The Lived Experience of Consumer Rebellion Against Marketing

ABSTRACT - Consumers are taking active steps to rebel against the marketplace, yet, marketers are not acknowledging this rebellion as a powerful social movement. This paper provides data from a two year study of people who chose to define themselves in opposition to the dominant consumer culture, which they felt promoted waste and environmental degradation. Instead, the participants of this study created new selves that reflected their determination not to be labeled consumers and crafted new relationships in opposition to the marketplace that reflected their skepticism with marketing practices.


Susan Dobscha (1998) ,"The Lived Experience of Consumer Rebellion Against Marketing", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 91-97.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 91-97


Susan Dobscha, Bentley College


Consumers are taking active steps to rebel against the marketplace, yet, marketers are not acknowledging this rebellion as a powerful social movement. This paper provides data from a two year study of people who chose to define themselves in opposition to the dominant consumer culture, which they felt promoted waste and environmental degradation. Instead, the participants of this study created new selves that reflected their determination not to be labeled consumers and crafted new relationships in opposition to the marketplace that reflected their skepticism with marketing practices.


The relationship between consumer and marketer has traditionally been presented as a symbiotic, exchange-based relationship (Kotler and Armstrong 1996). This vision of the consumer/marketer relationship has roots in the economics-rational man paradigm that served as the foundation for early consumer research and assumes that market and consumer co-exist for the mutual benefits of value and profit.

Recently, however, some researchers are questioning this relationship. Critical and feinist theorists, to name just a few, have begun to dismantle the assumption of equal exchange by highlighting the power imbalance of a profit-motivated marketplace consisting of large, organized corporations with access to the media and other sources of information (Murray and Ozanne 1991; Gabriel and Lang 1995) . Such issues as uneven access to information, imbalanced distribution of goods and services, and underhanded tactics of some marketers have caused some researchers to question the assumption of equal exchange.

In its wake, new forms of consumer research, one designed to engage in a new conversation with the consumer, have emerged, taking the forms of new methodologies (Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1989), new contexts (Arnould and Price 1993) or re-examining established marketing topics (Holt 1997), and the applications of new paradigms to marketing phenomena so that the imbalances mentioned above may be exposed and possibly changed (Gravois-Lee 1996).

One area still relatively unchartered is consumer resistance. While consumer resistance is a central construct within cultural studies (Hall, Clark, Jefferson, and Roberts 1976), it has been barely discussed in the consumer research literature (some exceptions are Penaloza and Price 1992; Thompson and Haytko 1997). Resistance has been defined as "the way individuals and groups practice a strategy of appropriation in response to structures of domination (Poster 1992, p. 94)." In marketing, consumer resistance has been narrowly studied within two domains: boycotting (Garrett 1987) and complaining (Hunt 1991). While these two domains could be considered strategies, they fail to acknowledge the marketplace as a "structure of domination" that is a central facet of the definition proposed by cultural theorists (de Certeau 1984).

This paper presents data from a two year study of people who viewed the marketplace as a structure of domination. This view was substantiated by their skepticism of marketing practices and refusal to be labeled. This view also led the participants to engage in resistance strategies in order to distance themselves from a structure they deemed oppressive. Finally, these resistance behaviors will be interpreted based on the ideas of cultural theorist de Certeau (1984).


This study resulted from a two-year, in-depth look at women who self-identified as lovers of the natural world. This love for the natural world drove their desire to distance themselves from consumer culture, fueled their skepticism of marketing, and acted as their primary motivation in undertaking the resistance behaviors described below.

The people interviewed for this study were nine women, all of whom were dedicated to the natural world, both in values and in action. A feminist methodology was employed in order to 1) maintain the voice of the participant, 2) build trust between researcher and participant, and 3) empower the participant through guidance of topics covered during the interviews (Fine 1992; Hirschman 1993; Oakley 1981; Reinharz 1992). To facilitate these goals, two forms of data collection were used: 1) engaged observation (Belk 1991; Hammersley and Atkinson 1983; Hirschman 1986) and 2) multiple, in-depth interviews (Briggs 1986; McCracken 1988; Reinharz 1992).

Each participant was interviewed three times, for one to three hours each. These interviews took place in the homes of the participants and followed a loose structure. The first interview was guided by an initial set of broad questions. The second interview was guided by the content of the first interview, and the third interview consisted of a conversation concerning any issue related to the participants’ commitment to the natural world (Dobscha 1995).

Data were then analyzed using a three-stage hermenuetical process derived from the works of McCracken (1988), Spradley (1979), and Sherwin (1988). This hermenuetic process involved first creatng a text with each participant by reading and analyzing the text as a whole, then creating a second text from the common elements among the participants, and finally creating a third text designed to combine my analysis with their original words.

The following section highlights the womens’ profound skepticism of marketing practices and their unwillingness to be considered part of the dominant consumer culture. The next section will discuss the activities and behaviors in which the women engage in order to resist the dominant structure of the marketplace. The last section serves as an interpretation of this resistance through the ideas of de Certeau (1984). Theoretical and managerial implications will then follow.


The women in this study shared the stance that the marketplace and marketing practices do not provide solutions to consumption-related problems, but instead create grave problems, such as waste, inefficiency, sickness, and materialism. Therefore, these women professed a deep skepticism of marketing practices and refused to be labeled consumers. They lived their lives very differently from the "average" consumer by actively avoiding as many marketplace interactions as possible, using less of the goods they did buy, and proactively shopping when avoidance was impossible.

Skepticism of Marketing Practices

The women interviewed were highly skeptical of business practices, especially marketing. For example, Helen saw big business as a deterrent to positive change in the area of health care and the environment:

whenever you want to make a step forward, you find that big business is in the way somewhere . To make any changes in the country, like take the health care issue, and it is really big business which is what the medical profession has become. That’s standing the way of changing the medical system so that everybody has coverage in a way that makes sense. And in a way that is going to be beneficial to everybody. No lower standards or anything. It’s the same way with the tobacco industry or with the automobiles. With the emission. Look how long it took to get lead free gasoline.

Similarly, Rachel questions the whole notion of marketing. In this passage she states:

There is just that whole, you know, advertising and you are in marketing, you know the power of it. I’m really suspicious of it. And that’s one of the reasons I don’t like to buy packaged things. I like to buy stuff in bulk in big brown bags that don’t have any packaging or labels. I’m just not really that into it.

All of the domains of marketing were criticized. For example, product claims were perceived as "fallacious" and misleading:

I think a lot of times it’s phony. I think people are trying to sell products and you have to be very careful to read what’s actually in the product. Cause they may say something like recyclable and you’ll think, oh, that’s recyclable product, but all it means is that you can recycle it (Helen).

The initial onslaught of green products was all bullshit. It was all just creative marketing. We [paper companies] have always been making out of recycling paper. We take it off of our own floor, put it back into the machine and it comes out recycled. We win. We didn’t do anything different, plus we get this extra market boost (Tery).

The women also questioned pricing policies in terms of the actual value they represent:

They say that’s [environmental legislation] going to increase the cost to our product. And that’s going to increase cost and therefore we shouldn’t have to do it. And my attitude is that it may increase the cost but the people that are getting that product should have to pay the total cost of producing it and not let other people pay in their reduced health (Margaret).

Margaret feels like the price of a good should reflect the total impact the product has on society (similar to the cigarette/health care burden argument) and not merely reflect the shorter-term usage value.

Distribution was also criticized on similar fronts. According to Margaret, "nobody looks at the whole picture." Cathy also makes the point that national distribution of food products is inefficient when the total cost to the environment is factored in:

Well, if you think abut it, everything that is grown here, unless you go to a farmers’ market, everything that is grown here is shipped somewhere else, the cows go to, oh, Chicago, or wherever they go, produce goes some place else, even worse. Packaged, processed or whatever, and then it’s sent back out. So much of what we grow here, could be used here, without being sent someplace else. Then we could have real red tomatoes, that haven’t been picked green and then injected to turn them red, you know.

Dana suggests that distribution channels do not do enough to provide the members of her group alternatives:

I definitely think manufacturers and retailers should start doing more. DefinitelyThe retailers also need to take the responsibility even if it does take a little extra time and little extra space, that is necessary.

Advertising continues to be the most criticized marketing function (Belk and Pollay 1985) and was categorically criticized for its fallacious nature:

So mostly I trust, I read something that’s not an advertisement then I’ll trust it. I don’t trust advertising in the tiniest, least little bit. Advertising just on the face of it is so ludicrous. It’s obvious people are going to say whatever they want to sell their product...Advertising is advertising and so by its very nature it can’t be trusted and the fact that so much money is spent on it, it’s really sad (Robin).

Advertising in general is like an evil in our society. But I think it’ sad because it could be taken, one small piece of what they pay for advertising could feed all the homeless people in this country. Its really sad (Dana).

The women in this study both defined themselves in opposition to the dominant consumer culture and criticized marketing practices. Contrary to the popular notion of marketing providing solutions to consumers’ problems, these women placed marketing squarely at fault for its faulty practices. The women’s refusal to be labeled consumers and their desire to resist the dominant market structure forced them to create new means of interacting with it.

Defining Selves in Relation to the MarketplaceC"I Am NOT a Consumer"

The women in this study refused to be labeled as consumers. This refusal rested in their idea that consumption contributed to the problems they were trying to solve (in this case, environmental degradation), and did not provide solutions to environmental problems (in contrast to the laims of many "green" product manufacturers). Instead, these women defined themselves in opposition to the dominant consumer culture.

Terry puts it bluntly when she says, "we [she and her husband] are not consumers by nature." Similarly, Ann states, "since I’m not a big consumer. I know people that are, but I’m not the kind that likes to go shopping a whole lot." Laura also states her belief that she and her social network do not buy enough to be consumers as it is popularly conceived:

And I thought of all the people that I started, you know some of the names that I threw out last week, and other names that I would fill out [as possible participants in my study], and they aren’t consumers...when it comes to buying things, I mean I could go through my cupboards and tell you, this bottle of this has lasted me two years. And this has lasted me six months and will last me more. Things that I used to use the more I learn and the more I think about, I think, well, I don’t really need this. I used to buy fabric softener sheets for the dryer, and then I thought, well, why do I need these? Number one I don’t dry, I only use the dryer for sheets and towels, depending on the time of year. And so, why do you need fabric softener. You know, why do we buy so many things in our society that we just don’t really need?

As stated in the previous passage, Laura defines herself in opposition to a "society" that buys things "that we just don’t really need." Rachel also compares herself to consumers and finds she has little in common with them: "We don’t buy that much. Doesn’t seem like. At least not as much as we see other people buying. Like, we never buy packaged cereals and that kind of stuff." She further distances herself by stating: "I don’t really know why people feel the need to buy the things that they do. That to me is a mystery. Like when I see all the stuff in the store that is for sale, I can’t even imagine why everybody wants to buy it." Finally, Rachel makes the ultimate separation, "I try not to contribute to the consumeristic society. I mean we do buy new things, but not much."

The other way the women defined themselves in opposition to the consumer culture was by asserting that consumption does not provide solutions, but rather creates problems of dynamic proportions, including waste, pollution, and a desire to acquire happiness through material gains. Terry makes this point in the following passage:

So, consumerism...I think is an issue that needs to be confronted, rather than simply repainted. And I think , I define, obviously whey you buy something, and you use it, you have consumed. But I think the concept of humans as consumers or Americans in any case, as consumers is something that needs to be dismantled. We are not consumers. We should not be consumers. We should use things when we need to use them, but we should question much more what exactly it is we need to use and I think we need to get out of the consumer "buy more, buy more" [mindset].

The women in this study defined themselves in opposition to the marketplace due to their insistence that they buy as little as possible and that consumerism is the source of many problems. Their definitions of self in opposition to the marketplace stems from a very deep skepticism of marketing practices. In the next section, this skepticism will be discussed. These creative solutions will be presented in the next section.


In order to remain true o their definitions of self, the women distanced themselves as far away from the marketplace as they could, understanding that full withdrawal was impossible. The most effective way the women avoided the marketplace was by doing without many products that other people might view as necessary. This avoidance gave these women the chance to live outside the marketplace. Also, the women actively engaged in re-creation of products, rather than choosing the manufactured alternative.

Living Outside the Marketplace

Living outside the marketplace included doing without many products deemed frivolous, unnecessary, or detrimental to the environment. Other times, however, doing without was not a feasible option. Therefore, the women created new products either from "scratch" or from already manufactured parts. Doing without or actively re-creating new products from old allowed them to live comfortably within the confines of a consumerist society.

Some products were easy for these women to do without. For example, Robin says, "we put up with a lot of spiders" because of her refusal to buy insecticides. Laura would never go to a salad bar at a grocery store because "they give you that big plastic container, that you carry out", which seems to her very wasteful. Rachel states it this way:

But it just seems like a lot of what is for sale is useless. Everything. Pretty much everything that I see. Like you go into Wal-Mart, just a lot of stuff, I guess it just doesn’t seem, it seems like a waste. Panty hose, junk food, like food that is not really, you know, cheese that comes in a little spray can and cheez whiz.

Many products, however, are vital to people’s well being, such as soap, food, and cleansers. The essential nature of certain products is downplayed or nullified so that the marketplace could be avoided. Rachel avoids the marketplace for a product deemed by many pre-menopausal women as essential: feminine hygiene products. She says:

People want to have convenience, they don’t want to have to deal with their messes. They just want it all to get, a good example for me is that, I don’t know if this is going to gross you out or not, but feminine hygiene products like disposable feminine napkins, and tampons and all that; I don’t use those, I use cloths, and I wash them out. I have been doing that for a long time and its not a big deal to me anymore. I just don’t even think twice about it. So I go to the store and I look in the aisle full of all that shit, wrapped in plastic and it really kind of freaks me out that this is what everybody is using and it’s all just going into the landfill.

Helen also changed her lifestyle so that she could avoid the marketplace alternative for cleansers. She says, "I used to buy stuff for the drains." Now she flushes the drains with hot water.

For the women in this study, living outside the marketplace by doing without store bought products gave them the sense of accomplishment that they had stayed true to their self-definitions of being "non-consumers" and their skepticism of marketing.

In addition to doing without, the women in this study created new products from old so that the marketplace alternative could be avoided. Dana’s children often created toys and crafts from such objects as two-liter soda bottles, old beer bottles, and old coffee cans. Helen decorated her house with collages constructed solely from old newspaper and magazine pictures. These collages were fun for Helen to construct and allowed her to avoid buying art from the marketplace. Finally, Rachel provides the most compelling example of creating something new from old:

We do a lot of dumpster diving and when people have their trash pick up in town we go around and find stuff. We bring home bags of leaves and compost the leaves and then use the bags. We are kind of like scavengers, that’s one way of putting it.

Rachel and her husband constructed a large greenhouse from materials found while "dumpster diving." All the glass panels, doors, and wood used to construct it were found discarded in other people’s trash.

Living on the Edge

When full avoidance was impossible, the women in this study altered their use of products so that they would use the least amount possible. In addition, the women bought used products so that they still did not contribute to the wasteful practices of manufacturing. Using products differently and buying second-hand took them to the edge of the marketplace, where interaction was inevitable but minimized.

One way in which the women used products differently in order to avoid the marketplace and maintain their resistant stance of not being labeled consumers was to use less of the recommended amount. Laura and Robin talked about using much less of a product than what is recommended:

For instance if I bought a can of environmentally friendly cleanser that cleans sinks and tubs, I mean I would use a can a year. I clean the kitchen sink every day but you just need a tiny sprinkle. It literally lasts me a year, same with dish detergent, um I probably buy a 22 oz bottle of dish detergent a year, maybe two a year. And I’ll watch other people wash their dishes and I’ll bet you they buy one every two weeks!

I don’t know how many pounds it is but it lasts a month. I use half the recommended amount...And I don’t; I used to use a lot of soap removers that I’m sure had solvents, like organic solvents or something.

Cathy also stated, "I use less of everything. You know that little scoop you have in detergentCI use half."

Another product area where the women used products differently than what is socially dictated was automobiles. All of the women studied made great efforts to minimize car usage. According to Cathy, a car is an unfortunate necessity: "In fact, I hate driving. I would like to have no car if I could, but I find it inconvenient in this country. And that’s what bothers me too. I don’t know why more people don’t walk." This quote highlights Cathy’s desire to do without, as was highlighted in the last section, but is forced to merely use cars less.

The women used less of everything. Helen says, "a lot of times the tissues are double and I’ll separate them" and Laura uses a shampoo amount, "the size of a pea." Therefore, the women avoided the label of consumer and resisted the marketplace’s attempts to dictate usage requirements and product needs.

The women also lived on the edge of the marketplace by buying second hand. This behavior is considered in this section rather than the next because of the nature of a capitalist system, which does not account for the resale of goods in its accounting system. Therefore, most consumer goods (with the exception of homes and collectibles) are priced to reflect one exchange between buyer and seller. Therefore, purchasing second hand is not within the realm of living within the marketplace, but rather living on the edge.

Rachel states her reasons for buying second hand:

We have shitty cars because I really feel that is one thing that people are; I don’t know, cars I think in general are really not a good idea because I think people should be, we should have mass transportaion should be the focus, but it’s not. So our way of protesting that is just buy used cars and hardly drive. Drive as little as possible. And make the cars last as long as possible.

Similarly, Terry buys clothes second hand:

All the clothes I buy, I buy at the thrift store. Partly because I am a cheapskate, and partially because the clothes already exist and they are perfectly good stuff, I don’t need to buy new ones which make a demand for more to be made.

By buying clothes that are already made, Terry does not create a demand for new clothes manufacturing and thus resists the marketplace by not contributing to its overall growth.

When possible, the women in this study avoided the marketplace so that they did not contribute to a structure they deemed oppressive. When avoidance was not possible, the women either created new products with old materials, used less of the products they did have to buy, and bought second hand in order to avoid stimulating overall demand for new products. When none of these options were feasible, then the women proactively entered "the lion’s den" and purchased new products. This interaction came only after all of the options above were exhausted and with it came new forms of strain on them. These proactive interactions and the frustrations that arose from them will be highlighted in the next section.

Living in the Lion’s Den

When it was impossible to actively avoid the marketplace, the women were forced to interact with a system they considered oppressive. This interaction came only after every effort was made to avoid the marketplace, such as doing without, creating new products from old, using less, and buying second hand. Nevertheless, at times the women had no choice but to enter into marketplace exchanges. These interactions were, however, markedly different than the average consumer’s.

First, these women entered the marketplace proactively. This proactive stance was taken as a result of their professed skepticism of business and resulted in proactive shopping behaviors. These behaviors were marked with frustrating interactions with the marketplace as well as the development of creative solutions to consumption problems derived from the new products they were forced to buy.

Interaction with the marketplace was marred by frustration. Cathy voices this frustration:

I went round and round with Kroger becausewhen you went through the line they would say, is plastic OK. Because I know there is controversy over which [bag] is better. I believe that paper is betterand I went to the management and they said this was specifically decreed by the god of whatever this market is. And they had now idea why!

Dana voiced similar frustrations with her grocery store interactions, "they hate the net bags. I have to show them how to load it. Every time." Laura is always trying to educate the clerks at Wal-Mart:

I don’t need a bag, I have my own bag. And she [the clerk] had the bag already in hand. And I said as long as you will promise me that you will use that bag with the next personand the girl behind her said, oh, I never do. [the clerk said] when people tell me that I just throw it away. And I said PLEASE!

This frustration was felt by the majority of women whenever they entered the marketplace. This frustration led many of the women to develop creative solutions to their consumption-related dilemmas.

In order to better manage this consistent frustration, the women in this study created solutions that allowed them to better cope with the marketplace. Some of these solutions came in the form of making cleansers from natural ingredients and forming bulk buying clubs.

Many of the women avoided buying cleansers that were harmful to the environment. Yet, houses, clothes, and children still needed to be cleaned. Therefore, like Terry and Robin state here, making cleansers from "scratch" became a way of performing the function without supporting an industry that creates waste and environmental destruction:

You go to a grocery store to buy something you need to eat or to clean with and you perhaps don’t have the choices that you would need. You actually do, if you want to be creative. You can find the baking soda and you can go buy the lemons if you want cleaners instead of getting the handy dandy Lysol tub and tile cleaner or whatever you use.

I use vinegar solution and water and baking soda. And I find that really cleans quite well. And if I need soap I’ll just use a little bit of dishwashing soap and put that in the solution.

I probably have them clipped on the refrigerator there somewhere. Where they gave you a list of things that you could use instead of cleaning, you know, buying cleaning products.

While both women were interacting with the marketplace, they were creating solutions to consumption-related problems formed by their relationship with the environment, their refusal to be labeled consumers, and their skepticism of business.

Robin formed a buying club in order to avoid one wasteful ramification of single family shopping: packaging. In contrast to store-bought food, bulk food often comes in large, unbranded bags and are then distributed to the members of the buying group for consumption. Even though this form of shopping is less convenient, Robin, Rachel and others find bulk food buying groups to be a good option when entering the marketplace is unavoidable.

It should be noted that although these three strategies were presented discretely, the women often engaged in all three of the strategies in one resistant moment. For example, Terry provides a compelling example of simultaneously doing without, using products differently, and engaging in creative strategies upon entering the marketplace:

This is one of my mad scientists projects. Which my mind is occupied most of the time and every once in a while my body gets to be occupied. It’s an exercise bike that I got at the thrift store. Couldn’t beat the price. Right now the wheel is mounted to a grain grinder so that you can sit comfortably and pedal and with two pulley belts it will transfer what you are pedaling up to the wheel on the grain grinder so you can be pouring the grain in and it will be grinding it into flour and it will be very easy as opposed to doing it by hand which is quite tedious.

Terry’s contraption was creatively constructed from things that she purchased second hand. She designed the grinder herself in order to avoid the markeptlace alternative of processed breads, which often come in containers that can not be recycled. She decreases the manufacturing resources necessary to provide her with grain, all the while benefiting from the physical exercise this activity is affording her.

As shown by the last quote, the women in this study chose to live their lives very differently. The motivation for their disdain for the marketplace and their subsequent refusal to be labeled consumers was environmental; consumption was equated with environmental degradation. In order to avoid environmental effects, certain activities were demonstrated. These activities will be interpreted trough de Certeau’s lens of consumer resistance in the next section.


The participants in this study created many solutions in response to a dominant structure they deemed oppressive. To these women, the marketplace did not act as a place in which mutual exchange is facilitated but rather a place where waste and false claims run rampant. They defied the long held assertion within consumer research that "consumption is everything, everything is consumption (Mentzer 1990)." Instead, these women refused to be labeled consumers, refused to accept the messages of marketers, and refused to acquiesce to the machinations of the marketplace.

This refusal can be interpreted in light of de Certeau’s ideas on consumer resistance (1984). De Certeau viewed consumption as a cultural activity (rather than an exchange activity) and the consumer as a tactical resistor (rather than an exchange agent). As interpreted by Poster (1992), de Certeau presents three ideas as central to consumer resistance: 1) consumer engage in "poiesis" or the active re-creation of product meaning through modification of products, 2) consumers are "immigrants" or strangers in the marketplace because it was not designed for them, and 3) consumers employ tactics in the marketplace that are unpredictable by marketing "experts" and therefore stand as acts of resistance.


De Certeau defines consumption "as the realm of the use of an object by those who are not its makers." What differentiates de Certeau’s definition from the modern conception of consumption is the idea of "poiesis"Ca moment of "production, of making, doing...a moment of active re-creation." Although this concept has been put forward by other consumer researchers (namely Wallendorf and Arnould 1991) it has not been framed in terms of consumer resistance. De Certeau’s "moment of active re-creation" is not merely an appropriation strategy but a resistance strategy designed to defy the dictated usage prescribed by companies.

In this study, many of the women created their own cleansers from environmentally benign ingredients such as vinegar and baking soda. This moment of active re-creation of meaning stands in deep opposition to the dominant culture’s norms of house cleaning and maintenance. By creating new clothes from pieces of old clothes, the women defy the dominant culture’s fabricated fashion trends, and the act of building a greenhouse from unused and discarded scraps stands in resistance to a culture taught to turn to the marketplace to find answers to problems. These moments of production allowed the women an opportunity to remain true to their notions of self and resist an oppressive structure.

Immigrants in a Strange Land

De Certeau’s vision of consumers diverges from the traditional view of consumers as passive, inert, and interested only in self-preservation. He also deviates from the Marxist view of consumers as free, rational agents, who once freed from the domination of the capitalist system, will be complete. He instead defines the consumer as an "immigrant": ...a traveler in a strange land...who brings a repertoire of practices into a space that was designed for someone else. The consumer brigs otherness into society and inscribes a pattern into space that was not accounted for in its design (Poster 1992, p. 102)." Therefore, consumers act as "immigrants" when they resist the marketplace ideology and "seize on inherent contradictions that exist in society and engage in the creation of their own profane subcultures (Ozanne, Hill, and Wright 1994)." The subculture in which these women belonged was one that defied the commonly held belief that consumption and marketing were tools of an unbiased, power-neutral exchange process in which both sides benefit. Instead, this subculture felt that every time they entered into the marketplace, be it a grocery store, a Wal-Mart, or a restaurant, they felt like foreigners. For example, Rachel said that she once almost lost consciousness upon entering Wal-Mart due to the plethora of unnecessary and disposable products.

The members of this subculture defined themselves in opposition to the dominant culture by resisting the researcher’s attempt to define them as consumers. Instead, these women created their own subculture that reflected their desire to resist dominant marketplace structures.

Use of Tactics

According to de Certeau, consumers possess a "repertoire of practices." These practices are termed "tactics" and are not place but time-dependent; the consumer combines many elements related to the consumptive act to reach a decision. In contrast to traditional consumer research, which primarily focuses on the act of buying, de Certeau redefines consumption to include the "heterogeneous elements" that interplay in a discourse to form an act of resistance.

Traditionally, consumer researchers have framed consumers as passive receivers of advertising and other marketing tools (Penaloza and Price 1993), while de Certeau’s consumers practice resistance by defying prediction. In the final analysis, consumer researchers focus on buying because all of the other heterogeneous elements that happen before, during, and after purchase can not be quantitatively measured.

First, these women did without many things that the dominant culture dictates as "essential." For example, Rachel resisted a strongly dictated norm by refusing to use any feminine hygiene products because she feels they are alienating. Furthermore, Cathy, Robin, and Laura all mentioned resisting the norms of the dominant culture by reducing the amount they clean their bathrooms. When they did clean, they employed another resistance tactic by using a homemade cleanser or a fraction of the recommended amount of store bought cleanser.

Buying second-hand is another powerful resistance tactic. This tactic allows them to reuse goods that have already been manufactured, thereby, avoiding the production that is considered wasteful. In addition, the women save money purchasing things second-hand because the current market structure does not account for the value of a good after it has been purchased once. Rachel, for example, always buys used cars and works on them herself, to avoid the manufacturing cycle a new car creates.


De Certeau’s ideas on consumption and resistance shed light on why the women in this study actively chose to resist the marketplace. This resistance was a direct result of their alien status in a marketplace that did not reflect their values and concerns. This resistance took the form of tactics that were used in response to the structures of domination. This disruption of the otherwise smooth operation of the system empowers the individual consumer by denying the marketplace access to the practices of her everyday life. Because the consumer has the power to choose or not choose products based on whatever criteria she deems important, and uses the products for reasons unintended, the marketplace is less of a dominant force i the lives of these women. This exertion of control allows them to practice "bottom-up" resistance within the context of their everyday lives. Homemade and second-hand alternatives allow the women in this study to engage in poiesis, thus giving rise to another form of resistance. When they make their own cleansers or reuse greeting cards as note cards, they resist the marketplace’s reliance on buying new products. When the women clean their bathroom with less frequency than is socially acceptable, they resist the marketers’ attempts to convince them that germs are running rampant, lurking, waiting to harm their children.


Theoretical Implications

In order to better understand consumers in postmodern society, a new set of assumptions must be laid in place. De Certeau gives consumer researchers a new way of looking at consumers by describing them as immigrants or strangers in a strange land who utilize tactics as acts of resistance against the dominant forces of the marketplace. De Certeau provides consumer researchers with a different lens with which to view consumer resistance. His view of consumers differs from the traditional view in that he sees a level of production present in the act of consumption. This active re-creation, termed poiesis, sheds light on these women’s non-marketplace activities, such as Rachel building her greenhouse from discarded scraps, and their marketplace activities, such as Helen’s decision to make her own cleansers.

According to de Certeau, consumers are active resistors in the marketplace. His view of consumers differs from the traditional view where consumers are passive and inert. As shown by the women in this study, consumers actively defy prediction and resist the marketplace through the tactics they employ in their everyday lives. This view includes private (the feminine hygiene example) and non-political (creating a new coat with old clothes scraps) behaviors often overlooked in traditional discussions of consumer resistance (boycotts and complaining).

Marketing Managers

The women in this study represent a narrow portion of the population. This portion of the population only turns to the marketplace after all other options have been exhausted. Marketers must be aware of the roots of this growing skepticism if this group of people falls within their target market. For example, manufacturers legitimately devoted to acting in a responsible manner should realize that their claims must first of all be completely honest and accurate for this niche to even consider the products. Combating the skepticism with full information disclosure about the product and company will bring about a relationship built on trust. This trust could be bolstered by the presence of an independent "watchdog" group that would verify the claims.

Relatedly, marketers must understand the new relationship consumers are forging with advertising. As Rachel stated, the more advertising, the less she is likely to buy the product. This decision process represents a form of "anti-brand" equity, where the more money that is spent on promotion and packaging, the less likely the consumer is to purchase it. Similarly, marketers must understand that these people use products differently than the "average" consumer. The women in this study stated that they used minuscule amounts of all products, therefore, producers may be misinterpreting slow sales due to the much longer product use cycle. Marketers who are targeting this group should take into consideration the different ways in which products are used and the rate in which they are used before creating a targeting strategy.

To ignore this new breed of people is to make a long trm strategic mistake. In this new age of "relationship" marketing, certain groups are ignored or forgotten. The women in this study did not feel as if any company was reaching out to them in order to make their rather complicated consumption decisions any easier. Instead, they felt businesses were purposefully masking information and product claims in order to hide their true intentions, which are to manipulate the consumer into buying things she does not really need. From this study, marketers can learn that some consumers do not view the marketplace as a place where mutually beneficial exchanges occur, but rather a place where manipulation runs rampant and uninformed consumers make misinformed decisions. If marketers are truly committed to relationship marketing, they must first learn the basic tenets of relationships: honesty, trust, full and open communication, and reduction of power bases (Fournier 1994). Only then, will consumers begin to trust marketers again.


Dobscha, Susan (1995), Women and the Natural World and Their Marketplace Activities, doctoral dissertation at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Fournier, Susan (1994), "A Consumer-Brand Relationship Framework For Strategic Brand Management," doctoral dissertation at University of Florida.

Gabriel, Yiannis and Tim Lang (1995), The Unmanageable Consumer: Contemporary Consumption and its Fragmentations, London: Sage Publications.

Gravois Lee, Renee (1996), "Uneasy Tensions in Health Care Delivery in a Rural Appalachian Coal Mining Community: Envisioning Alternative Solutions," doctoral dissertation at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Murray, Jeff B. and Julie L. Ozanne (1991), "The Critical Imagination: Emancipatory Interest in Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research,18 (September), 129-144.



Susan Dobscha, Bentley College


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25 | 1998

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