News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are

Rob Walker, author of a new book on consumer culture, explains how consumers embrace brands as part of their identities -- often without knowing it.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

Conventional wisdom says that today's savvy consumers are immune to marketing and unaffected by advertising. Rob Walker, the "Consumed" columnist for the New York Times Magazine , disputes that and says there is an important shift going on, which he calls "murketing" -- a blurring of the lines between marketing and everyday life. Rather than disappearing, he says, marketing is just harder to detect, and many consumers, rather than rejecting brands, are giving their own meaning to them and embracing them as part of their identity. In his new book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, Walker writes about the intersection of identity and consumer culture, how marketers want us to think we're beyond advertising, and just how Pabst Blue Ribbon got so popular. AlterNet's Emily Wilson spoke to him by phone at his home in Savannah, Ga.

Emily Wilson: You say that a lot of people don't think of themselves as consumers and they reject corporate culture, so they think advertising doesn't affect them. You call that dangerous. Why?

Rob Walker: Well, I think it lulls you into a false security. Some people associate branding with just a logo. And they say "Well, I would never wear a logo on a T-shirt," and that's fine, but branding is more complicated than just a logo or a slogan; it's the process of attaching an idea to something. Often people who say they don't buy into corporate culture are hyper-aware of the brands they're buying -- it might be Tom's of Maine or whatever -- but they often have very specific opinions. Sometimes those choices are based on rational thinking, but sometimes they're based on assumptions or emotions, and it's hard to see that.

I talk in the book about my own experience with this with Nike and Converse. I was the kind of person much like the kind of person we're talking about. I thought, "Oh Nike, the swoosh, I would never do that." It wasn't until Nike bought Converse that I thought, "Oh, I've always worn Converse, what am I going to do?" There had never been a moment that I woke up and thought, "Oh, I am an outsider nonconformist." You don't think about those things consciously, but then suddenly something happens and you realize it's there, and supposedly I don't care about brands yet I'm having this big existential dilemma about what kind of shoes I'm going to wear because the meaning of them has changed.

EW: But you write about ethics being a factor in our consumer decisions. Wouldn't some people say that's about ethics because they don't want to support Nike?

RW: In some cases it is. But often it's a little bit selective. And to stick to my own hypocrisy: I tend to wear Levi's jeans, and what really is the difference between the production process of Levi's and Nike, and can I really defend myself on that? Not really. I run into that a lot.

People will kind of get their ethical hit from doing one type of consumer behavior and one brand they're really loyal to, something like fair trade coffee for example. And then they don't apply that in other (cases), and they don't really stop and ask any questions at all.

So I think this sort of attitude of "I'm above it all, and all my decisions are right" is the mind-set marketers want you to be in. They want to push your buttons, whether it's about ethics or whatever.

EW: You say there is a tension we have between wanting to be an individual and wanting to belong to something. How does that play out in the marketplace?

RW: I use the iPod as an example of something that serves different roles for different people. For some people, that is a very individualistic device with their personal soundtrack on it. And most analysis nowadays really focuses on how, as a culture, we're all into personalization and individualization and customization, and we all want to be different, but that is sort of overlooking this equally powerful urge, I think, which is to be part of something bigger than ourselves. So with a product, it's getting the one everyone has because it's the one to get. ... You can't really make a straight-faced case any more for the iPod as individualistic. I said in a column recently that owning an iPod is about as individual as the gray flannel suit.

EW: It was when you wrote about the Red Bull campaign that you coined the term "murketing." What was unique about that campaign?

RW: It was not known in the United States but was a big company overseas, and the traditional way for something like that to roll out through much of the 20th century has been to make a big noise. They weren't a start-up; they were a big company with a lot of resources coming into a new market with a new idea. So, usually, what you do is you take out ads and sell it and say, "Here's this new idea, and here's why you should buy it" and sort of explain yourself. As loudly as possible. They took a totally different approach. They did a lot of really small events, and they never really explained themselves. The full extent of the sell is it said "with taurine" on the can, and no one knew what taurine was, and that was sort of the mystique, as they would put it, of this stuff. And what you hear is to approach the influencers first, but they didn't really do that. They were approaching all kinds of different groups of people. Extreme sports people, club kids, college kids, people leaving gyms, people taking a break outside their office. That's kind of the opposite of traditional marketing, which is supposed to make clear what this is and who it's for. But by doing this small-scale thing, everyone thought it was for them, and I think they did it by being kind of vague and letting consumers fill in the blanks.

EW: You say that now the consumers are giving meaning to brands. Could you give an example of that?

RW: Well, in some ways, the Red Bull example. Another one is the Pabst Blue Ribbon example. That was one where that brand started to make a comeback after many decades of declining sales, and the company itself didn't really know what was going on or why. It was the cheap beer, and then people were embracing this idea that it was an underdog and wasn't insulting you with advertising. It was kind of anti. Embracing that was supposedly a statement against the mass beers. It gave it a kind of brand meaning that the company had nothing to do with. It was invented completely by consumers. There was never any kind of outsiderness or rebelliousness or nonconformity associated with Pabst. It was a poor example of a lot of what they were talking about because they had long since liquidated the factory and laid off the workers and subcontracted the brewing to someone else.

EW: You write that we think that, because of TiVo, we are in control and about how being able to click makes us feel that we have choices and that we're immune to marketing. You give examples of how people have been saying that the consumer is in control for years and years. So what sort of shift has technology made?

RW: Ever since there's been advertising, there have been people complaining about advertising, seeing through advertising, and mocking advertising. And advertisers get kind of upset about that, saying, "These consumers are such a pain in the ass; why can't they just do what we want them to do?" What's a little bit different in this go-round is that I think it's been embraced by the consumers themselves. That click gesture gives us a lot of feeling of control. And it does give us some control. There is some truth in that.

The thing is that marketers aren't dopes, and they didn't react to TiVo by saying, "Well, we're out of business." They reacted by saying, "We have to, once again, come up with new tactics and new modes," and as it happens, every single new piece of technology that comes along offers opportunities to them as well. With the possible exception of TiVo, I guess, but TiVo has been responded to. Just one example is the incredible spike of branded entertainment itself, of the brands moving into the shows.

The upshot is you see a campaign like the one that has built Axe deodorant, where they built Web sites and Web games that people interact with and forward to their friends. They created a fake girl group called the Bom Chicka Wah Wah Girls, which gets millions of views on YouTube and is just basically a long-form ad for Axe.

They dream up a concept for a television show called "Game Killers" that comes right out of a creative brief, and it gets picked up and becomes a show on MTV. So all of this technology presents interesting opportunities for marketers as well because, you know, they're doing their job and they're not fools, and in fact, they're very smart and creative people who are well paid to come up with solutions to these problems.

EW: How do you think this idea that we're in control plays out in other areas like politics?

RW: People will point to things like Facebook and text messaging and so on as grassroots -- empowering ways to spread ideas. It's hard for me to say. I heard this guy talking who was from a climate change group, and he was talking about how, in the '80s, the South African divestment movement came out of campuses all over the country, and that actually was pretty effective pressuring universities to divest from South Africa. It was kind of a social movement, and it had a real effect, and this guy was saying he was trying to recreate this with the issue of climate control.

There is something equivalent to that in joining a Facebook group that says "Save Darfur," and you put that in your Facebook profile. What do you actually do? Is that activism? Does it have an impact? I don't know. And if you've done it, do you feel like you've done a good deed or that you've participated in activism?

I think people are a little glib about a lot of this stuff. And they'll say, "Isn't it amazing that a political candidate or a social movement can connect with all these people." And it is amazing if it results in something changing. But it's not so amazing if it just means people feel like they've done something and not much has happened.

I'm not condemning Facebook, but I think the bottom line is it's still a little early to know if it going to lead to things happening in the world that we haven't seen happen, or is it going to lead to us sitting around clicking and feeling good about ourselves. I don't think it's known yet.

EW: You have a chapter in Buying In about the DIY/craft movement. What do you think is significant about that?

RW: Well, it's a rather large subculture of younger people kind of responding to their problems or questions or alienation from mass production culture with more material culture. They're sort of saying, "We'll make things ourselves," and then that leads to selling things ourselves. I think what's interesting about it is that there is something that ties into real behavior, wanting to know how it's made and what it's made of, and brings in some of these environmental or labor or ethical concerns. And I think what's interesting with the DIY world is they're selling things on Etsy for example, and people are drawn into Etsy for reasons that have nothing to do with those ethical concerns, but then once they get there, it becomes something they can maybe get engaged in.

I wouldn't call it a consumer movement. There's actually a history of very powerful movements that have led to really important things like food labeling and safety standards and so on. Those have tended to be led by what I would call more traditional terms of activism that are aimed at making change, not on an individual level, but one that benefits the greater good. The DIY world is much more capitalist, but it was the most hopeful movement I could see out there, where perhaps these marketing mechanisms can lead to at least different ways of thinking about consumer culture.

EW: In Buying In you write about the secret dialogue between marketers and consumers. How do you hope that dialogue might change after reading the book?

RW: Well, what I'm trying to do is pull back the curtain and say, Here's how two things work: one, the marketing industry, and two, your mind. I call it a secret dialogue because there's a lot going on there that we sort of overlook. We think we understand, but we really don't.

And I believe we do, by and large, care about the impacts of our consumer decisions on our own lives and on the planet. In survey after survey, people will say they care about those things, but we don't really behave that way, so I hope this will let people be more equipped to make the decisions that are more satisfying to them.

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer and teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.