Between What We Buy and Who We Are

The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.

By Rob Walker. 291 pp. Random House

[The New York Times, July 27, 2008]


Late in 2006, pollsters at the Pew Research Center called up 2,000 Americans and asked a simple question: Which products could people simply not live without? Take the dishwasher, for instance was it a luxury or an ineluctable necessity of modern life? And did they believe they needed, rather than merely wanted, a clothes washer and dryer? How about a home computer, a microwave oven, high-speed Internet service and air-conditioning? Yes, yes, yes and yes, the nation nodded in assent. In just about every product category, Americans self-professed needs had ballooned since the hand-to-mouth 1990s. Not long ago, we thought of the cellphone as a high-class extravagance; nowadays, we feel naked without it.

That we are, as a nation, consumed by consumerism will surprise few. But as the journalist Rob Walker points out in Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, few of us will admit that we frequently succumb to salesmanship, and that marketing produces in us needs we never knew we had. Advertisers play along, assuring us that were tough to persuade; the trade press laments the birth of a new consumer, shoppers hopped up on YouTube and TiVo who are said to have developed a strange immunity to advertising. Im not much of a consumer, knowing youngsters confess to Walker just before they launch into arias on the transcendent qualities of their favorite MP3 players or preferred brands of beer.

Few observers have plumbed the subterranean poetry of marketing as thoroughly as Walker, who writes Consumed, a weekly shopping-culture column in The New York Times Magazine. In Buying In, Walker aims to lift the cloud of self-delusion that obscures our buying habits. Every indicator suggests were the shoppingest society thats ever lived; every day, we purchase more stuff, produce more trash, descend deeper into debt and feel the press of commercial desire grow ever more intense. Walker, mining research from psychology and economics to explain the unlikely rise of several brands, argues that our susceptibility to marketing arises from our ignorance of its pervasiveness. Indeed, in recent years the ad industry has adopted an underground method of selling that depends on our complicit embrace of brands. Walker calls it murketing, and once you understand it, you notice its footprint everywhere.

Consider Pabst Blue Ribbon. Beginning in the 1970s, the cheap beer that had long been synonymous with the blue-collar heartland began a steep decline, with sales by 2001 dipping to fewer than a million barrels a year, 90 percent below the beers peak. But in 2002, Pabst noticed a sudden sales spike, driven by an unlikely demographic: countercultural types bike messengers, skaters and their tattooed kin in hipster redoubts like Portland, Ore., had taken to swilling the stuff. When asked why, they would praise Pabst for its non-image, for the fact that it seemed to care little about selling.

Traditionally, a company that spots a sudden market opportunity responds by gearing ads toward the new customers. But Neal Stewart, Pabsts marketing whiz, had studied No Logo, Naomi Kleins anti-corporate manifesto, and he understood that overt commercial messages would turn off an audience suspicious of capitalism. Thus the company shunned celebrity endorsements Kid Rock had been interested and devoted its budget instead to murketing, sponsoring a series of unlikely gatherings across the country. Like some kind of small-scale National Endowment for the Arts for young American outsider culture, Pabst paid the bills at bike messenger contests, skateboarder movie screenings, and art and indie publishing get-togethers. At each of these events, it kept its logo obscure, its corporate goal to always look and act the underdog, to be seen as a beer of social protest, a fellow dissenter against mainstream mores.

Pabsts campaign was designed to push beer without appearing to push it. To the extent that it conveyed any branding message at all, it was, Hey, we dont care if you drink the stuff. To people sick of beer companies that did look as if they cared dont Super Bowl ads smack of desperation? Pabsts attitude seemed refreshing and inspired deep passion in its fans. Many customers did more than just buy the beer. Walker speaks to one who tattooed a foot-square Pabst logo on his back. Pabsts low-fi marketing is not insulting you, the fellow tells Walker.

Its not just downscale beer companies that have taken to murketing. To popularize its youth-focused Scion brand, Toyota held parties for editors of indie magazines with names like Art Prostitute. Red Bull is thought to have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on stealth events, financing competitions for, among other things, kiteboarding, video gaming and break-dancing. And then theres the word-of-mouth industry advertising firms that recruit an army of agents to sing the gospel of products to their unsuspecting friends.

Walker doesnt always pin down how much these marketing efforts contribute to the coffers of the companies that employ them. What he makes clear, however, is how thoroughly such campaigns invade the culture, especially youth culture. Members of a hyper-aware generation often hailed for their imperviousness to marketing are actually turning to brands to define themselves. Want to protest a corporate beer? Well, get a Pabst tattoo!

In reality, Pabst Blue Ribbons anticapitalist ethos is, as Walker puts it, a sham. The company long ago closed its Milwaukee brewery and now outsources its operations to Miller. Its entire corporate staff is devoted to marketing and sales, not brewing. You really couldnt do much worse in picking a symbol of resistance to phony branding, Walker writes. But P.B.R.s fans dont care. In the new era of marketing, image is everything.

Farhad Manjoo, a technology columnist at Slate, is the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.