Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are
by Rob Walker
Random House, 291 pp. ISBN
“The interesting thing about the New Albion was that it was so completely modern in spirit,” observes Gordon Comstock, the bourgeois, frustrated revolutionary who serves as the central figure of George Orwell’s 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. The New Albion, an advertising firm that Comstock reluctantly joins in a bid “to make good” and thus satisfy his families expectations of him, harbors various types who, regardless of what else could be said of them, could certainly never be accused of taking their eye off the ball. “They had their cynical code worked out,” Comstock says of his colleagues: “The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket.”
A lot has changed since the time of Orwell’s writing. We like to think that advertising has undergone certain refinements since the 1930s. Gone are such Here-Sooey-Sooey! crudities as the one Gordon Comstock describes. And indeed they have. After all, any strategy also engenders knowledge of its resistance. One clangor over slops too many and the hogs stop running (Well, stop running as a herd anyway). This is precisely the predicament confronting today’s marketers: hogs who’ve gotten hip to the game.
Were I asked to nominate a contemporary, real-life counterpart to Orwell’s Gordon Comstock, I’d select Rob Walker, keeper of The New York Times column “Consumed” as well as the weblog Murketing, and author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are. In his book, Walker mounts an exposé of the various courses and measures marketers have taken since Orwell’s time and even before.
These courses and measures, as the book’s title suggests, have become increasingly subtle, and in many cases have virtually gone underground, all so as to reach the 21st century consumer, who, ad industry legend has it, has developed into one savvy swine. “By the time I started writing ‘Consumed,’” Walker writes, “this clever new creature had been armed with all kinds of dazzling technology, from ad-blocking gizmos to to alternative, grassroots media.” The media environment of the so-called new consumer is a far more diverse and variegated place; the blue-gray veldt of network-television mass culture has become a dense thicket of doo-dads commanding some slice of the consumer’s attention. No longer are consumers the enthralled “millions and millions of the One Eye,” as Jack Kerouac wrote of TV viewers of his time, but brandishers of all sorts of devices, each but one of millions and millions of eyes, which they thrust at the very marketers who would draw them back into narrow oscillations between McDonald’s or Burger King, Pepsi or Coke, Nike or Adidas.
This narrative would have tremendous explanatory power if it weren’t for the fact that it’s completely bogus. Do consumers use their new-found, technologically aided power to lord it over corporate hegemons and their ad-men ax men, as the modern legend has it? The answer is a resounding “No.” “Instead,” Walker writes, one thing that did happen between 2000 and 2006 — right as the new consumer was said to be bossing corporate America around like never before — was that profits of Fortune 500 companies soared.” Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
The relationship between marketer and consumer has become profoundly dialogic, giving rise to a pas de deux that Walker calls murketing.
The truth is, the situation in the marketplace has evolved to a point where neither the marketer nor the consumer does the lion’s share of bossing anymore. If the instantaneousness and spontaneity of new media have demonstrated anything, it’s that any such asymmetries have been more or less eliminated. The relationship between marketer and consumer has become profoundly dialogic, giving rise to a pas de deux that Walker calls murketing. A portmanteau for murky marketing, murketing denotes “the increasingly sophisticated tactics of marketers who blur the line between branding channels and everyday life,” as well as the “increasingly widespread consumer embrace of branded, commercial culture.”
As one of Walker’s fellow Gen-X’ers, I found this second aspect of murketing particularly disturbing. Admittedly, I drank my fair share of Rolling Rock beer, which during the 1990s enjoyed roughly the same stature as Pabst Blue Ribbon did before hipsters discovered it, but my dedication to the brand was simply a practical matter: It was cheap and palatable. I certainly wasn’t considered cool for drinking it; several friends of mine from Pennsylvania would frequently inform me of its status there as trashy beer. And I’ll be darned if I ever found myself at some “happening” that I later discovered was some Rolling-Rock-sponsored crypto-promotion. Now, however, indie cred is subject to an entirely different calculus, one which is perhaps more integral than differential. To be tragically hip is no longer founded on a taxonomy of one’s studied rejections of marketing come-ons, but simply on how coquettish one is in the face of them. Here we are now. Entertain us.
I found myself wondering what brought about this betrayal of one generation by the next. Whatever modest successes Generation X enjoyed in steering larger culture away from rampant consumerism have seemingly been undone by Generation Y, who have shown themselves every bit as much marketers’ marionettes as Baby Boomers were during the golden age of network television. Fortunately, Walker supplies an eminently satisfactory answer. The change that came to marketing was fundamentally political, a sort of re-calibration of what it means to attain the hoary old Marxist concept of class consciousness. Discussing some subjects of his, bike messengers in Portland who were dragooned into a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer marketing … er … murketing stunt, Walker writes, “PBR’s blue-collar, honest-workingman, vaguely anticapitalist image — the image attached to it by consumers — is a sham. You really couldn’t do much worse in picking a symbol of resistance to phony branding.”
Of course, according to the inexorable logic of murketing such a punctilio hardly matters. “PBR may be a political, ‘social protest’ brand … but not in a 1960s sense of political, which assumes a kind of zero-sum ideological game,” Walker continues: “In this new politics, symbolic solidarity with the blue-collar heartland trumps the real thing.” In one nation under the spell of brand consciousness, Coke’s the real thing, and class interest’s just a shadow on the cave wall.
This nifty bit of ontological reversal reminded me of the observations French philosopher and media theorist Jean Baudrillard makes in his book, The System of Objects. In it, he writes of “the ambiguity of the object,” an infernal consumerist toil “in which individuals never have the opportunity to surpass themselves, but can only re-collect themselves in contradiction, in their desires and in the forces that censor their desires.” This state of affairs is brought about by the fact that “a censor is personalized in the object,” resulting in “censorship [that] operates through ‘unconstrained’ behaviors (purchasing, choice, consumption), and through spontaneous investment.” The system of objects is thus a system of personalized censors, each one seeing to it that the individual’s desire is aroused in such a manner that it may be channeled into an “impoverished language” of limited signs (i.e., salable goods) and indexed assumptions about desire (i.e., market research, target demographics), which in turn throw more fuel into the mythopoetic machines of advertising.
Murketing leaps forth from a system of impoverished signs, constraining one to modes of self-realization expressible only in and through items of consumption.
Murketing leaps forth from this system of impoverished signs, constraining one to modes of self-realization expressible only in and through items of consumption. It thus comes as no surprise to learn from Walker that the politics of PBR-swilling Portand bike messengers, for all of its pseudo-solidarity with the working classes of yesteryear, is “very much a politics of individual freedom.” With respect to this I’d go Walker one better and say that theirs is very much a neoliberal politics of individual freedom, which professes as its sine qua non individual liberty, and fingers as the enemy of such liberty some monolithic entity. Of course, in the domain of parliamentary politics this enemy is the state. But substitute “advertisers” for “Big Government” and it becomes quite difficult to distinguish the sentiments of some service-sector hipster from those of any hack from a right-wing think tank. (As economic geographer David Harvey writes in his indispensable A Brief History of Neoliberalism, spoofing a famous remark Richard Nixon made on Keynesian economic policies, “We’re all neoliberals now.”)
Not given to overt polemicizing like Orwell, Walker peppers just enough editorializing asides throughout Buying In to let his readers know where he stands on murketing-inflected politics and everything else subsumed under his book’s subject. And these asides are what lead me ultimately to recommend Buying In. They rescue the book from the litany of anecdotes Walker relates of murketing instances that after a while become a bit repetitious, pointing as they all do to the same phenomena.
But it may be that this repetitiousness was exactly Walker’s point. Upon finishing the book, I was left with the single depressing impression that for all its dazzling technological wonders, the new world order coming into view is one that promises monotony — monotony adorned with various “Xtreme,” “aggro” or chic publicity spectacles, but monotony nonetheless.
Now if only Walker would pen a companion volume to Buying In addressed to malcontents like me uneasy with the direction in which marketing is heading. He could title it Cashing Out.
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