Walker: Advertising is in the air around us
By Chris Cadelago
The San Francisco Chronicle
Rob Walker is part journalist, part cultural anthropologist and part trendspotter. In his “Consumed,” column, which appears weekly in the New York Times Magazine, Walker dissects brands, marketing and consumer culture. He has written about everything from Crocs to Wonder Bread to the popularity of embroidered holiday cardigans. His new book, “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are” (Random House; $25), explores the ever-blurring line between marketing and everyday life, or “murketing,” a term he coined. Walker spoke with us on the phone from Savannah, Ga., where he lives.
Q: What's the simplest way to describe the connection between our purchases and our psyche?
A: Well, identity and purchase decisions bleed into each other, which I think that people know. I am trying to show the ways in which, even when we think that's not true, it is on an unconscious level. There is a sense of complacency, or almost smugness, that a lot of people have about their relationship to consumer culture. That sense of, “Well I am not a consumer myself.” In a way, it's a form of overconfidence. Taking a point that psychologists make, if you think that something is not affecting you, you don't bother to be self-analytical about it. In the relationship to advertising, most people say, “Well, I am not so dumb that I would be influenced by an ad.” Because advertising is so in the air around us, we have to think about what may be affecting us.
Q: You refer to the complex of factors, rational and otherwise, that sparks us to make particular purchase decisions as the “Desire Code.” What is the code?
A: Part of the code is rational factors, like price and quality. After that, it gets into the emotional side of thinking, the side that is hard to pin down. The thing that I use as the wellspring is the basic tension that we have between wanting to be an individual, wanting to be part of something larger than ourselves, and wanting to have a coherent narrative about our own lives. We want a reason that everything we do makes sense. In the book, I borrow Michael Gazzaniga's term “the Interpreter,” which is a description of the way the mind can work to come up with a reason for making a decision after that decision has already been made.
Q: So what was your last significant purchase and what does it say about you?
A: My last significant purchase would be a scanner, which is really boring. But the last purchase I made of any particular interest would be a necktie. I happened to buy it on Etsy.com, a DIY crafty Web site that comes up in the book, from a woman who calls her brand Cyberoptix (www.cyber optix.com). It's a red tie that has this pattern of these little knives on it. At a glance it looks normal, but if you look closely you see the knives. Part of what this symbolizes is that I am about to go do book promotion and I need a tie. And I suppose that one could easily look at this tie and presume that I am having trouble coping with the adultness of having to wear a tie again. I wore ties all the time before and maybe I am resisting that a little bit. And it probably has to do with this book because I talk so much about the Etsy scene that I am aware of that stuff. Could I have just worn one of my old ties? Yeah, probably so.
Q: Speaking of brands, you describe in detail a number of them in the book, such as the Hundreds, aNYthing and Barking Irons. The larger the logo, the less expensive and desirable a product becomes to those actively participating in a given subculture, you write.
A: If your imagined audience is connoisseurs of Prada bags, they will know your Prada bag whether it says Prada on it or not. In the case of these brands, they are communicating in something like a secret language. The whole point is who gets it and who doesn't. I think it has more to do with the person wearing it feeling like they are in on something. In the case of the Prada bag, they may feel like they are part of the traditional upper-class construction. And in the case of the Hundreds, it would be more like an outsider, rebel, hipster, cool, outsider construction.
Q: You also point out the corporate co-opting of a subculture like Hot Topic, which packages and sells all things “punk.” Ramones T-shirts have outsold Ramones albums 10 to 1, you write. And CBGB, the birthplace of American punk, arguably reached its peak in terms of awareness after selling T-shirts bearing its logo. What are we to make of this?
A: If you ask someone, “Do you care about symbols of things?,” it sounds very frivolous. But clearly the Ramones label has become instant shorthand for a tribal membership or a worldview of indie rebellion. Hop Topic is a good example. I don't know if it happens to sell Ramones T-shirts, certainly it sells T-shirts for bands. The Ramones have developed this cachet, the symbol alone, that you could align yourself with without listening to the music. I don't know that you see a lot of people wearing a Ramones or CBGB T-shirt who have no idea what it is. They have some idea what it is. Whether their idea is connected to reality, like in the case of CBGB, is probably debatable. But they understand the message that it's sending, whether it be to other people or themselves. Your audience for a lot of this stuff is yourself.
Q: You also write that while Nike's famous swoosh logo has long been a symbol for suckers, the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star had been a mainstay sneaker for you, from your teenage years to well into your 30s. Then Nike bought Converse, which troubled you. Why?
A: This was the reality check for me because I definitely had that smug, above-it-all attitude I talked about. As a journalist writing about marketing, you have a certain feeling of observing what other people do, but not really being something that I am involved in. My basic position was brands don't mean anything to me. And then, it became clear that the brand Converse was suddenly causing this crisis in my life. Did I want to be a person who was wearing something that was a product of a company that I had always made a show of disassociating myself from? It made me realize that it was easy to pretend that we are above it all. But this is the thing that usually gets people. They will say that they don't care about what brand they wear, but almost everyone has something that they'll refuse to wear based on the symbol of that brand. The reason we have feelings like that is because the symbol actually has meaning.
Q: Sneakers do seem to spark passions in people. Sneakerheads will wait for hours on end at shoe boutiques for a pair of limited edition Nike's to “drop.” What's art and who is left to make the distinction?
A: I think the interesting thing about the adoption of sneakers as quasi-art objects is that it was kind of a ground-up phenomenon that came from consumers. It started as a style and then the element of scarcity, just like in the luxury market, became important. People began painting their Nikes and customizing them before the company got involved and began manufacturing the scarcity. Nike then commissioned artists to create a limited number of super-special sneakers and there would be near riots when the shoes came out. In that case, the answer is the consumers decided that this was worth being treated as something close to an art object.
Q: Let's play a little word association. I'll say a word and you tell me what comes to mind.
Pabst Blue Ribbon: PBR became a consumer-created anti-brand, brand. It became an authentic rejection of mainstream branded culture just by virtue of the kind of people who were drinking it.
Nom de Guerre: They call that category streetwear. To me it's a mix of subculture, cachet and something very close to the luxury-upscale idea. That kind of cachet. Those two things having in common exclusiveness, like in the literal sense excluding people who don't get it.
Apple's iPod: The iPod is the default product, the default brand. It's an acceptable thing almost to the point that you have to explain yourself if you have any other MP3 player.
Q: I read that you dislike having your picture taken, and even refused to use it on the book jacket.
A: I am guilty of getting a book and looking at the author. Then you have this picture of the author in your head and you're thinking about that when you're reading. I don't want that. I want the reader to not be thinking about what I look like or how old I am. I know that some of these things come up indirectly in the writing. But I feel like in the writing they come up when they are appropriate. I did acquiesce in the sense that there is a publicity photo of me. But I didn't want it on the book just because I feel like what I am doing is communicating in words on a page and I want to keep it that way.
Q: What's the black-and-white patterned box in its place?
A: That thing in the picture's place is a QR Code, a next-generation bar code that's popular in Japan and Europe. Some people will recognize what it is and they may even have QR readers on their cell phones. If you zap it with your reader, it takes you to a page on my “murketing” site, where for now there's a secret offer to get a free, signed bookplate. People may say, “Well, aren't you using a marketing tactic?” Well, sort of. I am definitely playing off that. I certainly think that the series of pixilated blobs is actually more interesting than I am.
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