One wonderful new book gaining strong traction in the world of design and advertising is Rob Walker’s Buying In. The weekly columnist for the New York Times Sunday Magazine stands and delivers a book-length meditation on the 21st-century consumer, along with a perfect antidote to any under-researched column or study that tells you marketing “as we know it” is dead, or that the modern consumer is so over-informed and intelligent that all old strategies or ideas have jumped (or must be thrown) out the window.
Advertising is changing in fundamental ways–this, no one denies–but some rules of the game still remain, and Walker is here to chart the way all the various agents (producers and consumers alike) have adapted.
Besides the immediate appeal to anyone involved in advertising or design, the book has a transcendent draw that comes from its central examination of brand attachment. Walker coined the term “murketing”, to describe a 21st century mix of murky and marketing that he describes as being a two-part system, one which is made up of the “increasingly sophisticated tactics of marketers who blur the line between branding channels and everyday life” and the consciously “widespread consumer embrace of branded, commercial culture.”
Read the introduction to the book here and tell me you’re not hooked by his anecdotal reference to Chuck Taylor’s All-Stars: he says the book “was inspired by the disconnect between what the experts say [about consumer behaviour] and how we really behave,” and the first example comes from his very own experiences. Perfect for me, as I only started wearing All-Stars a year and a half ago, and since then I’ve already bought 3 pairs. Why? Lots of reasons, surely, almost all of them connecting to self/group identification, and (almost) all to be found in this book.
One of the most fascinating parts of Walker’s theory, the pieces of which you can put together through all the entries on his murketing blog or his “Consumed” columns (all available online), is the “Desire Code”, his examination of how we come to desire what we eventually buy, or how logo/brand/product desire is created.
His idea rides on a “fundamental tension of modern life,” one that extends far past marketing and consumerism but is essential to his understanding of it: the tension between the individual and the group. Hardly a new concept, but that’s the point–the game hasn’t changed so much to be unrecognizable, rather all its participants are (apparently) a little more self-aware. A fine sampling:
When I was in grade school, we watched a lot of films. Perhaps they were a relatively easy way to quiet the children down for a while. But remembering this period as an adult, I’m struck by the realization that those films all had one of two themes.
One was: Deep down, each of us is different, unique, and special.
The other was: Deep down, we are all just the same.
For years I shared this observation, for laughs, before it finally occurred to me that this was no joke. In fact, it articulated what is more or less the fundamental tension of modern life.
We all want to feel like individuals.
We all want to feel like a part of something bigger than ourselves.
And resolving that tension is what the Desire Code is all about.
Summer is here, and from anecdotal evidence in various popular magazines, I’ve heard it’s the “reading” season, although reading on the beach does nothing but hurt my eyes. If you, however, can keep yours relatively unsquinted, Walker’s book is an essential purchase.