Secret Dialogue: The Rob Walker Interview

Rob Walker’s upcoming book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, is a compelling narrative of consumer culture, drawn occasionally from his regular notes from the field for the New York Times Magazine.

Multinationals don’t determine brand meaning, he argues. People do. Yet people don’t tend to leverage that power toward resolving economic or social justice conflicts. In Walker’s world, they often use it to leverage for more personalized consumption options. In Walker’s world, in fact, people brand themselves.

It reminds me of Susan Sontag’s essay “The Image World” from On Photography. In it, Sontag describes what now seems like a quaint and charming albeit totally out-of-date scenario: residents of non-industrialized countries shy away from being photographed, “divining it to be some kind of trespass, an act of disrespect, a sublimating looting of the personality or the culture.” Whereas, she goes on, “people in industrialized countries seek to have their photographs taken—feel that they are images, and are made real by photographs.”

If we replace “photography” with “branding,”—or, you know, “creating invested relationships with branded products”—we’ve got a decent approximation of the state of the world. At least, the state of the world Walker describes.

Rob Walker’s an incredibly smart and invested journalist, and I’m honored to have the chance to talk to him about our consumer culture. The interview that follows touches on a lot of issues. (I’d have liked to have touched on even more, but we’ve agreed to do at least one more discussion—particularly on gender and branding, and graffiti and self-publishing—in the future.) Most important to this discussion, however, is the book. Buying In poses an essential question about how we position ourselves in consumer culture, and that question is: what makes you feel real? And knowing you have the power to change it, will you make use of it?

As a staunch anti-consumerist activist who won’t even buy a copy of your book—sorry! Even though it’s really good—because I don’t give money to corporate publishing houses, I suspect that I may not be your primary audience. Am I wrong? If not, who is? What are you trying to tell them?

You’re certainly correct that I did not set out to write a book for a primary audience of people who would categorically refuse to buy it.

In general, as far as I can tell, the readers of my column etc. include people like you, or somewhat like you; professional marketers (defined broadly); designers and design fans; academics with an interest in the previously noted fields as well as “popular culture” (defined broadly) and business in general; students in that same range of disciplines; indie-preneur types, especially in the DIY/craft realm; and a large but hard-to-pin down group of people who seem to get some enjoyment and use out of thinking about consumer culture and consumer behavior (good for them!)

And this was my goal: To reach and engage multiple audiences. Of course you can’t please everybody all the time, and this approach means somebody is always thinking I’ve gone too far in this direction or that one. I’m okay with that.

Anyway, so that’s one way of thinking about the intended audience for the book, which is that it isn’t one big and easy-to-pin-down segment that a marketer might name (soccer moms, Nascar dads, and all that), but rather a number of audiences reading for different reasons.

Possibly the core divide is marketers vs. consumers. I’m not particularly interested in thinking about it that way—there’s a reason the word “dialogue” is in the book’ s subtitle—but I’ll just say, yes, I’m interested in professional marketers reading the book, because I think I have something to say that they ought to be interested in that (I don’t think) anyone else is saying to them. A good deal of what I have to say is critical of the way commercial persuasion is practiced. On the other hand, I’m not out to demonize these people, because if I do that then there is absolutely no chance they’ll be open to what I’m saying. If I take them more seriously, as professionals and as humans, then there is, at least, some chance that they’ll take me seriously, too.

That said, of course I’m much more interested in the broader category of, you know, people who buy stuff. A/K/A/: The Rest Of Us. Because it’s my sincere hope that at the end of the book, people will approach buying things in a different way than they did at the start of the book.

So your book posits—correct me if i’m wrong—that consumers have always held greater power in the marketplace to grant meaning to mass-produced cultural symbols than those producers have acknowledged. To what do you attribute this difference in perceived vs. actual power? And to what use do you feel can such power be put?

Much of what’s written about consumer culture or consumer behavior comes at those topics from the point of view of marketers talking to other marketers (7 rules for selling more Whatever to today’s consumer, etc.) or from the point of view of straight-out criticism (marketers are horrible manipulators). So in both cases, the paradigm has to be: Marketers have all the power.

(Or marketers used to have all the power, until really, really recently—that’s been said over and over again for like 100 years, by marketing professionals in particular. They’re constantly revealing that customer is now king, etc. This is the other factor, I think: It’s partly the tendency to be ahistorical, and it’s partly the idea that We in the Here and Now are way smarter than all those silly naive people of the past; that’s just a comforting, flattering thought. Of course we want to think of ourselves as the savviest, cleverest people in the history of the world. And if that means suggesting that in the Old Days people took orders from their TV set, then okay. But I digress.)

My point is: What is consumer power? Is it getting a free replacement product because you vented on a blog? Is the “opportunity” to have a “conversation” with Starbucks about what new flavors they should introduce? Is it designing your very own Nike shoe?

Or is it the various accomplishments of past movements, ranging from food labeling to safety belts to divestment from South Africa?

Those questions can be answered in a variety of ways. It’s basically up to consumers to decide: What’s important? If “we” have the power, then maybe it’s worth thinking whether “we” want to use it for something more significant than ragging on Comcast.

Do you see or have you seen any negative side to discussing branding as a new form of cultural expression? Any positive side?

To me this is like asking whether there are positive or negative sides to discussing whether the sun is going to come up tomorrow. It’s a fact: branding is a form a cultural expression. It’s part of culture. Not just pop culture—culture. That being the case: What now?

What is your “Converse” story? And how does it figure into your interest in writing about marketing?

My Converse story is that when I was about 15 I bought a pair of baby-blue Chucks at a mall in Houston, Texas, probably under certain peer influences, and from that moment, Chucks became part of my “acceptable” repertoire of products, without me ever really thinking about it. In fact I never truly thought about it until something like 20 years later, when I read/heard that Nike was buying Converse.

As a consumer, I would never, ever, ever wear a Nike product. So now: Chucks were a Nike product. What’s interesting to me about this isn’t the why-no-Nike or why-so-into-Converse, but my realization that, although I positioned myself as a savvy and disinterested observer American consumer/marketing culture, the fact of the matter was I was having a personal crisis over a brand. So I could pretend brands did not matter to me, but here I was facing the reality that I didn’t know whether I could ever buy Chucks again. (As it turns out, I have not.)

But the larger point of the story is that it forced me to realize that I was not “immune” to brand meaning. Which was an important thing for me to realize as I wrote this book.

We’ve talked before about the marketing of books about marketing, and I need to raise it again here. The marketing materials mailed with your book list all sorts of great strategies intended to get the word out: corporate cross-promotions, WOMMA, banner advertising on Brandweek.com. I realize that at corporate publishing houses, authors rarely have much say over how the publicity department will handle work, but I wonder what your take on this is, given your acknowledgment that word-of-mouth marketing might be kind of icky, and that consumers perhaps have greater sway over the marketplace than previously acknowledged.

Prior to this, I knew pretty much nothing about how big publishing companies operate , and I still know very little. (My previous book, Letters from New Orleans, was published an indie press—so I assume you bought that?) And actually you may know more about the promotion of Buying In than I do—I don’t know about any corporate cross-promotions, and I’m not sure I knew about banner advertising on Brandweek.com. The latter would not be terribly surprising, since I’m sure Random House also sees marketing professionals or people interested in branding as part of the book’s audience. The former, the cross-promotions, I don’t know anything about that, so I can’t comment.

Regarding the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, my understanding is that the book, or maybe galleys, I’m not sure, is/was given out at their conference, and I believe this is something Random House has done with other books. So far as I know, it hasn’t been flowed into any word of mouth firm’s actual system of “agents” etc; it’s been given to word of mouth professionals. And I’m certainly interested in those professionals reading the book.

But specifics aside, you’re getting at broader questions. As I’ve said elsewhere, I do think there’s a difference between promoting a set of ideas (like those contained in a book), and dreaming up a set of ideas (“this makes you an individual for xyz reason”) and using that to promote a shoe or a detergent or whatever. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong or hypocritical about book promotion in general.

On the other hand, it’s possible that some of the specific tactics might end up making me look like a hypocrite. So as always I try to think about how Andy Warhol would handle the situation. If somebody asked him: “So doesn’t that make you a hypocrite?” then I’m pretty sure he would say, “Yes.” I’ll just go with that.

Ha ha. You know, I’m more of a Titans of Finance girl. However, I’m not as interested in your potential hypocrisy—I personally don’t see it: you’re a writer, and you’re doing the writing—as I might be in, say, WOMMA’s, or Brandweek’s, or whoever’s. They’re the marketers, and maybe they’re passing along the message: some marketing is kind of icky. I guess this isn’t a question, so much as a clarification.

I see what you mean. One of the really interesting things to me about commercial persuasion professionals is how much they all profess to dislike various aspects of advertising and marketing. Sometimes I actually think marketers are more critical of (other people’s) marketing than any other group of people. On the other hand, I can’t think of a single instance of someone in the business professing to feel that anything they personally were working on as being remotely (to borrow your term) icky. Basically, almost everybody sees a big-picture problem, and nobody will cop to being part of it. So I honestly don’t know how people in the profession will react to the book on the issues you’re getting at here. Maybe icky is in the eye of the beholder?

You discuss in the section on crafting about what I find most interesting about the project of branding, which is that it tends to be something to which men are more attracted than women. I don’t mean brands: from a consumer perspective, brands seem to be a gender-neutral proposition. But branding itself: from creating brands that dominate the marketplace in some way or another, to artists branding themselves or forwarding their own brands, to marketing and advertising brands. You allude in the book to women popping up mainly in the crafting movement, but offer little conjecture as to why. Can you here?

Well there’s a ton of branding in the (women-dominated) craft movement, and in the related crafty lands that border into “the arts.”

But I understand what you’re getting at. And of course it’s interesting that the marketing profession has long been dominated by men, whereas “the consumer” they envision is very frequently a woman. There’s kind of an entire separate book to be written about that. I actually thought about gender quite a bit while writing this book, but spent more time trying not to show that than showing it. So to truly answer your question, I would indeed have to resort to conjecture, which I’m not so big on.

Well, then, have you witnessed anything about the project of branding that seems particularly welcoming to masculinity? Or have you spoken to men who’ve noted comfort with the form? Or women who’ve expressed discomfort, or concrete ideas about the reasons for this coincidence at all? And what was it you were thinking about gender while writing this book?

I have no choice, then, but to resort to a certain degree of gender stereotyping. So take this with all the obvious caveats. But maybe it’s useful to compare branding to graffiti, because there are a lot of similarities. Graffiti has a very macho element, the sort of territory marking, the projection of self into the face of strangers, etc. etc. (“Your presence on their scene,” is, I think, the phrase noted macho-ologist Norman Mailer used in his famous essay on graffiti.)

Something about branding can be really similar. It can be about projecting an idea, and getting others to more or less acquiesce to that idea. The underground-y branding tactics that a lot of big companies now use tend to be particularly that way, because it gets invested with a sort of “street cred” feeling—like being down with the scene, proving you’re “authentic,” all that stuff. By and large (remember the caveats!) there’s a lot there that appeals to men, particularly young men. And there are echoes of all that in the rather male-dominated corner of the “brand underground” known as the streetwear scene, where the amount of tough-guy posing can border on the hilarious, when you consider that what they’re talking about, ultimately, is their outfits.

What I meant by “thinking about gender” is basically that I was trying to be aware of avoiding gender stereotyping as I wrote. I never wanted to have a moment where I was saying, “Well men shop this way and women shop that way.” Not that there aren’t differences, etc., it’s just not an area where I have much to contribute, and that isn’t really the story I wanted to tell.

I guess the main area where it might really come up is, as you suggest, the craft scene. I think it’s an interesting fact that women more or less dominate that scene, and that fact is part of the story I tell. On the other hand, as I think I say in the book, there’s still this lingering sense in most coverage of DIY/craft of “check out the craft babes” or whatever, that I think really, really misses the significance of the phenomenon. Probably a more clever writer could have found a way to tackle all of this head on, but to me I felt like it was a good time to just tell the story I wanted to tell about why I think that phenomenon matters to everybody; not to women, to everybody.

I read your column regularly and Murketing even more often, and I do believe that of everyone writing about consumerism right now, you offer the most insight. But, you have been and I think rightly can be called to task for occasionally falling on that line between church and state: You write journalistically about products and product trends. How do you define that line in your own work?

I know that sometimes when I write about something, as a result, people buy that something. I’m not particularly thrilled about it, because it’s not what I’m trying to do, but it goes with the territory. To me, the great thing about the column is you can enjoy all the interesting things about brand meaning etc etc without actually spending a dime. (Well, you spent money to buy the paper, maybe, unless you read it online. You know what I mean.) I’ve certainly never written a column saying, “What an awesome product, you should buy it!” And there are a LOT of people writing a LOT of words along those lines, from the very most highfalutin media outlets, to the glossier ones, to the grassrootsy online world: Just a ton of totally mindless, thoughtless, here-is-some-new-hot-shit writing. And you know what? It’s really, really popular.

I’m extremely lucky that my editors let me approach my subject matter the way I want to. The number of times I’ve been asked to write about a specific product or brand is zero. The number of times I’ve been asked to tone something down is zero. The number of times I’ve had contact with the advertising side of the Times is zero. On one occasion in the history of the column I wrote about something that, unbeknownst to me, was also scheduled to be advertised in the issue—and what happened was, they bumped the ad out of the issue. I understand why people like to pick on the Times, but I’ve written for a lot of publications, and had a lot of experience, and in my view, the Times does better than most, integrity-wise.

So it really does fall to me, as you suggest, to define that line. The line is always: What does my reader want to read about? My reader isn’t looking for shopping tips, they’re looking for interesting and surprising stories about why people buy things. So that’s basically what I’m thinking about. Whether the “thing” in a column is Taser or a limited edition Nike sneaker (as I’ve said, I don’t do Nike), or whether it is some other product that I personally might buy—those distinctions are sideshows. I’m trying to tell them stories I think they’ll find interesting.

How often do you run across people who are totally disgusted with branding and consumerism? And, in honor of my favorite new thing, Anti-Fridays: what role does dissent play in discussions of marketing? And what role do you believe it should play?

Every day. Because everybody is disgusted. On the other hand, not everybody is quite so consistently disgusted—in the sense that what most people feel is a love-hate relationship with material and/or branded culture. The book deals with this in the form of stories of people protesting branded culture by creating new, self-made branded culture.

I would have to refer back to an earlier answer, above, on the role of dissent. Really it’s a matter of consumers (that is, people living in First World consumer cultures such as the United States) deciding: Well, what’s really important? And: What are we willing to sacrifice and fight for in order to get it?

There is no way I can answer a question like that for other people. However, I hope that by peeling away some of the layers that we protect ourselves with on this issue of “being immune to brands and marketing,” it’s possible that some readers might be more willing to deal with those questions in a way that’s a little more interesting than what, for instance, commercial persuasion pros have to offer.

We’ll see.

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 3, 2008 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Rob Walker is reading from the book at frog design’s studio in NYC, next Wednesday, the 11th. The event is free, but you need to RSVP: http://www.frogdesign.com/events/buying-in-an-evening-with-rob-walker-543.html

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