Dissociation and visual arguments: creating customers for Levy's real Jewish rye.

Author:Anderson, Amy K.

During the early 1960s, a Jewish bakery in New York called Levy's aspired to sell more rye bread. Levy's partnered with the up-and-coming Madison Avenue advertising firm Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), and in 1961, DDB's creative team crafted the iconic "You don't have to be Jewish" ad campaign to promote the bread (Fishburn, 2007; Ferretti, 1979). As a result of this campaign. Levy's quickly became the top seller of rye in the entire state of New York, and DDB solidified their reputation as a top agency (Fishburn, 1979). (1)

DDB's approach to selling Levy's bread was simple: the campaign consisted of a series of subway posters featuring people of various ethnicities eating deli sandwiches on rye bread from none other than Levy's bakery. The images are themselves sandwiched by the tagline "You don't have to be Jewish ... to love Levy's real Jewish rye" (Fig. 1). Early ads in the campaign featured a Black child, a Native American man, and a Chinese man, but later ads branched out to represent other ethnic groups, such as Italians. The campaign quickly entered the modern pop culture canon. Parodies of the ads continually surface today, marketing everything from a Heeb magazine subscription to Offlining Inc's 2010 No-Device Day.

The success of DDB's campaign should pique the interest of rhetoricians, particularly those drawn to visual studies, because the rhetorical strategies behind the campaign proved so persuasive that they transformed Levy's from a niche bakery into the proverbial rye breadbasket of New York. To examine these strategies, however, we first need a framework for understanding visual arguments that combine words and images.

In the past, rhetoricians have taken three main approaches to theorizing visual arguments, none of which are fully adequate for explaining the Levy's campaign. The first approach attempts to understand visual arguments in the traditional terms of text-based rhetoric, and it is perhaps best demonstrated by a series of articles in the Summer 1996 issue of Argumentation and Advocacy. The issue opens with a provocative article by Fleming, who posits that images should not be considered arguments in the neo-Aristotelian sense because they do not make clear claims and cannot be refuted. Birdsell and Groarke counter in their introduction to the issue, asserting that images can make clear propositions when considered in context. Blair's contribution follows in the footsteps of Birdsell and Groarke, noting that images can and do argue propositionally. Nevertheless, Blair admits that image-based arguments are often not as clear as those made purely in text, and his concession highlights the inability of text-based rhetorical theories to fully explain how visual arguments work.


A second approach to theorizing images examines them on their own terms instead of those of text-based rhetoric. The New London Group's manifesto "A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures" (Cazden et al, 2000) posits that comprehending images requires a different sort of literacy than comprehending texts, a literacy also different from that needed for comprehending aural compositions. Kress and van Leeuwen (2006) extended the group's work, proposing that text is read sequentially, while images are read spatially. They also provided a "grammar" for comprehending images in Western societies, including guidelines for interpreting a viewer's prescribed attitude based on an image's perspective (pp. 179-93). The image-based approach allows visuals to speak on their own terms, yet it also is not fully adequate because it does not account for the ways that images and texts collaborate in multimodal compositions.

A third approach to understanding visual arguments is that undertaken by Mitchell (1994), Fleckenstein (2003), and Wysocki (2005), among others. These theorists see words and images as hybrid media that often run together inextricably. Mitchell proposes the term "imagetext," beheving that images and texts have an infinitely reciprocal relationship (p. 9). Similarly, Fleckenstein advocates for a poetics of the 'Hmageword" in an approach to composition that simultaneously embraces the verbal and the visual (p. 4). Wysocki critiques the New London Group's position by pointing out that the literacy needed to understand image-based arguments is inseparable from that required for text-based arguments (pp. 56-58). Taken together, these theorists argue that perhaps images and words are not so different after all.

While the hybrid approach does recognize the inherent rhetoricahty of words and images, it fails to account for the disparate ways that the two media can behave when they appear together in a visual argument. Although there is a great deal of overlap between words and images, their contributions to a particular argument are often unequal: one medium may convey more of the argument's overall message than the other. The hybrid approach to words and images does not fully accommodate this difference, so it cannot adequately explain why the words and pictures in the Levy's ads work together so powerfully.

I propose a fourth way of approaching visual arguments, one which is based in Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca's theory of dissociation, as laid out in The New Rhetoric (1969). Dissociation allows us to see how images and words both contribute to a visual argument, yet it preserves the differences between the two media. When the framework of dissociation is applied to the Levy's campaign, we can more clearly understand how the interaction between the two media made the ads' argument so successful.


Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca's The New Rhetoric (1969) introduced the concept of rhetorical dissociation, modeled by philosophical pairs. Perelman followed up their tome with the more concise The Realm of Rhetoric (1982), where he further elaborated the theory, and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1979) also advanced their work in her article "Les Couples Philosophiques." She wondered why so little attention had been paid to dissociation in the intervening years, for she considered it the most original part of The New Rhetoric (p. 81). Olbrechts-Tyteca's concern has recendy been addressed, and dissociation has begun to receive the critical attention that it deserves from scholars including Schiappa (1985), Frank (2003, 2004), Crosswhite (2004,) van Rees (2005), and Femheimer (2009). There is nevertheless still work to be done before we understand the full extent of the concept's theoretical contribution.

Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca introduce dissociation as one of two main types of argumentation: arguments by liaison and arguments by dissociation. Arguments by liaison connect ideas by forming links between them (Perelman, 1982). Dissociation, on the other hand, breaks the links between related ideas by changing the ways that the ideas are associated with each other. Once these associations are changed, the ideas become uncoupled, creating possibilities for new and different associations, and thus new and different ideas. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca visually represent the relationship between two dissociating concepts using the form of a ratio, which they name a "couple philosophique." The term is translated in the English version of The New Rhetoric as "philosophical pairs" or as a "philosophical couple," and the construction has also been called "dissociative pairs" (Maddux, 2013):

term I/ term II

Perelman explains that term II, the base term of the philosophical pair, is "normative" in comparison with term I: "Term II provides a criterion, a norm which allows us to distinguish those aspects of term I which are of value from those which are not" (p. 127). Term II is also considered the more stable of the two terms; it does not change, but serves as the constant against which term I is judged and refined.

Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca also note that there is an inherent valuation in the way the terms are laid out: "Terms II of the philosophical couples will normally, if possible, be related to that which has positive value ... while terms I will be related to that which has negative value" (p. 422). Because term II is the more ideologically valued concept in the pair, it is not surprising that term II is the criterion for judging the relative merit of term I.

Term I still plays an important role in the dissociation process. Olbrechts-Tyteca explains that although term I is the dependent term, it is also the concept that we are first aware of and the one from which the philosophical pair originates (p. 82). Term II is the underlying principle or value that impacts the way we view term I, even though we are often unaware of its existence until an incompatibility between the two terms appears. Indeed, it often isn't until an incompatibility is recognized that we are even cognizant of term II and how it influences our understanding of term I.

Drawing on a Western philosophical framework, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca use the philosophical pair

appearance/ reality

as a prototype for these ratios (p. 416). Reality, as term II, is the norm against which some schools of Western philosophy compare appearance, or term I. The relative values assigned to terms I and II apply to this philosophical pair, for within this framework, we value reality more highly than appearance. Further, Olbrechts-Tyteca's observation that term I is the originating term also holds: generally, we are more conscious of the appearances around us than of our concept of reality, and we are often not aware of the distinction between appearance and reality until we are faced with an appearance that is not consistent with our concept of reality. Up to that point, appearances and reality seem to be united. When an incompatibility between the two arises, however, appearances that do not conform to our concept of reality are labeled erroneous through the process of...

To continue reading