I Was Observed (In Absentia) and Autodriven By the Consumer Behavior Odyssey
Dennis W. Rook (1991) ,"I Was Observed (In Absentia) and Autodriven By the Consumer Behavior Odyssey", in SV - Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey, eds. Russell Belk, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 48-58.
Four Consumer Behavior Odyssey principals (Russ Belk, Tom O'Guinn, John Sherry, and Melanie Wallendorf), were house guests in my Santa Monica, California, apartment when they launched their summer fieldwork in June, 1986. 1 was far-out-of-town in Southeast Asia during their stay, and this discussion begins with my thoughts and feelings about being "observed" in absentia. in addition to residing in my apartment, the Odyssey team conducted an extensive photographic inventory of its contents. In July, 1986, John Sherry conducted an autodriving interview with me, using the photographic slides as stimuli for eliciting information about the origins and meanings of my possessions. The bulk of this paper discusses my reactions to the autodriving interview as a methodological tool for consumer researchers, and also, as a meaningful experience for "researched consumers." June 26, 1986 "Oh Dennis, they stayed for such a long time. I think two weeks! The wife she was very nice. I think she is married to the one who looks like a hippie. And another man was very nice; he has a family, and we talked a lot. And there were others -- men -- who I don't know about. They just came and went. They all laughed a lot, and were very nice." Elsa Joseph (wf-82) Santa Monica, California This conversation began just as I arrived on my doorstep after travelling continuously for 26 hours from Bali to Jakarta to Singapore to Hong Kong (I think!), and finally back home to LA I was balancing four pieces of luggage, including an embarrassingly maxed-out "expanda-bag" overstuffed with tourist haul. I was exhausted but grateful to be home. It was about 9:00 AM, and Elsa pounced as soon as she heard me fumbling with my apartment keys. She was ready to talk. In my muddled, jet-lagged brain I somehow deduced that Elsa was talking about, respectively, Melanie Wallendorf, Russ Belk (the "hippie"), John Sherry. Tom O'Guinn and Hal Kassarjian fell into the "other men" category, but I wondered with some concern, how many "others" were there? Despite my fatigue, I was amused at Elsa's attempts to interpret this group's social relationships, not to mention her lifestyle assessments. Elsa Joseph was my next door neighbor and friend; she was then 82 years young, and a bundle of energy who drove a big 1975 Buick Wildcat, and who immediately "adopted" me upon my arrival in Santa Monica four years earlier. Elsa force-fed me frequently; I think she would have catered my dinner parties if I had been more opportunistic. We looked after each others' mail, plants, etc., when one of us was out of town. Before I left for a one-month visit to Southeast Asia, I told Elsa that a "few" colleagues would be staying in my apartment for a "few" days while they were conducting some "important consumer research" in the Los Angeles area. Elsa was both security conscious and territorial, and I reassured her that my guests were prominent professionals and lovely people with whom she would feel comfortable. "
Four Consumer Behavior Odyssey principals (Russ Belk, Tom O'Guinn, John Sherry, and Melanie Wallendorf), were house guests in my Santa Monica, California, apartment when they launched their summer fieldwork in June, 1986. 1 was far-out-of-town in Southeast Asia during their stay, and this discussion begins with my thoughts and feelings about being "observed" in absentia. in addition to residing in my apartment, the Odyssey team conducted an extensive photographic inventory of its contents. In July, 1986, John Sherry conducted an autodriving interview with me, using the photographic slides as stimuli for eliciting information about the origins and meanings of my possessions. The bulk of this paper discusses my reactions to the autodriving interview as a methodological tool for consumer researchers, and also, as a meaningful experience for "researched consumers."
June 26, 1986
"Oh Dennis, they stayed for such a long time. I think two weeks! The wife she was very nice. I think she is married to the one who looks like a hippie. And another man was very nice; he has a family, and we talked a lot. And there were others -- men -- who I don't know about. They just came and went. They all laughed a lot, and were very nice."
Elsa Joseph (wf-82) Santa Monica, California
This conversation began just as I arrived on my doorstep after travelling continuously for 26 hours from Bali to Jakarta to Singapore to Hong Kong (I think!), and finally back home to LA I was balancing four pieces of luggage, including an embarrassingly maxed-out "expanda-bag" overstuffed with tourist haul. I was exhausted but grateful to be home. It was about 9:00 AM, and Elsa pounced as soon as she heard me fumbling with my apartment keys. She was ready to talk. In my muddled, jet-lagged brain I somehow deduced that Elsa was talking about, respectively, Melanie Wallendorf, Russ Belk (the "hippie"), John Sherry. Tom O'Guinn and Hal Kassarjian fell into the "other men" category, but I wondered with some concern, how many "others" were there? Despite my fatigue, I was amused at Elsa's attempts to interpret this group's social relationships, not to mention her lifestyle assessments.
Elsa Joseph was my next door neighbor and friend; she was then 82 years young, and a bundle of energy who drove a big 1975 Buick Wildcat, and who immediately "adopted" me upon my arrival in Santa Monica four years earlier. Elsa force-fed me frequently; I think she would have catered my dinner parties if I had been more opportunistic. We looked after each others' mail, plants, etc., when one of us was out of town. Before I left for a one-month visit to Southeast Asia, I told Elsa that a "few" colleagues would be staying in my apartment for a "few" days while they were conducting some "important consumer research" in the Los Angeles area. Elsa was both security conscious and territorial, and I reassured her that my guests were prominent professionals and lovely people with whom she would feel comfortable.
"Two weeks?", I pondered. Three thoughts occurred almost simultaneously. First, I wondered if Elsa was trying to make me feel guilty. Did my Odyssey house guests terrorize her with all-night "member check" parties? Did they invite their "informants" to the apartment for validity procedures? At this point, I think I whimpered something along the lines of. "I"hey said they were only going to stay a couple of days." But I rebounded quickly, considering my jetlag, with: 'Well, their research here must have been very successful" Touche, Elsa, let me unpack first, and then we'll dish it.
This merged into my second thought: Hey, they must have really enjoyed LA I was a Los Angeles booster then, and viewed this much maligned megalopolis as a relative paradise niche with an urban beat, and I felt gratified that my friends had discovered its summertime pleasures, in addition to realizing their research objectives. As my key opened the door, it hit me that all these people had LIVED HERE FOR TWO WEEKS(!), and a third thought occurred to me: "Boy, I'm glad I lent out the porno." Just kidding, I didn't even have a VCR then. This mini-confrontation with Elsa had alerted me to the Odyssey team's extended presence in my nest, but my thoughts were still focused mostly on hauling the "expandabag" over my threshold. Once I opened the curtains to examine my apartment, I looked for visible signs of their stay.
The filth was unbelievable; evidence of decadent living pervaded my apartment, and common decency precludes any mention of the condition of the bathrooms. Sorry, just kidding again. I cannot help but imagine that more than a few consumer researchers in the summer of'86 harbored prurient fantasies about the Odyssey's leaders who LIVED TOGETHER! for an entire summer, traveling from coast to coast pursuing what some colleagues then considered a "weird" research agenda. But surprise, the apartment was meticulous. This group was clearly operating under the Boy Scout principle of leaving a camp site just as you found it. In fact, I was actually frustrated that there was almost no physical evidence of the Odyssey's presence in my home. Charming "thank you" notes had been left; a request to pick up some developed film that Tom O'Guinn had shot; and a note regretting a coffee pot accident that was accompanied by a perfect replacement.
I began to feel that I had missed out on something special and significant. This feeling was solidified as I began to receive copies of the detailed field notes that the odyssey team began to disseminate to Odyssey participants and supporters. I read these with avid curiosity. They reported the team's arrival in Los Angeles, discouraging lost baggage incidents, and a variety of logistical and technical difficulties in getting started: the RV, the sound and film equipment, etc. They also chronicled the involvement and support of local consumer researchers whose academic bases ranged from Irvine to San Bernadino to Westwood to University Park -- a geographic area roughly the size of Rhode Island. Nothing about any parties, though. Finally, the field notes resonated with the excitement that the Odyssey project aroused among its participants, and they described the evolution of personal relationships and roles within the research team.
At this point, my personal enthusiasm for the project was accompanied by consider-able envy and regret that I had not been more intimately involved. I also began to reflect on how different this team approach to learning is from the more prophylactic empiricism of surveys and lab experiments. It is somewhat paradoxical that the conventional sociological and anthropological approach that the Odyssey pursued would eventually stir up so much methodological controversy.
Not only did the Odyssey's research conform to conventional social science field work, its approach -- as I discovered later in my work at DDB Needham in Chicago -- is similar to prototypic commercial uses of qualitative research, where both field teams and emergent design are commonly employed. I quickly became accustomed to the routine of flying off to some research site to conduct focus groups from 6:00-10:00 PM. Here emergent design was pro forma; if a topic was exhausted, or a creative concept bombed in the first group. the second group was not wasted on pursuing a dead issue. Following the group interviews, agency and client personnel conducted debriefings (member checks), sometimes until midnight. Findings were negotiated over Bud Lights.
In addition to these more global thoughts, my concerns in July, 1986, were more personal and immediate. The Odyssey was committed to probing and interpreting the meanings of people's possessions, and I couldn't avoid wondering what they thought of MY S7UFF. The field notes they disseminated made it clear that they were really, in the vernacular, "getting into people's shit. " And they had begun in Los Angeles; interpretive energies were pent up and ready to be unleashed; and they were staying in my apartment, surrounded by some admittedly idiosyncratic material artifacts I had collected over the years.
THE NEXT FEW WEEKS
My curiosity was mixed with some anxiety; what did my stuff tell my Odyssey colleagues about Dennis? At this point in my life, I was a voracious reader of psychodynamic literature, particularly Freud and Erikson. Intellectually, I knew the symbolic nature of one's possessions, but at this point in my life, I had not yet iMmersed myself in the adventure (and expense!) of psychoanalytic dialogue. So I was uneasy, a feeling that was heightened by subsequent conversations with my Odyssey house guests. Russ, Melanie and John all expressed some degree of discomfort in having lived amidst my possessions without the benefit of my presence to explain their origins and meanings. As Bernie Jaworski noted in reviewing this manuscript, this situation was analagous to archeological expeditions, crime scenes, and murder mysteries. My absence allowed interpretations (crime scenes?!) to arise without any grounding in my own perspectives. "Now I'm really exposed," I thought.
Specific comments also added to my concern. At various times mentions, sometimes jibes I thought, were made of (1) my cast iron parrot ashtray, (2) my really big bed with "tight" red sheets, and (3) my bedroom's collection of mounted animal horns (a "horny' bedroom?!). I was subsequently informed that the odyssey had gathered an extensive photographic inventory of my entire apartment. The Odysseyans expressed considerable concern that this had been conducted without my permission, but by now I could only think "what the heck," and summoned a useful phrase I had learned in Southeast Asia earlier that summer. "No problem." I too couldn't help but be curious about the meanings of my stuff.
TOY GROCERY STORE (C. 1940)
JULY 26, 1986: AUTODRIVING WITH JOHN SHERRY
A few weeks later, I flew to Evanston, Illinois, to attend the First International Conference on Marketing and Semiotics, at Northwestern University. At some point during the Conference, John Sherry proposed that he conduct an autodriving interview with me about my home and the possessions in it, using the photographic slides the Odyssey team had collected as stimuli for our discussion. This certainly seemed in the "semiotic" spirit of the week, and I was now more than ready to talk. Autodriving's history and method are summarized in a recent article by Heisley and Levy (1990), so I will only highlight the summary details of this interview.
The session took place in John's office on July 16. It lasted slightly over 90 minutes, and it was conducted, more or less, in a classical in-depth style. I was asked to view the slides that were organized thematically around each room in my apartment. Beyond this basic structure, the interview was essentially non-directive, and I did the bulk of the talking. John encouraged me to talk about whatever struck my fancy in each slide, and he left it open for me to talk about the origins, acquisition, organization and meanings of many different objects. John asked if I had a favorite room, and since I said "no," he suggested we start in his favorite room: the kitchen.
Most of the discussion about the kitchen centered about items that have no culinary function. In retrospect, my kitchen had gradually evolved into more of an art gallery and shrine than a food preparation center. We talked about my miniature "antique" toy grocery store (see Figure A), and about the considerable amount of framed "art" on the walls: food ads from a 1918 Ladies Horne Journal a menu from Rook's Restaurant (no relation) in Zion, Illinois, a colorful 1940s fruit crate label. I also had almost-a- collection of postcards on the refrigerator door: a Ken Brown "Tournament. of the Twinkies," a "numbered duck" postcard from a lunch at Paris' Tour d'Argent, and a picture of the Santa Monica mountains in flames in 1980. 1 suggested to John that these represented my sense of humor and belief that the kitchen should be a "fun place." The one object that evoked the most feeling was a framed picture of my German Shepherd "son" Ned, who had died in my last year of graduate school. I told John I put his picture by the kitchen window because he always liked to sit in the window in my Evanston home, presumably watching out for "Dad's" return. There was little discussion of the kitchen as a food preparation center. I was single and ate out often. I was even vying with my colleague Mike Kamins for USC's "most-recruiting-dinners" award. The prize seemed to be about a ten-pound weight gain!
CAST IRON PARROT ASHTRAY (C. 1950)
The Living Room
Next we began to look at slides from the living room. John mentioned that one focal point here for the Odyssey team was my 32-inch tall, floor-standing cast iron parrot ashtray (see Figure 13). This strong visual "statement", John explained, recalled the chapter in William Tucker's (1967) classic book about "The Peach-Faced Parrot." John further explained that Melanie has a friend who refers to the state of alcoholic inebriation as getting "shit-faced." Late at night the Odysseans would sit around my living room and, stimulated by the parrot and exhaustion-induced silliness, joke about being "peach-faced" and "shit-faced." I think you had to be there. I mentioned that I had acquired the ashtray (cheaply) at an auction, and had owned it for about 15 years. I described it as 'Wild and crazy," and suggested that it reflects my appreciation of "cheap potpourri and kitsch." I didn't know at this time that my parrot would debut in both the opening and closing shots of the Odyssey's premier film as a semi-secret symbol of those late nights in Santa Monica.
Another high visibility item in the living room was a large (55" by 70") velvet painting of -- not Elvis -- but a classic California-style Spanish bungalow located alongside a babbling brook in a rustic canyon (Figure C). The painting is titled "Hollywood," and dated 1927, which occasionally causes me to speculate that this may be one of the very first contemporary velvet paintings! John asked what this means to me and my answer was simple: the ultimate dream home. I explained that such homes were now on the market in Los Angeles' nicer canyons with prices beginning at $1,000,000. With some resignation I told John, 'Well, if I can't have the house, at least I have the velvet painting."
"HOLLYWOOD" VELVET PAINTING (C. 1927)
By far the most dominating object in my living room was a 1946 Wurlitzer Model 750 Jukebox. It was the first model made after World War II, and the first to have "bubble lights." It was also only semi-functional; the bubbles no longer worked, the automatic record selector was jammed, and even the needle had been lost in my move to Los Angeles. I described this to John as ray "most frustrating" possession. On the one hand, it was the most attention- getting, and attracted many "wows" and "cools" from first time viewers. on the other hand, it didn't work like it should; I described it to John as a giant, colorful "lava lamp." I had discovered that it would cost a small fortune to rehabilitate, and there always were more pressing needs.
Nonetheless, I clung to it. The Jukebox had lived in three separate residences in Evanston, and I moved it with me to Los Angeles in 1982. It made another transcontinental trip back to the Chicago area in 1987 (still unrehabilitated). I finally "gave up" and sold it in 1989, rather than move it again to Evanston from Downtown. In looking back, it is remarkable how long the process of object de-cathexis can take!
We talked about other objects in the living room, mostly more framed "art." As the discussion progressed I came to realize a need for more and better organization of my "stuff' into "collections." My thoughts then reflected ideas I have just recently encountered in the Belk, Wallendorf, Sherry and Holbrook (1990) piece, "Collecting in a Consumer Culture," in this volume. I was beginning to focus more explicitly on "maintaining my space", as they describe this process. I couldn't wait to get back to Santa Monica and put things in proper order. I had quite a bit of "show business" memorabilia: posters, autographed glossies -all of which had some personal connection with friends of mine who occupied various roles in "the business." Even my mother made it into this collection with color-retouched photos taken during her childhood dancing career. Intermingled among them were more tranquil graphics: a Billy Jackson landscape of the Champaign /Urbana countryside, several still lifes painted by my grandmother and great grandmother, Hawaiian nature photographs taken by my sister. I began to redecorate in my mind even as I talked with John. It was a productive interview, killing two birds with one stone!
ASSORTED BLACK MEMORABILIA (C. 1930S-PRESENT)
Probably the most controversial objects in the living room belong to my "Black Memorabilia" collection (see Figures D and E). I actually can't remember how this one got started, maybe with an innocent Aunt Jemima salt & pepper shaker. Today the collection includes about three dozen objects, among them a large minstrel show poster, many salt & pepper shakers now, a "mammy"broom and notepad, "Dixie" postcards and sheet music, a "Coon Chicken Inn" souvenir plate, "Darkie" toothpaste packages, a lawn watering "boy", hair gloss preparations, and other unusual objects, a few of which I am reluctant to display. The curious thing is: of the 30-plus pieces in the collection, I have purchased no more than 10. The rest have been gifts. I speculate that my collection not only helps focus my friends' and family's gift-giving impulses, but it provides them with an opportunity to engage in innocuous wickedness by buying something that seems relatively "taboo" for Dennis.
I had been somewhat primed for this part of the interview by earlier casual comments made by my Odyssey house guests, so I jumped right in, asking John: "So what's the big deal about my light red sheets'?" In listening to the taped interview later, I realize that I hardly let John get a word in edgewise. With more than a little defensiveness, I lectured John that if you didn't tuck the sheets in tightly, they would "just flap." I explained that this would be "wrong," and added that it was hard even to talk about it, or to imagine an alternative. I can only speculate now that my childhood toilet training must have been quite rigorous. On the other hand, without a little compulsiveness, America's beds never get made!
Moving into the closets, John said he was impressed with how organized they were. I countered that I wasn't very satisfied with them at all, and wished there were more shelves so I could "organize things better." By this point in the interview, but only in retrospective listening to the tape, it is clear that in 1986 1 was at least moderately obsessed with "organization." Also, after almost an hour of interviewing, I was becoming more relaxed, reflective and analytical.
LAWN WATERING "BOY" (C. 1940)
I had some prior, conscious awareness of the phallic imagery that pervaded my bedroom. Friends made jokes about the tall vertical shafts of my four-poster bed, and about the large, prickly cactus plants that lined the wall by the window. My collection of large animal horns was displayed on the interior walls. John picked up on the phallic imagery, too, and I joked with him about compensatory behavior, and free-associated about handcuffs, etc. (see Figure F).
John observed that there was "not too much messy anywhere" in the apartment. I explained that 'you could comfortably eat an omelet off my mother's bathroom floors," and that I had tried imperfectly to uphold this family tradition. I also confessed that when I was an undergraduate, I was a "complete slob" who regressed with little resistence to the hygienic lowest common denominator that is often associated with student group living.
After skirting the issue for a few minutes, John admitted that because my doctoral dissertation studied consumers' grooming rituals, he was surprised that I had not appointed my own bathrooms more extensively. He implied that the Odyssey team had expected more of me, and were disappointed in the mere functional status of my salles de bains. I explained that it wasn't because I wouldn't like to have a more luxurious bathing and grooming environment, but my bathrooms were "small and nasty." The "master" bath off my bedroom couldn't have been more than 40 square feet, and such a cubicle discouraged development. Also, I was a renter and unsure how long I would keep the apartment. I invested more in grooming products than fixtures, but readily acknowledged that someday I would enjoy spending big bucks on a bathroom spa.
LONGHORN HAT RACK (C. 1945)
I used my second bedroom as an office. in it I had the usual appointments: bookshelves, a desk, computer and printer, a sofa-bed for guests, and more "art" works on the walls. At one point I blurted out: "I love my computer." John noted that this was the first item toward which I had expressed "love." I then joked that perhaps I should be rushed to a psychiatric emergency room. I further explained that when I was a graduate student, I had "hated" the computer: back then it seemed to be an unfriendly object used for statistical torture. Now I valued the PC for "communicating and being organized." I also explained how it had become an object in my everyday morning ritual: go to the bathroom, start the coffee, boot the computer. I mentioned how I looked forward to its morning greeting, with the friendly and familiar beeps and whirr sounds that invited me to get down to work. Living alone allows for certain lifestyle eccentricities to emerge.
John also inquired about a framed picture I had on the wall of a group shot of the 1908 Board of Directors of the Milwaukee Railroad, assembled in the ballroom of the Pfister Hotel. I explained that these somber-faced, tuxedo-clad "business men" represented my personal transition from my previous career in government social service to the world of "marketing." Many individuals of my generation harbored, as adolescents, vaguely anti-business attitudes, and I was now attempting to work beyond this. I figured that if I could face these dour, intimidating figures everyday, the more yuppified brand managers of the contemporary marketplace would be "no problem." This visual therapy appears to have worked; the picture is now in storage on my back porch.
1990: REFLECTIONS ON THE MEANINGS OF MY "STUFF"
It was almost exactly four years ago that I participated in this autodriving interview. To prepare myself for writing this chapter, I sat down on several separate occasions to listen to the audio tape John Sherry made of our 1986 Interview. In listening to the taped interview with John, it now seems clear that the themes and motivations underlying the acquisition, usage and display of my possessions are complex and reflect my movements and transitions along various, basic personal continuua. This general approach to interpretation was introduced to modern marketing audiences by Levy (1981) and applied more recently by Hirschman (1988), and by Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry (1989). The following discussion relies an a structural approach to examine the personal learning I gained from the autodriving interview. It also uses a "casual" psychoanalytic perspective to consumer behavior, as exemplified in early work by Levy (1968), and more recent work by Holbrook (1988), and myself (1985, 1987).
One of the acknowledged benefits of in-depth interviewing is that it reveals unconscious material. Evidence of these dynamics abounds in John's interview with me. While some aspects of my collecting were quite conscious, others were not. Also, some aspects of my conscious collecting were motivated by unconscious elements. For example, although I was aware that I had gradually gathered a collection of "show business" memorabilia, I was only dimly in touch with how this material reflects my own artistic yearnings. I have many friends in the performing and plastic arts; I, however, have few artistic skills, certainly none that would economically support a "life in the theatre." So this ever-growing collection not only represents meaningful personal connections to various art worlds, it allows expression of my own artistic impulses. This explains why I have stuffed such unlikely areas as my kitchen and office with "art" objects, as well as more conventional, functional ones. My in-depth interview with John helped bring this persistent but unconscious pattern into my conscious awareness.
The interview also helped me realize my attraction to both sacred and profane possession domains. Lurid movie posters competed on my walls with more serene landscapes. Today an eclectic religious "shrine" (prayer candles, Madonna icons) stands next to a collection of Mexican Day-of-the-Dead ceramics. At some level, I believe this represents an attempt to integrate my (sacred) rural origins with my (profane) urban lifestyle, as well as some ambivalence about making choices between the two. Although my family moved from rural southern Illinois when I was only four, memories of the quiet, slow-pace, physical beauty, and "simple" people persist and still appeal. Psychoanalytically, this also suggests my use of collections to sublimate aggressive or anti-social impulses in appropriate, "artistic" ways. I think this also explains part of my recent attraction to Southeast Asian artifacts which often combine sacred religious themes with more profane. temporal motifs.
Many of my collectibles might fall into the category of "toys for boys." From my earliest collecting days, I began to acquire objects that seemed "fun" to me. The parrot ashtray, the toy grocery store, and objects long traded away or sold attracted me because of their fun, amusing features. I spent most of my childhood in Protestant suburbia, surrounded by clones of June and Ward Cleaver, eating Betty Crocker recipes and living in "colonial" decors where "neutral" color schemes were equated with mature virtues, propriety, and good taste. As a teenager I began to reject this version of modem living: give me some color and spices, please! And enough with the "colonial" look. Everything seemed too dull and serious. My collecting life began -- in part out of an identity crisis that expressed itself in "artistic" acquisitions, some intentionally purchased to stir up Mom and Dad.
As I talked with John, I found myself occasionally referring to "adult" purchases I had recently made. For example, I described my newly purchased set of bedroom furniture as "adult furniture." Even something as seemingly trivial as framing pictures now, in retrospect, seems to represent taking a more mature (and less hostile) orientation toward my possessions. As I student, I was content to stick a poster on a wall with a staple gun or thumbtacks; my more "adult" self required framing, which signifies a more abundant and even nurturing attitude. While the "fun" and "kooky" themes are still prominent in my collecting behavior, they have been infused with more expansive themes, not just a rebel yell.
In addition to the whimsical and fun aspects of my acquiring and collecting, there is a "serious" side, too. Ibis was one of the central learnings I achieved in the autodriving interview with John. in explaining the origins and meanings of various objects, I found myself making frequent reference to the role of my ex-wife, Marcella. One of our common joys was "junking" through thrift and antique shops, and taking our chances at auctions. It was easy to forget -- until the interview -- how many of "my" acquisitions represented joint consumption. It also reminded my how much fun this had been. When our marriage began to dissolve, our consumption patterns took an unusual course. Unlike the situation in the 1989 movie, "Me War of the Roses," we began to buy even more lavish gifts for each other, unconsciously hoping that the widening crack might close through escalation of behaviors that had brought us together and been so mutually gratifying. It didn't. So, beneath the enjoyment I find in living with some of my treasured possessions is an occasional sense of tragedy that they were acquired in a relative paradise now lost.
As I mentioned earlier, the theme of "organization" popped up on several occasions during the interview. Looking back, I see that I had too much "stuff' that was too little organized. I had too many burgeoning collections (not all of which have even been mentioned so far): ceramics, prints, animal horns, hats, Black memorabilia, toys. I also had singular but dominant items that didn't seem to fit into any particular collection category: my juke box the velvet painting. A brooding sense of personal chaos was emerging at this time. As described in the Belk, Wallendorf, Sherry and Holbrook (1990) article on "collections" in this volume-, I see that I was entering the refinement and organization phase. Some of my collections were in a terminal phase -- my animal horns and wooden toys, for example. I was de-cathecting these and would acquire no more. I was also trying better to organize others that were growing -- ceramics, prints, and Black memorabilia. During my interview with John, this vague sense of disorder grew more acute, and I became aware of my need for more coherent organization and display of these collections.
My possessions not only symbolize who I am and what I value, they represent both vague and specific acquisition goals, and more general lifestyle aspirations. My velvet painting illustrates the core of this idea. As the Rolling Stones informed a generation not particularly eager to receive the message: 'You can't always get what you want." This certainly applied to Southern California real estate in 1986. Modest homes in Santa Monica that sold in the mid- 1970s for $35.000 were now on the market as $300,000-plus "tear downs." And my canyon dream home was a million dollar proposition. A condo compromise or a fixer-upper in a marginal neighborhood at this point had little appeal or excitement value. So I settled for the velvet painting; maybe I could spend part of next summer writing that screenplay that would generate a bidding war between studios. You can always dream, and everybody in LA has a hyphenated profession.
REFLECTIONS ON THE AUTODRIVING EXPERIENCE
One of the great research myths today centers around the notion that people are too busy to be interviewed, and that they will only agree to an interview if they are offered increasingly (and distressingly) large financial incentives. I think this is largely an artifact of the way we conduct research, and how we treat respondents. I have worked with more than 1000 focus group respondents: many do seem to want only to provide "quickie" like/dislike responses, collect their cash, and be on their way. In many cases I don't blame them; the research is boring, often merely a survey-in-disguise that is uninvolving, technical and demanding. On the other hand, I have encountered very different responses from research that is conducted in-depth and on a one-to-one basis. On more than a few occasions, respondents in these conversational situations have actually expressed their thanks for the opportunity to think deeply about something, and to share their thoughts, speculations, and uncertainties. This is the kind of research that the Consumer Behavior Odyssey sought to develop and encourage.
This is the kind of research that John Sherry conducted with me. I found it -- despite my initial trepidation -- extremely gratifying. We talked for ninety minutes, and could have gone on longer if John had not had a luncheon obligation. My sentiments echo those of Jaworski and MacInnis (1990) in this volume; the autodriving interview was both fun, meaningful and revealing. As market and consumer researchers, we are presumably motivated by the principle of "knowing the consumer." From my personal experience, autodriving is a research tool whose recent rediscovery promises to help achieve this end in ways that are gratifying and meaningful to both the researcher and to the research participant.
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Dennis W. Rook
SV - Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey | 1991
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