Considering Consumer Freedom: From Paris Hilton to Consumption Literacy

Sorry for all the gaps in posting. I feel kind of guilty. I just returned on Sunday from the Association for Consumer Research annual North American conference, which was held this year in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a great conference this year, although the doctoral consortium was marred by some very strange comments that presented a “blast from the past” sense of derision towards the work that cultural consumer researchers do. In every group, as I’ve been writing about here, there is inclusion and exclusion. And certainly consumer culture researchers are still in that marginal, slightly-stigmatic state in our field. Even when it isn’t mentioned as overtly as it was this year. It’s a topic that concerns me, and I’ll keep coming back to it.

This year, David Mick organized a great session that I wrote about last week. Renan Wagner had some great comments and thoughts (using some Baudrillardian insights) that I tried to pick up on in my further comments here…but let me know if I missed something. I think the Epistemic Session on consumer freedom went very well. For today’s posting, I’m going to provide a complete and slightly expanded version of the short speech I gave in that session. Here it is.

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Epistemic Session Comments-Robert V. Kozinets

originally presented on Friday October 26, 8 a.m., Peabody Hotel, Forest Room, Memphis, Tennessee

In the last decade or so, we consumer researchers have increasingly been asking ourselves questions about consumer freedom and the levels of constraint that consumers do or do not face:

* Are Consumers Truly Free, or Does the Market Construct Freedom?” (Baudrillard 1968; Debord 1967; Firat and Venkatesh 1995; Gabriel and Lang 1995)

* Can Consumers Escape the Market? (Kozinets 2002)

* Should Consumer Citizens Escape the Market? (Arnould 2007)

* Are All Attempts at “Real” Countercultural Change Co-Opted by Commercialism? (Frank 1997; Heath and Potter 2004; Thompson and Coskuner-Balli 2007)

In case you haven’t read the aforementioned papers, the answers, of course, are: No, No, Definitely No, and Yes, But It’s Okay.

However, in order to enter into a coherent and meaningful discussion of a topic like this, we need to first get onto firmer semantic ground, particularly as Eric and I attempted to do in the two papers I just mentioned, where we sought to define our terms (Arnould 2007; Kozinets 2002).

* What exactly do we mean by “Consumers”? Are these just people? All people? Human beings? Middle-class Americans living in style in the era of late capitalism? People who are acting in a certain way in a certain kind of system?

* What about “escape”? What is that about? Isn’t there a romantic, return-to-some-ideal-state utopian sense conveyed by the use of this word.

* What is “Culture”? There’s another huge referent. Are we talking about all of society society? Or “just” consumer culture?

* “Freedom.” There’s an ideologically locked and loaded term if ever we’ve encountered one. So full of all sorts of baggage, and imprecise as well. Are we talking about freedom from, or freedom to? Freedom from what oppressions, exactly, and to do what, particuarly? Freedom to choose in what way, which things, how?

* Finally, the biggie: The Dreaded Market. That alleged, villainous oppressing bugaboo.

Are Consumers Truly Free to Make Choices in the Market, or are they oppressed, manipulated, deviously twisted, constrained and held down? As the ACR bulletin board discussions on this topic by Eric Arnould, Nik Dholakia, Russ Belk, and Craig Thompson quickly pointed out, the terms Market and Consumer are just aca-speak for examinations of the relationships between individual and society, self and collective, agency and structure. This is the old question of social control, cast in “perfect” ideal typic terms.

But markets and freedom to do what we want within them are always relative in reality. In a market society do I have the same “freedom” to choose to consume as does Paris Hilton? Do I even have the same freedom to act, to move around, to go where I want, wear what I want, do what I want? She seems an icon of pure consumer control, consumption unencumbered by any strictures. Perfect Consumption: All-Consuming. Judging by the paparazzi pictures, I’d have to say no. By virtue of Paris’s position in the social hierarchy, she has much more freedom as a consumer, as a person in a commercial, market-driven world, than you or I do.

Similarly, we have much more freedom that those others who seem out of control, without control, beyond control of their lives as consumers. Are the underprivileged, the impoverished, the disadvantaged, the underclasses of the world “truly free” of the market-of social controls? It’s difficult to think of that type of freedom in the same way that we think of Paris Hilton’s freedom. The notion of escape would be almost strange to them. It’s likely that they don’t want to break out of this alleged prison of social consumption control, this gilded cage, so much as they desire to break in and enjoy its bountiful harvest.

My colleague Andy Crane is in the field of Business Ethics but he and his colleagues are busy examining issues of consumer culture. He recently wrote a paper with a colleague that talks about the notion of “Consumer Responsibility” (Caruana and Crane 2007). Citing Zygmunt Bauman’s (1993, 1995) work, these author state:

…that highly bureaucratized institutions engender an ‘adiaphoric’ (amoral) context for consumer choices. When organised within this matrix, people’s choices are framed squarely in terms of utility and satisfaction, this rationalized marketing vernacular neither allowing nor calling for morality. More than this, he argues that corporations not only allow consumers to forget about moral issues but they actively assist in ‘forgiving’ consumers from engaging in moral choices. We might view current managerialist depictions of consumer responsibility to mythologize about ethical and social concerns on the one hand, whilst at the same time, expunging moral dilemmas that may inhibit the efficiency of the marketing process. (The bolding is mine.)

Indeed, we have a responsibility, a burden, to vote at the cash register, to make our choices. And we exercise this freedom almost automatically, naturally, many times a time. We have to exercise this freedom, paradoxically in order to have the essentials of life: food, drink, warmth, space, a place to sleep.

So a people living in a commercial society of course we have various levels and degrees of freedom, and varying levels and degrees of constraint. This is what my co-authors and I called in our ESPN Zone article for JCR “inter-agency”: always there is the culture in the individual, and the individual in the culture, inextricably intertwined.

We are talking about some very big questions. In some ways, this grand view-from-thirty-five-thousand feet level of philosophical discussion can blur the details and make muddy the investigation of particulars that would be more pragmatically useful to consider. What if we move from disengaged macro-question down to more engaged micro-questions and micro-politics?

So rather than asking if consumers are truly free, what if we asked questions about the cultural and structural elements of our society that cause every one of us to eat genetically modified food every single day? What if we asked about how the cultural and structural elements of our society, and the individual proclivities, that perpetuate the consumption of crack or crystal methamphetamine in our streets and homes? Or about the structures, proclivities, and elements of our society that perpetuate the choices that lead to overeating and obesity, or choosing to start smoking, to buying MP3s online rather than CDs in a retail store, to prevent people from fixing their own cars, making healthy dinners, or taking public transportation?

What if we started to ask (as Russ Belk’s clever inversion did on the ACR web board) not how free might consumer be, but How Free Should Consumers Be? How Free Should We Be? Free to consume handguns, semi-automatics, and child pornography? Free to eat shark’s-fin and tiger-paw soup? To gobble up the last of our planet’s endangered species in foul-tasting tonics for impotence? Obviously, many people think that there should be some limits on our freedom to consume. But what and where? How?

Our investigation would then lead us into very different places. We would have to look at regulatory structures, including government regulation and its enforcement. We would need to start thinking about Consumer Rights and what that means-a right to consume, or not to consume? A right to choose to live so as not to consume in a certain way as well as to choose to consumer in certain ways? It would lead us beyond simple marketplace mechanisms like choice among products and services in a category, into other, intertwined, complex forms of social control?

I think that these grounded micro-investigations would lead us to think not only about the flow of materials and services, but also the flow of behind-the-scenes production and material resources. It would lead us to think about the flows of information about them, such as Nike’s old Cambodian sweatshops, and Mattel’s lead-laden Chinese toy factories and, on the positive side, Fair Trade coffee and chocolate. At the ground level, these questions about choice would almost inevitably draw us towards thinking about information flows and blockages in our society and culture, and what an actively engaged, participatory citizenship would look like and feel like in the consumer sphere.

We would start to move to models of Consumption Literacy. My son in Grade Four has a textbook that has media literacy sections throughout it that seek to teach kids how to read labels and judge commercial claims. For instance, the kids are presented with pictures of products promoted using cartoon characters like Sponge Bob, or nifty names and loveable labels like Hawaiian Punch. The textbook then unpacks the claims one by one, and subjects them to interrogation, and explains the difference between implied and overt message claims in product packaging. This isn’t merely “media” literacy, it is applied consumer research, code switching, even inoculation. And we are on the other side of this issue, teaching marketers this craft of encoded messaging, while leaving it to communication studies departments to teach decoding skills to young consumers.

But taking consumer freedom seriously might ask us to do more. We would start to more seriously research and teach consumers about how to engage their freedom, expand it where necessary, and understand the incredibly difficult and painful need to contract it for the greater good. What a wartime-like sacrifice that would be.

We might think about how to unite and align the needs of the society, of our species even, as best as we collectively and sagely could discern it, with the needs, signals, cues, hints, and suggestions that we as individuals process and make meaning out of every day in hundreds of ways.

So in a time of rapid change and multiple crises such as the one we now face more than ever before, perhaps the questions we need to think about and consider collectively are not just about how free we are, but how free we need to be? Perhaps what we want to also consider is what consumption related freedoms we might be best, we might be smartest, to begin to do without.


Arnould, Eric J. ( 2007), “Should Consumer Citizens Escape the Market?” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 611 (1), 96-111.

Baudrillard, Jean (1968), Le Systäme des Objets, Paris: Gallimard.

Bauman, Zygmunt (1993) Postmodern ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bauman, Zygmunt (1995) Life in fragments. Essays in postmodern morality. Oxford: Blackwell.

Caruana, Robert and Andrew Crane (2007), “Constructing Consumer Responsibility: The Role of Corporate Communications in Defining Responsible Modes of Consumption,” University of Manchester and York University Working Paper.
Debord Guy (1967), The Society of the Spectacle, New York: Zone

Firat, A. Fuat and Alladi Venkatesh (1995), “Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption,” Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (3), June, 239-267.

Frank, Thomas (1997), The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

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

Heath, Joseph and Andrew Potter (2004), The Rebel Sell: Why The Culture Can’t Be Jammed, New York: HarperCollins.

Kozinets, Robert V. (2002), “Can Consumers Escape the Market? Emancipatory Illuminations from Burning Man,” Journal of Consumer Research, 29 (June), 20-38.

Thompson, Craig J. and Gokcen Coskuner-Balli (2007), “Countervailing Market Responses to Corporate Co-optation and the Ideological Recruitment of Consumption Communities,” Journal of Consumer Research, 34 (2), 135-52.

One Response

  1. rpwagner October 31, 2007

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