight an important and emergent mainstream trend, and to distinguish this trend from earlier manifestations of constrained consumerism at the fringes of society. She was particularly impressed bythe changes in consumer behavior Schor has detected: changes in the way consumers spend their time (the scarce resource of the 1990s), changes in consumers’ evaluations of what is truly needed versus what is wanted or desired, changes in conceptions of what is "enough." These are changes, Fournier asserts, that fundamentally alter the nature of consumer behavior in the marketplace, demanding future research attention. Time diary studies and longitudinal investigations of downshifting evolution were recommended to explore this phenomenon further. Historical analyses offering more formal comparisons with voluntary simplifiers and ascetics were also suggested toward goals of conceptual clarity.

Finally, Fournier noted the value-laden nature of much of the material shared in the session. Dobscha’s marketplace rebels actively oppose marketing action because of a deep-seated personal value system that encourages self-definition in opposition to the marketplace ("I am not a consumer!"). Downshifters are making choices to earn less money for the quality of life advantages working less can obtain. The value-driven character of resistance activities directly implicates life satisfaction, and the role that marketers play in it. To reinforce this point, Fournier built upon Dobscha’s presentation and shared research regarding consumer’s reactions to relationship marketing practice - reactions that indicate that the very actions marketers undertake to strengthen consumer bonds are often the very things that destroy them (Fournier et al 1998). The session on resistance is a wake up call to all of us, she concludes, for if the purpose of marketing is to serve a boundary function between consumer and firmCto transfer the voice of the customer to those inside, to promote customer orientation through advocacy of the consumer point of view, to stand in for the consumer in decision-making processes within the firm (Webster 1992) - then marketing quite clearly has failed.


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