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Original Essays

Buying In

by Rob Walker
 
  1. Buying In: The Secret Dialogue between What We Buy and Who We Are "Marked by meticulous research and careful conclusions, this superbly readable book confirms...Walker as an expert on consumerism." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "The most trenchant psychoanalyst of our consumer selves is Rob Walker. This is a fresh and fascinating exploration of the places where material culture and identity intersect." Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food

    "This book has vast social implications, far beyond the fields of marketing and branding....[A] must-read." Po Bronson, author of What Should I Do with My Life?


I'm not much of a consumer.

I hear this all the time. The people who say it to me know that I write about consumer culture and consumer behavior; they know that I write a column called "Consumed" in the New York Times Magazine, and that I'd been finishing a book called Buying In: The Secret Dialogue between What We Buy and Who We Are. That's actually why they're saying it. And more often than not, they follow up by offering a comment about something I've written. If I've just done a column on a trendy sort of sneaker that whoever I'm listening to happens to have purchased himself, he will assure me that I failed to capture the outstanding intrinsic quality of the brand. If I've written something about a trendy variety of beverage that whoever I'm listening to thinks is absurd, she will marvel aloud that anyone could be so foolish as to buy such a thing.

Pro or con, the prefatory caveat is always the same — delivered the way you might say, "I don't watch much television" or "I don't really follow sports."

I guess people say they are "not really much of a consumer" because being defined merely as "a consumer" sounds particularly trivial, or frivolous. But being a consumer is different than obsessing over box scores or overloading the memory on your TiVo. You'd have to take pretty extreme measures to avoid being a consumer. (And keep in mind that the most intense "simple living" fanatics tend to spend more time thinking about their consumer behavior than anybody else.)

The reverse is true, too: almost nobody is really a fan of consumption in and of itself, in the style of a Red Sox nut or a Battlestar Galactica addict. Basically, we're all consumers — and hardly anybody is excited about it.

This is exactly what draws me to consumer culture and consumer behavior — and design, and branding, and anti-branding, and so on — as subjects. Being a consumer is part of being sentient in America. The very pervasiveness of consumer culture is the reason we don't really think about it too deeply.

In my view, that's a big mistake. I think it's a big mistake on two levels, in fact: a cultural level and a personal level.

On a cultural level, I understand why people want to wall off consumer culture into its own category, something we don't have to take all that seriously. Critiquing what we buy and why tilts into the commercial marketplace in ways that just don't feel as serious, as, say, critiquing works of art — even if the definition of "works of art" has gotten pretty fluid. (Somehow a quasi-scholarly critique of Battlestar Galactica, for instance, seems more like what we think of as criticism than a deconstruction of who buys Red Bull, and why.)

But consumer culture is serious. For starters, it's what we spend our days immersed in, and surrounded by. The symbols of the marketplace — brands and logos and all their related signifiers — communicate ideas that we understand without even thinking about them. You already know, or have your own view about, what Nike or Apple "mean," and I'm guessing that's not the result of ever having spent any time sitting around dwelling on the matter. You just know. To a significant extent, the phrase "consumer culture" isn't even necessary: American culture is consumer culture.

And our decisions in the marketplace, as a result of our knowledge of these cultural symbols, matter. In fact, they matter quite a bit more than the success or failure of a given television show or sports team. The environmental consequences of our buying habits are of course the most obvious example.

This brings me to the second level: I think our dismissive attitude towards "being a consumer" is a mistake on a personal level.

When I started writing about advertising, some years back, I more or less saw it as something that affected other people. Gradually my focus shifted to the consumer side of the equation, because of the "Consumed" column I write for the New York Times Magazine, and because I'd started writing a book on the subject, among other reasons. But still: consumer behavior was merely subject matter, and I suppose I considered myself somehow "immune" to branding and marketing and the machinations of commercial persuasion. Meanwhile, I was reading and hearing from a variety of cultural and business-world commentators that the New Consumer of the 21st century, empowered by a variety of fresh technologies, was and is particularly resistant to commercial persuasion — we could "see right through it."

Seductive as this assertion is, what I slowly learned was that — of course — we all see ourselves as being somehow too savvy to be affected by commercial persuasion, and we always did. Who would ever think: Yes, I trust and get all my information from advertising, and when I see a commercial, I head straight to the store and buy whatever product? Nobody. Not just nobody now, but nobody ever. Sure we all "see through" marketing — you'd have to be a fool not to recognize a 30-second television spot as, you know, an ad.

The moment when I had to reconsider my relationship to branded culture came when Converse, the sneaker company, was purchased by Nike. At the time I'd been wearing Converse shoes for well over 15 years, yet something about the company losing its independence bothered me, and I wasn't sure I wanted to wear my battered Chuck Taylors anymore. I had to ask myself why. If I'm so indifferent and immune to branding, then how can it be that I'm caught up in the "meaning" of... a brand?

Critics of American consumption habits and the marketing industry that stokes those habits routinely say we are "obsessed" with shopping. I don't think so. I think most of the preferences and biases that guide our consumption decisions are a good deal more subtle than that. This is hardly a radical position, really: a vast amount of cognitive research (some of which has animated the newly popular field of "behavioral economics") has been devoted to revealing the way nonconscious thought guides decision-making.

It's not that we take orders from marketing imagery and branding campaigns; it's that their influence happens in the background. University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy Wilson has in fact pointed out that in practice most traditional advertising works on us in a way that is not unlike how we imagine so-called "subliminal marketing" to work. If that's right, then blithely considering ourselves immune to commercial persuasion — to consider ourselves as beings some how apart from the consumerism that others participate in — is hardly productive. It's part of the problem.

I've learned a great deal over the years about how marketers study consumers and research our shopping habit, and work with incredible verve and innovation to get their branding messages to us in surprising and subtle new ways.

This is actually the reason that I wrote Buying In. I think it's useful, critical even, for the rest of us — we consumers — to know a little about those processes, too. Because just as "consumer culture" is a probably unnecessary phrase that allows us to put some distance between ourselves and the un-serious-sounding idea of consumption, much of what gets labeled "consumer behavior" is, really, simply human behavior. Characterized this way — human behavior that might shift in ways with tangible consequences for the culture at large — I don't think this stuff sounds so trivial at all.

But I don't really mind when readers offer up their caveats about their own relationship to consumerness. After all, they're readers, so they've found the subject engaging enough to meet me halfway. And I'm not interested in paying them back with a lecture that I'm really in no position to give — I'm just trying to make consumer culture and consumer behavior worth thinking about. Maybe, without quite ever thinking about it consciously, engaging with the subject will change the way the way those readers shop. Because ultimately, I don't care what they tell me about their buying habits. I care about what they tell themselves.

÷ ÷ ÷

Rob Walker writes the weekly column "Consumed," a blend of business journalism and cultural anthropology, for the New York Times Magazine. Previously, he created and wrote the popular "Ad Report Card" column for Slate, and he has contributed to a wide range of publications, from Fast Company and Fortune to the New Republic and AdBusters. Walker continues to write about the secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are at his own website, Murketing.com. He lives in Savannah, Georgia, with his wife, photographer Ellen Susan. spacer

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