Presidential Session: Discussant's Comments


Sidney J. Levy (1999) ,"Presidential Session: Discussant's Comments", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 260-261.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 260-261


Sidney J. Levy, University of Arizona

The discussants for the session are Sidney J. Levy and AE (his Alter Ego). AE is a larger than life soft sculpture that Sidney created to represent his inner self. AE sat with Sidney and via recording engaged with him in the following dialog about the program.

Sidney: Thank you, and good afternoon. My companion today is a creation of mine called AE, which stands for Alter Ego. He and I will both discuss today’s presentations.

AE: Good afternoon, friends. Sidney, the first thing I want to know is why is there a discussantBand how come there are two discussants?

Sidney: Well, discussants were not prohibited for special sessions, they were just discouraged because too often discussants just give another paper, or else they just repeat what’s been said. So let’s not do that. And there are two discussants because Morris and Takeo said that a stereo presentation of three-dimensional objects is more vivid, clearer, and more realistic. And you are AE, my alter ego. That means we can be more realistic today because we can argue about the presentations and express our ambivalence about this program.

AE: Well, let me go firstB-

Sidney: Okay.

AE: Then don’t interrupt. We have to talk fast because we don’t have a lot of time and I have a lot to say.

Sidney: Yes, and we want to give the audience a chance to make comments and ask questions also.

AE: Oh, I don’t care about that, just as long as I get to say what I want.

Sidney: All right, then, you begin.

AE: Well, for starters, I don’t think that Holbrook and Kuwahara added much to our understanding of how to make a visual presentation. Of course, showing something in three dimensions is better than showing it flatly. But so what? That’s obvious.

Sidney: Don’t give me that obvious business. Most things seem obvious once they are pointed out. Besides, they did more than that. In this day and age of PowerPoint and other technology, we still have many sessions where people present overhead slides that are full of copy and use small 12 point fonts, none of which can be read from more than four rows away. Morris and Takeo are alerting us to the fact that stereo presentations of research can show us interesting and wonderful things. Today’s session is about qualitative stuff, but everyone can benefit. For example, Edward R. Tufte has published marvelous volumes on The Visual Display of Quantitative Information with their ingenious and illuminating graphics, and how many people take advantage of hat?

AE: I’ll grant you that the 3-D things they showed here look better and may be clearer. But don’t you think they are over-claiming when they go beyond clarity and vividness to say that their results are somehow more realistic, more probing, and give more profound insights? After all, when you make things more vivid and get into virtual reality, aren’t you actually distorting and making things phony? Maybe people just get more excited but they don’t learn any more. Have you seen the Imax theaters or sat with kids in the movie theater wearing those glasses that make things look as if they are in theater with you and coming right at you? Isn’t that a kind of exaggeration of reality, fun but not truthful? Aren’t we looking for truth?

Sidney: Oh, you are a dummy. You’re literal minded, expecting to have a kind of literal truth. Just give me the facts ma’am! Literal-minded people focus on descriptions of the surface of things or count up what respondents or subjects say as if those are truths. You know, it’s an old saying that we should let the facts speak for themselves. But they don’t; they just sit there. After all, everyone knew that apples fell from trees, but it took Newton to make something of that fact. So we need ways of being more probing, going deeper, trying to get at the metaphorical insights that make sense of facts, that give them their three-dimensional shape, their underlying assumptions, and their implications that radiate out beyond themselves, that enable us to make inferences and see the relevance.

AE: But metaphors are interpretations and analogies, and aren’t those risky? Why not just deal with the external realityCyou do believe in an external reality, don’t you? That there is one and that we can study it and learn the truth about it? You aren’t a total solipsist, are you?

Sidney: Oh, I’d say that Morris Holbrook and I are both pretty solipsistic as people go. Otherwise, you wouldn’t even be here. But we definitely believe in external reality and that we can study it. However, I also think that there are many ways of observing, understanding, and explaining that reality. Holbrook and Kuwahara are demonstrating that to us, showing how different perspectives lead to different results. Look at how they show the canceling of confusion, the cleaning of clutter, the coping with crowding, the clarification of complexity.

AE: Okay, okay, I’ll allow you that bit of poetry, but do you really buy the business about profound insights, the creativity? How did they demonstrate that? What profound insight did they give us? What example of how the approach they are recommending actually told us something remarkably new?

Sidney: Hey, come on, that’s a lot to ask for. How many presentations at this whole conference do you suppose did that? I think what Morris and Takeo did was not astonishing, but it had many assets. It showed a relevancy of three-dimensional visualization to marketing materials in a way that was distinctly novel, innovative, absorbing, entertaining, and useful. In addition, as what I’ve already said indicates, all of their ideas about stereographic visualization serve as a metaphor for thinking beyond surface appearances, in less literal and conventional ways. Negativistic as you may be, I don’t see how or why you would quarrel with that.

AE: That shows how little you know your Alter Ego, despite our years being psychoanalyzed. But let’s move along. You can’t tell me that you got anything out of the gibberish that George and the two Johns called "Capturing Consumption through Poetry?" If we are trying to achieve greater clarity, as Morris and Takeo urged, how can poetry do that? It is hard enough to get people to report consumer research in simple prose. How can we benefit from making it more obscure?

Sidney: There you go being simple-minded again. What’s the use of just complaining about things you don’t understand? Poetry is an ancient and honored mode of human communication. I was amazed to learn that some people didn’t want JCR to publish poetry for fear it would degrade the journal. Why is it poetry’s fault, or the poet’s, if you don’t understand it or appreciate it? You don’t understand the solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem or the mathematics of right angled reflection manifolds, either. Is that their fault? All research findings have to be interpreted and translated by somebody.

AE: Oh, cut the crap.

Sidney: Don’t be rude. I don’t talk like that.

AE: I know, but I’m your secret self and nothing is forbidden to me. Just tell me how these poems are representations of consumer research when I had trouble even getting the drift of what they were about.

Sidney: I shouldn’t have to explain them because a good poem, like all art, should speak for itself and not need to be explained. But these are being offered not only as poems or just artistic experiences. This is a conference about research. So I’ll interpret what I think these poems are doing and communicating within a research context. First, one hearing is not enough. Poetry is allusive, subtle, demanding of intelligent perception. The listener, the reader has to do some work, too, in order to comprehend the meanings of the poetry. I got them in advance and have read them more than once, which helped me to appreciate them. In John Sherry’s book ServiceScapes, he has a wonderfully detailed prose picture of the marketplace called Nike Town. His poems are also delineations of marketplaces, but more condensed, more like impressions and snapshots of what a visitor and an observer such as John saw and felt when he was in those places.

AE: Yeah, but not easy to grasp. I’ve read a lot of Sherry’s work and he often uses words most people don’t even know.

Sidney: Look, all research reports are addressed to elites and in-groups. Lots of marketing people complain about the inaccessibility of articles in journals. Is it Sherry’s fault if he has a great vocabulary? Are those words never to be used but just molder away in the dictionary? Joel Cohen once told me he didn’t understand an article I had written. I know Joel is really smart, so I think he was just resisting me or putting me down, or he didn’t want to bother reading the piece more carefully.

AE: But I asked what you got from these poems. And why report on these marketplaces and acts of consumption in this way when you could do a reliable survey of many people’s observations, instead of having just one man’s. At the AMA in August when you talked about qualitative research someone asked how you can know if qualitative interpretations are any good. He suggested that we could accept the greatness of Picasso’s modern art because we knew he first could draw things as they really looked. I think that is a good point.

Sidney: That argument implies that we could trust the supposed distortions of qualitative reports and interpretations if we knew that the researchers were first competent at measuring and calculating chi-squares and correlations. That is not a good point because it has the situation backwards. Which is the more realistic depiction of the marketplaces of Thailand and coffee shopsBthe ones that Sherry captures in his sensitive, evocative vignettes that aptly resonate with being there or a study that reports on specific variables like a cubistic extraction of dimensions?

AE: Still, I don’t think all these poems are so great.

Sidney: Maybe not, but there you go again. To tell the truth, most research is pedestrian and doesn’t illuminate much. But with these poems we wereCor could have beenCwakened to sensation, perception, apperception, motivation, evaluationCand even surpriseCat the pleasure in a restored bicycle, the joys of big old cars, and what it means to celebrate a birthday with a fabulous relative and to sympathize with an old man facing his mirror and unable to cry. It sure reminded me that I am an old man and lately have had a lot of cause to cry, including the death of my son and, trivially as in the poem, a stye in my eye.

AE: Please spare us the hearts and flowers. What about the rest of the program? Somehow the playlet about heirlooms and their disposition made me sort of anxious. It made me think about people anticipating their parents dying and fighting greedily over the family property.

Sidney: Me too, so we agree on something. But our personal reactions are not the issue. The pointis, the performance presentation was actually a kind of workshop about doing research, interviewing, interpreting data, and making the process transparent. There’s no use trying to go on about all the interpretations we could make or issues we could raise. We’ll let the audience do that. I will wind up by saying that there was too little time for each of these presentations. They whetted our appetites for digging in and talking a lot about visualizations, verbalizations, and representations. Remember that poetry is writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm. It is a special way of giving information, as are stereographic pictures and playlets. This session was designed to heighten our awareness and tolerance for such representations, and it certainly did that for me.

AE: I am not sure it did it for me.

Sidney: Oh, you be quiet!



Sidney J. Levy, University of Arizona


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26 | 1999

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