Buying and nothingness

The link between marketing and the search for self in today's consumer culture

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Carlo Wolff
August 3, 2008

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are
By Rob Walker
Random House, 291 pp., illustrated, $25

OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder -The Illusion of Business and the Business of Illusion
By Lucas Conley
PublicAffairs, 230 pp., $22.95

Wacky Packages
By Topps Co.
Abrams, 237 pp., illustrated, $19.95

I drive a Scion xB. The stimulus for my purchase was a friend who was driving his teenage daughter's Scion while she was away working in a city where she didn't need a car. He told me he hadn't had as much fun behind the wheel since he was a kid. When he offered me a try, I could see why. Buying the Scion also felt virtuous because it's small and gets better gas mileage than the four-year-old Acura TL I traded in for it. Branding had nothing to do with it. Or did it? Rob Walker, who writes the "Consumed" column for The New York Times Magazine, suggests it did.

In "Buying In," his smoothly written, oddly dispassionate analysis of consumer culture, Walker dissects the marketing behind modern icons like the iPod, Scion, Converse sneakers, Red Bull energy drinks, Timberland boots that sell both "green" and "urban," and American Apparel, a featureless, coolly functional line of clothing that competes with more strenuously branded lines like Abercrombie & Fitch.

When it arrived five years ago, Scion, a creation of Toyota, was designed to appeal to Generation Y. That it appeals to a war baby like me suggests the branding has worked, even if the marketing hasn't been direct. Word-of-mouth, like my friend's, worked, too. I didn't need a "buzz agent" (check out to convince me. Nor does my friend belong to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. At least I don't think he does. You never know these days, however. That's one of Walker's points.

Read "Buying In" to discover why things sell in a TiVo-friendly, "post-click" culture when individuality is at a premium, customization is cool, and ethical considerations figure in brand extension. Advertising, marketing, and buzz have all become part of the same drive. That phenomenon largely defines the United States as a consumer culture, spurring Walker's friends Andrew Andrew, a "highly diversified" company of two, to fetishize the iPod afresh at iParties where they use the devices like turntables. This is but one of many anecdotes that keep you interested in Walker's book despite its tone, a blend of snarky and reverent. Among its key concepts: the Desire Code, the complex of factors leading to purchase decisions by Consumer Economicus; the Pretty Good Problem, in which most products are comparable, making a remarkable one the goal; and "murketing," strategies that blur the lines between branding channels and everyday life, which includes product placement in films and TV shows as well as guerrilla marketing.

The world Walker explores goes way beyond traditional advertising, whose chiefs believed that if you threw enough money behind a product, you could create a market. Today's consumer culture isn't about "sweeping strokes," however, Walker writes.

"The real world is nothing like that. An 'urban' brand might lose strength in the inner cities but explode in the suburbs. Meanwhile, 'street' vernacular reaches for establishment symbols, while the children of the established middle class aspire to connect with authentic street, which in turns aspires to upper-crust validation. You can buy baggy jeans at Abercrombie & Fitch and an argyle sweater from Phat Farm. Somewhere in this Möbius strip of branding metaphors is the consumer."

If you find yourself in this book and don't like what you see, at least it's not all your fault. Blame marketing - and thank Walker for the insights.

Lucas Conley's "OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder" is more a polemic than Walker's. It's tartly written, though frequent typos - various spellings of Procter & Gamble, "cache" where "cachet" hit the nail, names of brand "messiahs" misspelled - cast a pall over my enjoyment. If you overlook these gaffes, however, the book is instructive, even entertaining. A contributing writer for Fast Company, Conley is a keen observer and a trenchant critic. His thesis is that the innumerable ways brand messages reach us, not to mention their ubiquity, swamp our consciousness - and dilute the brands themselves. At the same time, brand purveyors can't be blamed for using everything - including "neuromarketing" and the reading of facial expressions - to expand their markets.

"Who can blame brands for leveraging emotions more precisely to their advantage? If ads and packaging that romance our id are what sell, companies will do whatever it takes. . . . Sure, the occasional ad for Kodak or fabric softener might have tugged at our heartstrings. But if every advertisement, no matter the product, is looking to land a direct punch to our emotional sweet spot, the only recourse will be to develop thicker skin," Conley writes in his timely call to arms.

For relief, breeze through "Wacky Packages," a beautifully presented compilation of satiric collectible stickers the Topps Co., better known for its baseball cards and Bazooka bubble gum, produced in 1973 and '74. Illustrated by such graphic lights-to-be as Art Spiegelman, Jay Lynch, Bill Griffith (of "Zippy the Pinhead" fame), and Kim Deitch, it treats brands irreverently, changing Crest toothpaste to "Crust," Brut deodorant to "Brute 88" ("It'll drive your gal ape"), and Wonder Bread to "Blunder Extra Heavy Bread." The graphics are a blast, as are reminiscences by Spiegelman and Lynch. While this speaks of a simpler, less wired time, it also reminds us that brands may come and go, but satire springs eternal.

Carlo Wolff, a Cleveland freelance writer, is the author of "Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories."

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