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Rob Walker's Buying In

Each week, Rob Walker writes the Consumed column in the New York Times Magazine, which is sort of a thinking person's trendspotting report. Unlike most writers who cover consumerism, he's 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. The basic premise behind the column is essentially the same as the one behind this blog, that how and why we consume is closely bound up with how we view ourselves and want to present ourselves, and that brands and goods permit us (or force us) to speak a social language about identity. He is extremely adept at finding subjects to cover that reveal some subtle wrinkle of consumerism, and he lets the reader draw conclusions from his reporting. Sometimes the reticence frustrates me -- I want the implicit idea expanded into a more general theory about consumer behavior. Thankfully, his excellent new book Buying In, which frequently draws on material originally deployed in his columns and occasional NYT Magazine features, does just that.

The book's subtitle -- "the secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are" -- is a bit misleading, because this dialogue is not entirely secret. Often, it's rather explicit that we are consuming something to evoke a lifestyle and not for the product's inherent utility (which, if you believe Baudrillard, doesn't even exist anyway). We occasionally attempt to disavow this, and marketers certainly want us to overconfidently assume we are immune to advertising, as this makes us all the more vulnerable to it. And marketers generally search for ways to insinuate their messages so that we pre-endorse them before contemplating the ulterior motives behind such communication. If we find the marketing messages useful enough to our identity-construction project, the goods involved that mediate these messages won't be examined too carefully for their own actual usefulness. We buy into the socially constructed concepts, and the goods themselves are artifacts, souvenirs of this. We consume marketing, but console ourselves with the fiction that we are consuming some specific product. This helps us feel that we are still steering our own ship, that we haven't sold out, that we aren't rubes, that we are somehow generating our identity from the depths of our soul and not within the narrow confines of what the zeitgeist and the available tools permit.

The interplay between consumers, marketers and goods is less secret than it is contradictory -- as Walker explains in the introduction, consumerism is a 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." Another way to regard this is as the problem of securing social recognition in a competitive consumer culture, where one can easily be drawn into quests to be the first to own some desirable product or to be the first to devise some crafty use of a standard commodity, and so on. We want to be recognized for our individuality, which is itself a socially constructed ideal, the terms of which are not defined by individuals. The ideal is disseminated through brands and products (which are, as Walker points out, engineered to have maximum "projectability" -- meaning that they can represent different things for different consumers without dissolving into meaninglessness), which encapsulate the meanings we rely on to flesh out what we want our own lives to mean to others and, via that route, ourselves. Walker argues convincingly that we use goods to tell stories about ourselves to ourselves (and not merely to communicate status, as it can often seem), but they are only capable of convincing ourselves because we know they have social currency. Goods must become a language, with a common grammar and vocabulary, and marketing (for better of worse) is the means by which the language is fabricated and supported. As Walker recognizes, this is a matter of allowing brands to be flexible in their signification.

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 the 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. "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.

"Secret dialogue" is a slightly-off way of getting at Walker's main preoccupation: what he calls "murketing" -- murky marketing. (It must be noted that Walker has a slight overfondness for coining phrases and capitalizing them; perhaps this is symptomatic of aiming to attract readership in the business community -- you are forced to manufacture buzzwords. It's especially weird to read a book that's in part about such techniques also employing them itself. I guess you can't spend as much time around marketers as Walker has without being infected with their disease.) And the 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 off ads and such (through TiVo, etc.) forces marketing to become murketing, but ads and entertainment were already in the process of merging, especially if you accept Frankfurt school arguments about the culture industry. Consumerism is a totalizing system, entertainment products reinforce the needs they purport to sate. They are ads for entertainment while being entertainment, just as ads are entertainment in their own right that people enjoy consuming as a means for being able to launch into vicarious fantasizing. Walker's point (I think) is that the more we are able to shut out advertising foisted on us involuntarily ("the power of the click" in his terminology), the more we invite advertising into our lives voluntarily on what we believe are our own terms. The power of the click 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. Paradoxically the technology for blocking ads only makes ads have a more powerful hold over us, as we take it upon ourselves to seek out the ads we want and grant them more currency in shaping our identities. We remain dependent on marketing discourse to make shopping meaningful in the way we have come to expect, in the way a consumer society (by suppressing or commercializing all other public discourses) forces us to respect. We are shifting from a consumer society to a promotional society.

Given that dependency, it's no surprise that consumers cooperate with marketers, as it 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.

This is what murketing is all about, finding these alternatives, or any attempts to subvert the mainstream meaning of objects, and reassimilating them to consumerism. It 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, particular as old ties within communities dissolve under the pressure of globalization and virtualization and the delocalization of culture. In this atmosphere, the cooptation and the collaboration are mutually reinforcing, as both seem to enhance the significance of the original activity (because marketing is like a megaphone -- it seems to operate on the same scale as the mass culture we consume) even as they are cannibalizing its significance as an alternative.

His most provocative chapter, about the ad firm BzzAgent and its army of volunteer shills who spend their social lives spreading word-of-mouth advertising for companies, explores this in depth. That people are eager to volunteer to spread product gossip suggests the nature of the promotional society, in which the most respected public discourse (the sort that we spend money on and consume the most of) is marketing. To speak in that voice is to be speaking with the dominant voice of the culture. Its pervasiveness has detached it from its function; the climate of commerciality (which has become a proxy for a kind of popularity) overwhelms the specific promotion of any product, 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 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 gets 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. Marketing becomes the medium for social life, becomes the substance of public space. Promotion as an activity has supplanted promotion as a means. We have become a society of sophists.

Perhaps in the future, all people will learn to socialize primarily through having something to promote, since it supplies a reason for social interaction when technology is otherwise working to eliminate it in the name of convenience.

Even as our social activities get co-opted, we get to co-opt the methods of marketing to market ourselves. Hence in effective murketing, we become the subject of ads rather than the target. 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.

With that point in mind, Walker explores the idea of people starting their own brands or conceiving of themselves as brands -- thoroughly depressing. But he avoids celebrating them, and doesn't make the reactionary mistake of regarding consumerism as a form of liberating production for consumers simply because people can derive their own meanings from the goods and marketing practices supplied. In that way, his book is a step beyond the futile debate over whether hyperconsumerism is good or bad and whether consumers are victims or not. (It's reminiscent of anthropologists Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood's The World of Goods, another book about consumption as a meaning-making practice, that way.) It eschews such evaluations and concentrates on elucidating what consumer society is becoming, the various ways it is adapting, how it twists technology to suit its values. He insists repeatedly that we collaborate in making brands powerful, but he is equally insistent in arguing that consumers aren't "in control" as a consequence, striking an important balance.

Walker tries to end 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.

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