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Victims of Hype

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Unlike hucksters like Cesvet, Walker is not interested in clarifying a marketing strategy worth mimicking (or browbeating readers into feeling ashamed about shopping) so much as tracing the ways consumer needs are identified, assuaged, manufactured, and dignified—exploring the different ways commercial and personal values influence each other. In Buying In, he recognizes that consumerism is our culture’s means to resolve what he calls the fundamental tension of modern life: “the eternal dilemma of wanting to feel like individuals and to feel as though we are part of something bigger than ourselves.” We want to be recognized for our individuality, but that itself is a socially constructed ideal, disseminated through brands and products that we rely on to flesh out what we want our own lives to mean to others and, via that route, ourselves.


Walker, too, points out that we use goods to tell stories about ourselves to ourselves (and not merely to communicate status, as it can often seem), and recognizes that only goods with social currency (a boldfaced term in Conversational Capital) are capable of convincing us. “We are thirsty for meaning, for connection, for individuality, for ways to tell stories about ourselves that make sense,” Walker writes. “Meanwhile, what brand makers generally have to sell is a pretty good product that is hardly equipped to fulfill those needs.” So commercial persuasion is deployed to bridge that gap and conceal the inadequacies of consumerism as a means to quench that thirst.


 


cover art

Buying In

Rob Walker

The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are

(Random House)

Goods must become a language with a grammar and vocabulary we all acknowledge, so, for example, I can reflexively believe that you’ll understand what the songs on my iPod are supposed to say about me. Marketing (for better or worse) is the means by which this product language is, for the most part, made and distributed in a mass society.


Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction between the langue, the language system, and the parole, a specific instance of signification, is relevant here: Ads are generally incoherent at the parole level, but that helps establish the hegemony of the langue—reinforcing the rules by which we can make and convey meaning out of brands and branded goods. A good example is how nonsensical TV commercials dissolve logic in the particular instance so that an illogical form of persuasion can reign in all of them. An individual ad that makes no sense is dismissable, but the climate of irrationality serves all of them well, leading us not to question the absence of causality in the ads and to use the free associational techniques promulgated therein in our own efforts to persuade others and ultimately ourselves. Only within that nonlogical system is the idea that brands connote lifestyles not utterly absurd, and because the shorthand is so useful, we all become complicit in supporting it. We need the tools for making social meaning.


Given that dependency, it’s no surprise that consumers cooperate with marketers, as marketing affords us an opportunity to participate more directly in what is self-evidently one of the most pervasive public discourses in our society. When we collaborate with advertisers, helping spread their messages, we capture that elusive sense of being a part of something bigger, and we get to feel like we are behind the curtain, with our hands on the controls, rather than being the target. It’s like being on reality TV rather than watching it.


People want to participate in branding and marketing because the viable alternatives for shared sociality, social participation, have been disappearing, in no small part because of the marketing culture itself—anywhere an alternative arises (say, aspects of the lost culture of clubs and organizations chronicled by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, or an authentic grassroots lifestyle or organically developed subculture—Walker highlights the skateboarding culture of Southern California detailed in Dogtown and Z Boys) marketing agents swoop in to co-opt it.


The tactics of Conversational Capital are meant to enhance the participatory tools, but they run the risk of functioning instead as agents of co-optation. The authors are at great pains to try to distinguish what they are advocating from generating buzz, which they see as superficial. “Buzz is often manufactured and depends on media for its impact,” they write. “Conversational Capital is embedded in the experience itself and relies on peer-to-peer conversations.” But little support is given for this assertion; it’s just how they would prefer their own hype-fostering techniques, which are also manufactured and conveyed through the media, to be perceived.


They want to take credit for what people will say to one another about a product but disavow the methods they recommend for starting those conversations, which are all they can really claim to have control over. And those methods are likely to generate consumer resistance to the degree they are recognizable as methods—as manipulations.  No one likes to feel manipulated, particularly in the midst of identity construction. We don’t want to be seen as victims of hype.


Often, considering the saturation of hype in much of modern society, this requires us to make heroic attempts at self-deception, but marketers can help us in this, but not by explicitly urging on us greater brand participation. Instead, the past decade has seen a proliferation of a more nebulous and almost indifferent form of advertisement, what Walker calls murketing—murky marketing. His book chronicles the many different ways marketers have come up with to create new means for getting their messages across, incorporating branding and advertisements into various unlikely corners of everyday life and making it the driving force behind all sorts of spectacles.


Walker argues that our growing ability to click away from ads (through TiVo, etc.) forces marketing to become murketing, a depressingly perverse outcome: The more we are able to shut out advertising foisted on us involuntarily, the more we invite advertising into our lives voluntarily on what we believe are our own terms. Our power to block ads doesn’t decrease the amount of ads we consume; it just makes us believe we direct and control the flow. Brands and marketing have no less force in shaping the public discourse.


So murketing is the ongoing way in which marketing preserves itself as the culture, as the space in which popular culture exists. As Walker notes, “the idea that shared consumer tastes add up to something like a community is a pervasive one.” And the end of marketing, as it has evolved, seems to be to assure that shared consumer tastes is the only community possible, particularly as old ties within communities dissolve under the pressure of globalization, virtualization, and the delocalization of culture.


The most provocative chapter of Walker’s book describes the Conversational Capital gurus’ rivals, the ad firm BzzAgent. Unlike Sid Lee (the consultancy responsible for Conversational Capital), which subscribes to the theory that products can be designed to spontaneously generate word-of mouth hype, BzzAgent recruits an army of volunteer shills who spread the word-of-mouth on command among their social contacts.


That people are eager to volunteer to spread product gossip suggests how we intuitively understand that the most prominent public discourse in our culture is marketing. To speak in that voice is to be speaking with our culture’s most influential voice. Just as we shape our identities with products because we trust the right people will know what they are supposed to mean, we are eager to speak marketing talk because we know it has megaphonic power. We repeat ad slogans with no self-consciousness at all.


Marketing’s pervasiveness has detached it from its function; the climate of commerciality (which has become a proxy for popularity) overwhelms the specificity of the product to be hyped, so the BzzAgents don’t care what they are promoting as long as they are promoting, which gives them something to say that will be socially recognized as significant, relevant to everyone’s lives as consumers in a consumer society. Walker details a few BzzAgents overcoming their shyness through having some marketing pitch to dispense and a means to keep score of how social they are being (making social life into a competitive game). So ordinary conversation between individuals is assimilated to marketing.


“Even in the small orbit of your own social circle,” Walker writes, “knowing about something first—telling a friend about a new CD or discovering a restaurant before anyone else in the office—is satisfying. Maybe it’s altruism, maybe it’s a power trip, but influencing other people feels good.” So we get involved with trends for their own sake, for the sake of influencing itself, not because we have faith in the substance of what we are convincing people of. Likewise, the notion that conversational capital actually signifies the quality of the product being talked about becomes insupportable.


Marketing becomes the medium for social life, becomes the substance of public space. Promotion as an activity supplants promotion as a means. Perhaps in the future, all people will learn to socialize primarily through having something to promote, since it supplies a reason for social interaction after technology has accomplished its chief goal of eliminating that hassle in the name of convenience.


Even as our social interactions are co-opted, we co-opt the methods of marketing to market ourselves. We learn from effective murketing, in which we become the subject of ads rather than the target. We act out fantasies of ownership to promote ourselves rather than learn anything about the goods to convey their usefulness. In this paradigm, the conversational capital accrues to us, not the brands we talk about. We invest ourselves in nebulously defined brands, which seem to be unlocking our creative self-fashioning potential, while at the same time we are basically enhancing a company’s brand equity.


It’s not clear whether this is a fair exchange. It’s hard not to see the shallowness and potential for corporate manipulation in commercial-made selfhood. The problem with all this identity-and-social-recognition consumption is that it negates the space for public action—or rather it reduces all public action to a number of shopping choices. We don’t build a public self through what we do so much as through what we buy and display.


Walker tries to end his book on an optimistic note, evoking the ultimate privacy of the meanings we make of our belongings and how we “pull the wool over our own eyes” with regard to consumer goods to satisfy ourselves that way. And though he posits some alternatives to the dominant consumer culture in the craft movement and unconsumption, the overriding conclusion is that we have no choice but to fashion our sense of self “out there in the marketplace, acting in our own self-interest”—constrained by the tenets of capitalism made universal.


Where once we had conversations,  to get know one another and forge reciprocal social ties, we’re doomed to have nothing but conversational capital, a discourse of exploitation in which we’re selling for others if we’re not too busy selling ourselves.


 

Robert Horning has developed a substantial body of work in PopMatters' music reviews, concerts, film, and TV sections. His writing has also appeared in Time Out New York and Skyscraper. In his PopMatters column, "Marginal Utility", Rob bridges the abstract and concrete aspects of consumerism. His writing is as grounded and approachable as an everyday trip to the grocery store. Rob has a BA and MA in English Literature; his interests in social theory, economics, and sociology generates his solid background knowledge for "Marginal Utility" and informs his music reviews. For more Rob Horning, be sure to read the Marginal Utility blog.


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