Sidney J. Levy (1992) ,"", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-6.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 1-6



Sidney J. Levy, Northwestern University

This is one of the most exciting times in my life. Some of you may not have realized when I was elected that you were getting the oldest president ACR has ever had. After thirty years at Northwestern University, I have just become a professor emeritus. For younger presidents of ACR, election was a fine achievement along the way; for me, it is a kind of culmination or peak of a long career. I submitted my first professional article to the Journal of Educational Psychology in 1946; and I recently received an acceptance for the December 1991 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

It was hard to decide what to talk about today. The good thing was, I had two years to think about it since I was elected. The bad thing was, I had to think about it for two years. Being a thorough-going obsessive academic, I've had many a sleepless night ruminating about what to say. By now, I may actually have forgotten most of my best ideas.

Presidential talks have many possibilities. They are often concerned with urging us toward excellence or creativity. They recall our glorious history, and the giants on whose shoulders we stand. They appraise the state of the art, explaining how new methods and new subjects are changing our realms of inquiry. They may look to the future, telling where we are going or where we should be going; Morris Holbrook (1990) recently told us that we should be more lyrical and last year Elizabeth Hirschman (1991) asked that we be more concerned with contemporary problems such as crime, prostitution, and addiction. When I finally settled to it, I decided that when all was said and done, the only thing I could do was to be myself and to talk about my current preoccupations. What they amount to is a summary of how I think about the study of consumer behavior, in keeping with the integrative thrust in Erik Erikson's (1982) description of the elderly stage of life. I keep thinking about the multiple ways we have of explaining the Consumer Event.

When I started to study consumer behavior in 1948, I had certain main interests as a graduate student in an interdisciplinary program. My work for a degree with the Committee on Human Development at the University of Chicago, made possible by the G.I. Bill, stimulated an enduring concern with the stages of the life cycle. I was absorbed in personality study, especially as expressed in psychoanalytic theories, and as investigated through the use of projective techniques. I also was thoroughly indoctrinated in the importance of stratification as a fact of social life.

These topics intrigued me. I was a setup for the bold probing of depth psychology because I had always been a shy, introspective boy who read a lot, searching intently to learn about the mysteries of life, especially those related to sex and violence. At the time, I hardly even thought to expect explanations of these mysteries--it was enough to gain an increasingly vivid awareness of the enigmas of human history, the amazing complications of life as conveyed in school, in books, on the radio, and especially in the movies. For a suppressed and repressed boy growing up in a proper household and working class neighborhood, the fear of violence could be mastered somewhat by vicarious experience. There was also the possibility that in these media I might run into some exciting information or depiction of sex, to find out what people really did in private--that is, of course, other people who were beyond the hairy-handed Pee-Wee Herman stage, who were more grown-up, more experienced, and more daring than I was. I remember being so irked and frustrated that the best parts of The Decameron of Boccaccio were in Latin. The newspapers recently reported a survey of the frequency with which men think about sex: an average of six times an hour. I'll probably use more times than my share during this talk, as I always remember the quotation in a study of sex, contraception, and family planning by Lee Rainwater, from a subject who said, "Before I was married I was scared of sex. I thought it was a crime to do something like that. [Afterwards], I found out that...let's put it this way, if God made anything better he kept it to himself." (1960, 97).

Depth psychology theories also please me because no matter how challenged or modified by their neo forms, they offer a sense of revelation, of taking us toward a layered understanding of the human psyche, with vigorous positions on what human nature is like, and how behavior arises from the ways our bodies and emerging personalities interact with our families and caretakers. Depth psychology recognizes issues that should be important in the study of consumer behavior: history, complexity, multi-causation, the symbolic and the evaluative character of experience. The role of motivation becomes salient; we are energetic, impulsive, surging creatures, so we cannot blame everything on external stimuli. And the power of perceived good and evil that we invest in all objects and actions plays its part. If we do not bring such richness to the study of consumer behavior, our constructs are simple, our variables are superficial, and results often just summarize observations or fit our intuition and mere common sense. Then we do not need much expertise. My colleague, Dipak Jain, tells me that in India dream interpreters say that happy dreams are bad omens and unhappy dreams are good portents. I realized that such contradictory complexity is wise and necessary; if only because were it not so, we would take the dreams at face value and would not then need the dream interpreters. In any event, we need subtlety because consumers commonly cannot adequately explain their own behavior, even if Scott Armstrong (1991) provides some evidence that they can predict it better than we can.

The study of social stratification is a way of becoming alert to the inevitability of hierarchy in human affairs. The uneven acquisition and distribution of resources, the different socio-economic levels in society, make for outstanding variations in consumer behavior, pointing to the dynamic forces of aspiration and competition. As a Depression child, a poor boy in a family that was for a time on relief (as we called welfare then), I learned vividly the realities of some people having more and others having less. W. LLoyd Warner (1949) later taught me that every person occupies a social place that reflects how the community perceives the value of the individual's family status and participation. Circularly, that perception governs how much each of us gets in deference and money, and is also based on how that income is translated into symbols of status belonging and expression. A recent survey by NORC showed how the prestige of 740 occupations was ranked by a sample of adults: surgeons, astronauts, lawyers, and college professors were ranked highly, whereas panhandlers and fortune tellers were at the bottom. Such knowledge fed my striving to be socially mobile and to associate with professors--although I confess fortune tellers are still among my best friends, and someone wrote a letter to the editor pointing out that St. Francis of Assisi was a panhandler.

I am reminding us of these rudiments of psychology and sociology as a basis for my vision of our common enterprise in carrying out consumer research. I see us all working together in our various ways, seeking to construct and fill out a grand template of what consumer behavior is about. Following in the august steps of the MendelTff periodic table that laid out a pattern of what was known and might be known of the world's chemical elements, of the various visualizations of the atom and the universe, and of the current efforts to map the human genome, I picture in my mind a large configuration that represents an ideal goal of the knowledge toward which we work. This configuration draws upon the many disciplines that contribute to the study of consumers, it respects the numerous methods that are used, and encourages the contention of concepts that compete to provide explanations. Thus, this grand consumer research template is integrative and dynamic, organized and full of life.

The grand template stretches over the whole society and its structure, and by extension to other societies, so that we study across cultures to discern their commonalities and differences. Examining consumers in the large social groups that are geographically and culturally dispersed around the world superimposes the template over the globe. It has to address consuming at the level of the great millions of people wishing to be fed, clothed, and housed in basic, ongoing ways. This realm of problems connects us to a commodities-oriented and economics-oriented world in which consumers are at the tender, and often not so tender, mercies of governments, non-profit organizations, and the multi-national corporations that provide or do not provide life's fundamentals of a viable housing stock, sustenance, and some fabric for dresses, shirts, and trousers, to say nothing of essential needs for health, education, and participation in the arts.

We may hope that some day those subsisting hungrily will be elevated to situations in which models of consumer brand choice suited to a prosperous environment will become more relevant to them, also; although at even the most basic levels of consumption, one finds subtleties of preference and choice being exercised. The latitudes, longitudes, and isobars of international consumption bring forth issues of cultural diffusion, images of countries of origin, and how consumers will and will not retain their local identities in the face of globalization, the European Community, and the seductive and homogenizing effects of Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Levis, and Disney parks. There is the need to reconcile and make sense of the admixtures of the old and the new. I recall seeing a timeless looking woman trudging down the street in Bangkok, wearing a coolie hat and traditional shift, bearing on her shoulder a pole with two suspended baskets of fruit. And on her feet were Reebok running shoes.

Thus, considerations of social stratification move us up and down among countries and societies in a Maslovian manner. Maslow is the source of a famous template; I have noticed that his hierarchy of needs is highly favored by students as one of the great explanatory devices of modern social science, and I grew up on it, too. It points to the consumer's need for basic satisfactions of feeding, security, love, and other sorts of intangible, ethereal, and emotional fulfillments, as well.

In forming the Grand Template, ideas about social stratification interact with ideas about the stages of the life cycle. People are born to the socioeconomic status of their families, and they absorb (and react against) the outlook and values provided by that social and interpersonal environment. These basic relations are paradigmatic, dramatized in the various famous Complexes of Oedipus, Electra, Orestes, and Tom Sawyer. They act as a matrix and initial filter for all social relationships. As people mature in age, they may remain at the same social level or change their position through upward or downward mobility. These two important forms of hierarchy, social status and age, imply increasing superiority with greater levels. Centrally, this increasing superiority refers to having more power, economically and socially. This power is the ability to control and command more resources, ultimately to make more choices. Even if one remains at the same socioeconomic level, growing up leads to an increase in resources and power, through the increasing capacity to make choices. The nature of the choices--of how to live, what to buy, what to consume--is the outcome of the interaction of social status and age-grading with other main influences. Intertwining with social position and the life cycle are gender and sexuality, group memberships (race, peers, education, occupation, etc.), the nature and events of immediate situations, and the features of products. That is, the person--and as a person, a personality with developed perceptual and motivational propensities--arrives at the Consumer Event, whatever it is, more or less prepared to interpret it and to decide what to do about it. The definition of the situation at each given moment in time and place is in various ways demanding, permissive, and constraining. It says what one can do, may do, might do, should do, must do, cannot do, etc., and we work, perhaps even struggle, to analyze scientifically how the consumer's selection among these possibilities is determined by a confluence of circumstances that makes the consumer's performance a necessary outcome. If we knew J. Alfred Prufrock well enough, could we predict how he will wear his hair and roll his trousers, or if he would dare to eat a peach?

The choice (the apparent choice?) is the resultant of being that physical person of specific age, sex, social level, trained role, personality facets (self-concepts and attributions) in a mood that is under the influence of the weather, what was previously eaten, being delayed on the expressway, the imminence of a parental visit, the pressure of marketing promotions, and being confronted by products, people, services, and/or ideas of high, medium, or low involvement.

The grand template is a highly ramified nomological network, and everyone who conducts consumer research works at filling in aspects of it, providing content about elements of its structure, its processes, its methods of inquiry, and philosophies about its science and its values. Now, rather than leaving the thought as a blank truistic generalization, I'll indicate some of the content that interests me in the template, ideas about consumers based on my education and the kinds of research in which I have participated.

I see consumers as goal-oriented and seeking, living out their destinies--that is, lifetimes of consuming--that have the potential for infinite variety. I don't know more than anyone else whether it is all random, determined, or allows for free choice. Taken in the aggregate, it may be as stochastic as the dance of sub-atomic particles seems to be; but we also analyze the Consumer Event as the necessary outcome of its antecedents; and even so, grant each other the dignity of believing we are responsible for our will and decisions. Perhaps consumer behavior, similar to light's being both wave-like and discrete, is both caused and free. Out to consume, people show several principles at work.

A fundamental attribute is memory. Memory refers to our ability to bind time, to be self-conscious, to know ourselves and others over time. Without memory we lose our identity and live sadly only from moment to moment. We older folks joke about it with gallows humor to show that we retain self-awareness--or I would joke about it if I could recall what I just said. Human memory means accumulating and handling knowledge in various characteristic ways. That is why the study of information processing is so important to us. Our research template is possible because we can put our knowledge together in our journals, our classes, and at conferences like this one. Perhaps even more remarkable than memory is our ability to think about the future, to plan, to anticipate, and to imagine the unfolding of possibilities. Beyond memory is the use we make of it to dream about it, to re-construct the past, to fantasize about the future. Quite wondrous is our need to yield ourselves up to music, pictures, and word-play, to keep explaining through history, drama, fiction, biography, songs, movies, opera (both grand and soap), and through consumer research, the stories of our lives.

Keeping us powerfully in flux is the fundamental quality of ambivalence. Consumers are ambivalent about the Consumer Event; they are often uncertain, making inferences that vie with each other, as they try to decide in essence who they are, and what their decision will signify as to who they are. They must select actions in the template of possible meanings that will assert their position at the intersections of several dimensions. They are quick and relatively thoughtless in their decisions when these positions are well-established. However, more generally, ambivalence leads to some volatility, pendulum swings in consumer attitudes, and movement up and down the template as motivational devotions wax and wane in response to external pressures and opportunities.

Among the forces at work is insatiability. There is an open-endedness to human desires that allows us to keep wanting, that encourages us to innovate and offer endless novelty with the assurance that there will always be those who want this. Thus, out of every node in the consumer template, there grows a proliferation of alternatives, sometimes contrasting dramatically, sometimes extending tiny and, to the jaundiced eye, trivial differences. Yet, we have the capacity to detect them, and to find them worthy of making distinctions and preferences. The force of insatiability produces perpetual striving and the extremes of selfishness, greed, and boredom; it maximizes and enlarges the assertion of the individual's power and material substance.

Opposing insatiability is socialization, the pressure upon us to be virtuous, to comply with propriety, to be self-denying and altruistic in the interests of sharing. The goal is to be a good person, giving, nurturant, caring for others, and conserving of resources on behalf of our posterity. Extreme socialization may become rigid obedience, exalting the group requirements and submitting to its norms, consuming according to the prescription of authority; it may become tyranny and pathological consuming. When people go to the extremes, they show how utterly vile human beings can be, capable of the most egocentric gratifications in consuming nations, peoples, and even persons--whether in a Hitler Holocaust, a Dahmer dinner, or seeking sexual service on a sleazy city street.

We are all subject to the contention between the issues of individualism and sociality, and move between how much we care for ourselves and for others. I spent a year studying in a college social studies course called Freedom and Control, and to this day I still fret about how to resolve for myself the endless dilemmas posed by the conflict between my great American wish to maximize personal freedom, to stubbornly think my deviant thoughts and go my way, and my benevolent desire to live in harmony with my family, friends, and neighbors. Too often I fear I am obedient and conforming, yielding to wear what is in, eating what I am told is good for me, wanting to read the latest highly touted book, and studying how large groups in the public do the same.

I speculate about the sources of these Consumer Events, the ambivalent human nature that motors the template, that makes us think some things are good or bad, desirable or not. I know some of you are familiar with the small piece of the template that I have offered (Levy 1986) in trying to account for the choices people make among all the beverages available to them. One might suppose that plain milk and water would suffice for us all; and I think they could. But no, we must have them processed, flavored, colored, textured, packaged and priced, to allow us to indicate the character of our distinct and changing social positions, our gender, our stage in the life cycle, our personality strivings, and subtle variations in mood. It is then striking to observe that as people mature from drinking milk as infants and from the healthy soups and juices that good parents provide to loved children, they break free to soft drinks with their festive carbonation, and perhaps to coffee and tea with their bitterness and caffeine. The fullest testament to maturity and freedom to choose among beverages comes with the addition of alcohol. It seems a telling commentary that people apparently aspire to the freedom to drink things that are strong in their effects and usually taste terrible, at least until we force ourselves to get used to them. Beverages are just an example; there seems to be a correlation between being more mature, having higher social status, and doing more or less bad things, because those bad things represent adulthood, independence, the freedom to stimulate one's body and mind, and to abandon the innocence and blandness of merely sweet and healthy things and the constraints that hamper lower status people. These issues relate to the large central problem of good and evil in consumption, about which we are in constant contention, explicitly or implicitly, on a local scale in our small daily choices, and on a grand scale in just giving lip service or in really worrying about consuming the resources of Earth.

Aristotle told us that all things come to be by nature or by making, and our competing feelings about nature versus culture have always plagued us. The higher social status represented by beverages that seem hard to take and unnatural to drink remind that the motivation of people toward higher social status is to gain increasing appreciation of culture, and what it creates. That means behaving in unnatural ways by making and acquiring objects, by competing to show one has superior economic power to own and accumulate objects that are rare, individual, costly to make. Thus, as one moves up the template, life becomes more deliberate, the array of choices widens, there is an increasing cachet to being able to make subtle discriminations that are unavailable to lesser mortals.

As I wondered about these matters, I thought that there was also a simple relationship with gender, that being aggressively individualistic and evil was a masculine thing while being well-behaved and compliant was feminine; and I know that much conventional thinking would agree with me because that is one way we have been socialized. Pursuing that line, I thought that the beverage template implied that we are born innocent and virtuous, weak and feminine, and that as we progressed to consume ever stronger liquids, we could eventually become a mature, manly, high class scotch or brandy drinker, at the pinnacle looking down along a longitude line of the consumption template, on all the lesser lower class, youthful, female weaklings with their watery beer and milky pink ladies.

However, as I sought to generalize these ideas, seeking consistency and parsimony, to fit them to other realms of the grand template, I ran into trouble. Going up the template may indeed provide more variety, and the objects available to higher status people are often costly and rare. Color shifts show also some generality; for example, with clothing as with beverages, immaturity is represented by pure, simple, light pastel colors, youth and young adults by brighter colors, and maturity by depth, richness, and darkness. However, how can we reconcile that with the connection to social status and gender? Traditionally, for instance, dark breads were peasant breads, close to the soil and lacking refinement, so that going up the scale meant gaining access to white bread. To complicate the matter, dark breads lately have become attractive to higher status people.

A similar confusion arises with respect to gender. If going up the template by means of being socialized to free individual choices, to arrive at the sophisticated, high status, socially powerful male, how can we account for the traditional role of women as socializing the family, seeing to the lifestyle and consumption patterns correct for the position of the family? And how take account of women in newly powerful, high status roles? My earlier understanding seemed too simple, too parsimonious, too dominated by traditional stereotypes, not fundamental enough in being able to accommodate more varieties of Consumer Events as they arise.

Then a light bulb went on over my head, another one of those illuminations to which I am prone, when something I already know comes flashing back as a fresh insight. I realized that the innocent baby implies the goodness of Rousseau's human beings, uncivilized but noble in a state of nature, being corrupted by the powerful male consumerism and materialism of society and the evil city; and that this was only one theory or philosophy, one thread in reality. Another theory maintains that we are born bad, lustful, gross, egocentric, enslaved by the pleasure principle, and that the process of socialization is a benign one in which mothers domesticate and tame the brute, animalistic forces that drive us. Thus, women complicate and modify the beverage template with ideas of refinement, fine glassware, social events, and the notion of becoming more discriminating. They introduce a sense of aesthetics and manners, furnishing the home, the idea of caring for the young and sharing in the community. They foster temperance, compromise, and restraint, and encourage us to obey the social and medically authoritative pressures that tell us to cut out or cut down on sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, fat, cholesterol, and nicotine.

I had arrived at a point in this intellectual journey where combining Rousseau and Freud in my fashion told me that men and women were equally important influences in affecting consumers to strive for cultured behavior, with the male principle being bad and the female good. The enjoyment I found in this thought seemed to demonstrate that it must be correct. But I could not stop there. I am an ardent feminist. My mother worked outside the home most of her life; my wife is a wonderfully capable professional woman; and my lawyer daughter has a sharp and realistic legal mind. My women colleagues and students show me their strong intellectual and managerial capacities. I am also realistic about all these women and do not merely romanticize them and their assets. I believe they will be free to be as good and as bad as males. But I don't think being feminist means ignoring gender, sex, and sexuality in their myriad of expressions and effects on consumer behavior, as we cope with working women, dual careers, expensive toys for children of guilty parents, and convenience foods when working becomes more important than eating.

So, pushing on, I was motivated to read and think more about these basic gender roots and roles in my template. I was reminded of the role of great heroes, good loving men, benevolent fathers, of Apollo, symbol of the Sun and the benign, curative traits in men. Conversely, there is the role of Eve as temptress, and Lilith, in some stories said to be Adam's first wife and symbolic of the Terrible Mother; and the many goddesses and witches with great and awful power. One can only conclude that there is ample evidence for the influence of the good father and the bad father, the good mother and the bad mother, and their respective roles in affecting what we find good and bad in our consuming. Marija Gimbutas on The Language of the Goddess (1989), Hans Peter Duerr on Dreamtime (1985), concerning the boundary between wilderness and civilization, where he explains the meaning of witches, and David Parkin's collection on The Anthropology of Evil (1985), help to illuminate for me some of these profound forces. Camille Paglia, in her book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1991), says men are responsible for that glorious erection called civilization, but in building their towers of transcendence they can never escape the primal pull of the earth mother. That sounds like an anxious situation for men, and they seek security. Paglia's thought brought to mind a little four year old boy I saw on a sunny day playing naked in the back yard. As he ran about, he clung to his penis. When someone asked him why he did that, he answered, "That's so I won't fall down."

The male and female principles take their different forms, both being inevitably bound together in our resultant mundane consumer actions. Each consumer has an idiosyncratic mix of experiences, prenatally, and from launching at birth, and pursues self-consciousness and identity, carrying these ultimate bi-sexualities and their mixtures of good and bad, not as a simple ambivalence, but as a fourfold helix. Up the template they intertwine, determining who we are and what we do at moments of decision and consumer action. Each Consumer Event in the template is a summary at a point in time of the particular blend of gender forces, located in a particular cultural setting, expressing our motivations and perceptions directed toward some degrees of individuality and conformity.

The challenge we share is to contribute to the delineation of what I have presumptuously called the grand template in all its breadth and detail, with all our methods, intellectual power, and sympathy. I call it a template because that word packs into it so many of the thoughts I have tried to convey here to substantiate the seriousness and profundity of our subject matter. It refers to a temple, a sacred place that symbolizes the cosmos and its divisions, to the spiritual and virtuous elements of our aspirations and goals of our consumption of ideas, art, religion. It refers to temptation, the need to satisfy our animal selves and uncontrolled impulses. And it means that consumption is temporary and needs replenishment. The plate tells of our destiny as consumers, what is on our plate as workers in general, and as eaters in particular. The element late reminds us of the life cycle, that consuming is finite, that we can consume only so much before we too will be consumed. The a, t, and e form the word Ate, the name of a Greek goddess personifying foolhardy and ruinous impulse, telling us to be self-critical and to moderate our consumption. These letters also spell ate, reminding us that we indeed have eaten, and that this luncheon is now finished. I thank you for your kind attention.


Armstrong, J. Scott (1991) "Prediction of Consumer Behavior by Experts and Novices." Journal of Consumer Research 18, 2, 251-256.

Duerr, Hans Peter (1985) Dreamtime Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Erikson, Erik H. (1982) The Life Cycle Completed W. W. Norton and Company.

Gimbutas, Marija (1989) The Language of the Goddess Harper & Row.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. (1991) "Secular Mortality and the Dark Side of Consumer Behavior: Or How Semiotics Saved My Life." Advances in Consumer Research 18, 1-4.

Holbrook, Morris B. (1990) "The Role of Lyricism in Research on Consumer Emotions: Skylark, Have You Anything to Say to Me?" Advances in Consumer Research 17, 1-18.

Levy, Sidney J. (1986) "Meanings in Advertising Stimuli," Jerry Olson and Keith Sentis (eds.) Advertising and Consumer Psychology 3, Ch.13, 214-226.

Paglia, Camille (1991) Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson Vintage.

Parkin, David (ed. 1986) The Anthropology of Evil Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Rainwater, Lee (1960) And the Poor Get Children Quadrangle Books.

Warner, W. Lloyd (1949) Social Class in America Science Research Associates, Inc.



Sidney J. Levy, Northwestern University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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