BY ELIZABETH FLYNN Rob Walker wants you to think before you sink your money into another superficial purchase. Walker — who writes the Consumed column for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and author of Buying In, a highly-readable dissection of the dark art of branding — began his career focusing on advertising and media campaigns in 2000, writing the Moneybox column and other contributions for the online magazine Slate. Through his research into corporate strategies to incite a buying frenzy in consumers, he started asking some questions: If consumers had become, as many studies proclaimed “hyperaware” and “immune” to traditional advertising strategies, why had “the personal savings rate [fallen] into negative territory for the first time since the great depression?”
At the same time corporations were reporting higher earnings than ever before. Walker, noticing this “disconnect between what the experts say and how they behave,” came up with some fundamental questions about the relationship between “who we buy and who we are,” that are at the heart of Buying In. “When marketing experts in particular talked about the birth of the new consumer, what they were really talking about was the reinvention of their own business.” This new consumer hyper awareness, combined with the accelerating progression of new media technologies spawned a new form of advertising — meta by design, stealthy in execution, and viral if all goes well — that is so non-traditional that Walker had to create a new name for it: murketing. In Buying In, Walker describes murketing as “a blend of murky and marketing, murketing has two parts. The first refers to the increasingly sophisticated tactics of marketer who blur the line between branding channels and everyday life.” The second is the “frank complicity” with which the “new consumer” was complicit, sometimes wittingly but often less so, in the marketing and creating of brands. Phawker reached Walker at his home In Savannah, Georgia.
PHAWKER: How has the recent economic collapse affected “murketers” advertising strategies?
ROB WALKER: The new trend in marketing is that it is not as message driven. There’s a change towards the broad trends of using non-traditional marketing against the traditional pitch. Now companies are thinking about placing more emphasis on value. I do notice a different tone in a traditional 30 second ad – but the point of the book has much more to do with subtle changes. The reason that I wrote the book was about consumers who were smart and savvy and immune to savings pitches — trying to say it’s beneficial to have a healthy skepticism about pitches. The message changes with the times.
PHAWKER: In Buying In you talk about the inner conflict of wanting to feel like an individual and simultaneously wanting to feel like one is part of something larger than themselves. It’s an ancient problem, but in Buying In you have it couched in distinctly modern terms.
ROB WALKER: Yeah I agree that it’s both an ancient and contemporary thing. I’m not so much suggesting that humans have changed in some way — but the way that branding has evolved, buying something is really easy to do — much easier than it is to connect with a community in some meaningful way, which takes time and effort. Like belonging to a church, or the army or something, which requires sacrifices. It’s much easier to just buy something. Marketing messages have evolved over time to be about these big ideas rather than functionality — that’s just powerful messaging that’s around us all day long.
PHAWKER: You also talk about the differences between instrumental materialism and terminal materialism*. Do you think a green approach can be described as instrumental materialism? Like in one of your interviews you talked about how many companies would do disingenuous things like just slap a tree on their label and consider their product green.
ROB WALKER: One of the things that I like about DIY is that its largely coming from the bottom — the creators have pretty sincere intent, it’s not just a matter of changing the package design to suggest an ethical dimension that isn’t particularly legitimate. DIY is also not preachy, it’s not exclusive — you can be involved in it as a consumer without having to agree ethically, or be a creator yourself. Recently I found out that “natural” is the most used word on packaging with absolutely no regulations to define what that means. The whole idea that “Main Street has gone green” that was so popular a year ago is being severely tested right now, because the buying paradigm has shifted to the lowest prices no matter what. The fact that Wall Mart’s revenues are way up doesn’t suggest to me that the green idea is holding up really well.