Interview with Rob Walker

Posted by Goodreads on September 18, 2008

Do you feel gleeful when you fast-forward through commercials on your TiVo? Those ads can be skipped over, but we are surrounded more and more by sneaky forms of advertising that cannot be ignored. Consumer culture expert and New York Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker examines our incestuous relationship with the stuff we buy in his new book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are. Walker reveals some idiosyncrasies of consumer culture and tells Goodreads why he's in mourning for his Chuck Taylor

Goodreads: Many people like to think that they are immune to advertising, or at least smart enough to think for themselves. However, in your new book, Buying In, you've discovered that we embrace brands and use our choices as a form of self-expression. Does this mean that consumers hold the power, or are we still the pawns of smart marketing campaigns?

Rob Walker: I think the core issue here is that when a lot of people hear the word "branding" they think it refers to TV ads and slogans and logos. And they think: Ah, that's trivial stuff, it doesn't matter, and it has no effect on me. But branding is basically the process of attaching an idea to something (product, service), and that can happen in much more indirect and subtle ways.

In the book I admit that I certainly counted myself among those who figured I was brandproof. After all, I'm a journalist who writes about this stuff for a living, so if anybody can "see through" it, it's me. Then Nike bought Converse. I've always been sort of anti-swoosh as a consumer. So I'd always worn Converse. Obviously there was never, ever a moment when I got up and said, "Ah, I must go buy a pair of Converse sneakers so as to reflect my identity" or "because my maverick indie-rock heroes wear them" or whatever. And I certainly don't remember ever seeing an ad for the brand. But when Nike bought it, I realized I was having a kind of crisis about whether I could keep wearing Chuck Taylors. So despite my protestations, I was clearly as susceptible to some notion of brand meaning.

The real point is that branding is not simply a one-way process — this is why I use the word "dialogue" in the subtitle. No brand ever catches on in the marketplace without consumers embracing it. And on some level, defining it. Sometimes that lines up with what the brand owner had in mind, and sometimes it doesn't. In the book I talk about how consumers redefined Timberland, and how consumers basically invented a whole new meaning for Pabst Blue Ribbon (as a sort of anti-brand brand) that initially baffled the company itself.

So I wouldn't say that we're pawns. To the contrary, I would actually say we have a lot of power. I'm just not always sure we're deploying that power in the ways we really want to — and that's why I wrote the book. I hope that understanding the process (both the marketing process and the mental process of consumption) will help people make better decisions. But the first step is recognizing that just saying, "it doesn't affect me," is not a great starting point.

GR: Tell us about the term you coined, "murketing."

RW: Most observers of what's changed in consumer culture in the 21st century point to things like TiVo and say, "Ah ha, this really empowers consumers, they can zap past ads — bad news for ad agencies." But of course marketers didn't just call up their clients and say, "Well, it's all over, we can't help you anymore." In a weird way, TiVo actually empowered marketers — it forced them to think about ways of branding that escaped the confines of a traditional ad. (And it made big, mainstream clients much more willing to sign off on, and underwrite, such tactics.)

So now we have things like Unilever's Axe brand creating a show for MTV, and huge word-of-mouth marketing agencies that enlist hundreds of thousands of ordinary people to "spread buzz" about products at the family picnic or whatever, and we have Toyota throwing underground parties with the coolest DJs on behalf of its Scion brand, and Red Bull underwriting insane stunts like a kite-boarding trip from Key West to Cuba, and so on. And what these tactics have done is made the line between marketing and everyday life more and more murky. Hence murketing.

GR: You wrote recently in your New York Times Magazine Consumed column about Barack Obama supporters' surprising amount of creative output (posters, music videos, T-shirt designs, etc.), suggesting that this is spurred by Obama's success as an appealing brand. Political campaigns must compete for our attention, so they use many of the techniques honed by marketers. How do you compare the two "brands" developed by Obama and John McCain?

RW: In Salon recently, Laura Miller wrote an interesting column about Obama in which she actually mentioned Buying In and a concept I discuss there, "projectability." This is related to all of the above, and it's basically about letting consumers fill in the blanks about what a brand "means." So in the case of Red Bull, for instance, there was never really a very clear marketing message about its functionality or who it was for. The murketing of Red Bull really worked, in the sense that in less than a decade it went from being obscure to being a brand you might see at a gym, a night club, a college campus, an office, a grocery store — and it somehow makes sense everywhere. That's pretty unusual. And it's precisely because of "projectability."

So Miller suggests maybe Obama has something similar — in that everyone seems to in effect project onto him these idealized meanings. If she's right, that's actually a little more dangerous for a political candidate than for an energy drink. At some point a candidate is likely to be pressed to clarify some things.

On the other hand, I do think we're in new territory with this campaign, for a bunch of reasons, including media-fragmentation reasons. I obviously have no idea how it will play out.

As for McCain, his message seems to be sort of classical/traditional, he's sort of the familiar guy you trust. I don't know how well that's really working for him. But of course the campaign still — incredibly enough, given that it seems to have lasted forever already — has a long way to go.

GR: You've studied marketing and consumerism for a long time, but was there anything that surprised you during the course of your research for Buying In?

RW: It was in the course of working on Buying In that I came into contact with this subculture of younger people starting their own brands, and that wasn't something I'd anticipated. In the book I talk about The Hundreds and Barking Irons and others who were basically just young people who had ideas that they chose to express not through starting a rock band or writing a novel — but through a brand. On the one hand they lived up to what the experts said in that they "saw through" and sort of rejected a lot of mainstream brands. But on a deeper level they'd accepted, or coopted, branding as a legitimate form of cultural expression that they could use to their own ends.

And I see a connection between these sorts of projects and the DIY/crafter/handmade subculture that I talk about toward the end of the book — that is, these very creative and smart younger people, like the members of the Austin Craft Mafia who have started their own businesses, going their own way, and in part making a statement about material culture — but doing so by way of material culture. There are tens and thousands of these creators now selling through as well as assorted craft fairs and other sites and so on.

GR: Popular behemoths like Facebook or up-and-comers like micro-blogging phenom Twitter are making it increasingly easy for us to broadcast every aspect (however mundane) of our daily lives. How are marketers starting to cash in by harnessing our love of trendsetting — being the first to know about it, love it, and spread it? Do you have any predictions for the next phase of creative adaptation in marketing?

RW: This is definitely the idea that the word-of-mouth agencies are tapping into, I think — the sort of pleasure we derive from seeing ourselves as influential trendsetters. I do assume that there's some dimension of this going on around Facebook, but as far as turning Facebook into a profitable business (which it isn't), that's probably going to boil down to data mining. People disclose a lot of information that can be harvested in ways that might be useful to marketers. The interesting thing to speculate about is how much of that information disclosure boils down to, in effect, presenting a kind of marketed version of the self for public consumption.

GR: For every well-known brand like iPod or Red Bull that used innovative marketing to great success, there must be hundreds of failed campaigns that were rejected by consumers. Can you give an example of a campaign that looked brilliant on paper but flopped in an unexpected way?

RW: The history of marketing is, of course, filled with spectacular flops, from the Edsel to the New Coke. I think one of the more interesting examples of something that didn't live up to expectations was Snakes On A Plane. There was such enormous cultural buzz about it, and I know that some marketing experts were talking about how the participatory nature of that buzz was marking this new paradigm and so on. But, in the end, it turned out that many people could participate in that phenomenon without bothering to go see the movie. I did a column about that.

GR: Despite having multiple websites and a weekly column all jam-packed with your writing and ideas, a publicity headshot is nowhere to be found. Your readers also have to dig pretty deep to find any kind of biographical information. You don't include anything like the "I grew up here and had these formative experiences" bio that is so common on writer sites. Are you shy or is this all part of a larger scheme of marketing yourself as a writer?

RW: I don't know about shy, but one of the reasons I'm well-suited to journalism is that it has this structure that allows me to meet interesting people and satisfy various curiosities without ever really having to talk about myself very much. A journalist is (or can be) a sort of non-person, sort of anonymous, just the guy with the notepad who nobody really pays attention to. I'm pretty happy with that role. Really, I don't want my subjects to be thinking about who I am, and I guess I don't want readers to be thinking about that either. Sometimes personal details come up in the course of telling a story, but by and large I want them to be thinking about what I'm saying on the page, not looking at my picture and saying, "Oh, he's this kind of guy."

And I should say: I totally enjoy meeting readers, and go out of my way to do it. But that's different, it's a connection, a conversation, it's not just "being recognized," which doesn't interest me at all.

Having said that, I'm aware that a certain amount of that kind of thing is now necessary to make a living as a writer, and it is in fact possible to find pictures of me, and I've been on television, and all that stuff. So it's not like I'm trying to be J.D. Salinger. And I definitely can't make the case that it's all a brilliant marketing scheme. I think more people would have to be interested for that to work!

GR: Your writing projects have covered a lot of ground, ranging from a nonfiction comic book, Titans of Finance, to a collection of personal stories, Letters from New Orleans, and even observations about the peculiarities of wine labels. What's next?

RW: In the short term, I'm very much interested in spending some time just being focused on Consumed, and on some other magazine work I haven't had time for in the last six or eight months.

After terms of subject matter, I've been thinking about music consumption, and about the sort of marketplace of expertise. But those are kind of broad and vague ideas right now.

In terms of form, yes, I do like to try different things. (And for what it's worth, there's also the blog, which is a spinoff of Letters from New Orleans, and is basically a blog about one song, "St. James Infirmary;" there's, which is an open-source photo project about streets, boulevards, drives, etc. named for Martin Luther King Jr. — open to all, please participate; and I have an annual zine called Where Were You? that's basically my notes regarding various high-profile or interesting deaths in a given year. Clearly this is an interesting moment in terms of form, figuring out the best form to explore an idea — and, to be honest, the best form in which to find a way to continue to write for a living. It's a time of flux. We'll see what happens.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

RW: I'm definitely not an up-all-night kind of writer, though I used to be. Now I'm more of an early riser. For example, it's become a bit of a routine to do the last round of changes and tweaks and trims on the column on Monday morning between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., when it's due. That's not a good habit, I guess. I basically work every day. But it's not like I'm breaking up rocks in the hot sun — I'm just talking on the phone or reading or writing.

I remember reading once about this writer talking about how he does his work in this really spare room with no distractions. I kind of like distractions; I'm very prone to getting up and walking around, flipping through a magazine, listening to some NPR podcast, whatever. I have to turn things over in the back of my head for a long time before I can get to where I'm ready to write. Ideally, I like to know how something will start, and how it will end, before I really get going. I like having a basic concept — which of course often changes in the course of the writing, but it prevents me from sitting there looking at a blank screen.

GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?

RW: I recently started William Gibson's new novel, and that seemed pretty promising, but then I left it on a plane. While I replace that I'm going to, I think, start reading The Conquest of Plassans, which is a Zola novel. This sounds really highfalutin and/or pretentious, but I've got a goal of reading his whole 20-novel Rougon-Macquart series. This would be the fourth one. Zola is very fun, though, like a soap opera. Before that I read Murakami's Kafka On The Shore, which was very good, and The Pit by Frank Norris, also very good.

On the nonfiction front I want to mention David Shields' most recent book, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, which was amazing. It was the kind of book I didn't know I wanted to read, needed to read, until I was reading it. It was a great read in an unexpected way — just what I look for, although of course such things are impossible to look for, which is probably why they're so satisfying.

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