The Legitimation of Contested Products

In a recently published Journal of Consumer Research study, Aimee Dinnin HuffAshlee Humphreys, and Sarah Wilner examined the U.S. Cannabis market to theorize how marketplace objects and their properties facilitate market legitimacy. Here they share what readers in scholarship, education, policy making, and practice can learn from their findings.

Markets are political. The products and services that are exchanged carry meanings that can be more or less legitimate in terms of regulatory approval, social norms, or public understanding of the market. How do markets for contested products, such as “smart” speakers, e-cigarettes, or “assault rifles,” become legitimate? Past research has theorized market legitimation as a gradual social process where consumers and/or producers purposively act to change meanings in a market. We expand this perspective to look at how physical products can also shape meanings in a market, making it seem either more or less acceptable to consumers.

We examined market regulations, public opinion polls, and mainstream media coverage over the past four decades, and gathered retail data on the newly-legal market to identify sales trends across different product categories. We focused on studying the recreational cannabis market in three US states – Colorado, Oregon, and Washington – that have similar market conditions and where cannabis was legalized at around the same time. This was complemented by a survey conducted before and after the market opened, producer interviews, and interviews with (non)consumers who had a wide range of experience and expertise with recreational cannabis.

From this data, we observed clear shifts in regulation, public opinion, and mainstream media as cannabis shifted to be aligned with more culturally accepted meanings over time. We also found evidence that products also played a role in legitimation, with increasing coverage of new cannabis products that took very different forms from the traditional “joint.’

We then went to interview consumers about some of these products. Consumer data helped us identify two ways that products make the market seem more acceptable. Overall, products change consumer perceptions of legitimacy by creating alignments with acceptable products in other markets or create distinctions between new products and stigmatized products in other markets. The first way this happens is through sensory alignments or distancing – a straightforward, visual expression of meaning whereby the product visually mimics products in other, legitimate markets (such as consumer packaged goods, pharmaceuticals) or is visually dissimilar to other, illegitimate markets (such as “black market” cannabis, tobacco). We say K-cup style packaging of cannabis, gourmet chocolates of cannabis, and sodas of cannabis, all products that looked like products in “normal” markets.

The second way that products help shape meaning is by becoming aligned with common discourses – an elaborate, verbal expression of meaning, whereby the product can be understood and talked about in ways that align it with legitimate phrases, categories, or idioms, or that distance it from illegitimate ones. We heard from consumers about therapeutic lavender lotions with cannabis and medicinal patches with cannabis. These products were understood by consumers as having a legitimate reason for use, congruent with ideas they already accepted like healing or anxiety relief.

These mechanisms work differently depending on the consumer’s familiarity or expertise with cannabis. Sensory and discursive alignments were powerful for non-consumers and novices, many of whom had not used cannabis since they were teenagers. They were drawn to products that visually resembled legitimate products, such as Ghirardelli chocolate, “K-cup” style coffee pods, or The Body Shop body lotion, and which they could easily understand and discuss. One such participant excitedly quipped, upon examining a small, brown, infused tincture bottle, “I don’t speak ‘marijuana’ but I do speak ‘essential oils!’” In contrast, sensory and discursive distancing were more powerful for consumers who were familiar with recreational cannabis, including those who had consumed before the legal market opened. These participants attended to dissimilarities from “black market” cannabis, which was of low or inconsistent quality, untested, and available primarily in dried flower form,.

Our findings offer a window into market legitimation that moves the focus away from a product’s practical benefits to the ways it expresses meaning. These expressions of meaning can enable markets to become more acceptable, better understood, and/or legal, and offer explanations for the recent and contested emergence of markets for e-cigarettes or face masks, as well as the budding delegitimation of markets for conventional automobiles or single-use plastics.

Read the full paper:

Journal of Consumer Research, ucaa061,