Winter 2008

Murket forces

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are

By Rob Walker<br>Random House, &pound;11.95

Despite my admiration for Naomi Klein’s No Logo (2000), it ultimately served only to increase my guilt about buying clothes at Gap rather than triggering any oppositional guerilla tendencies. Try as I might to immunise myself, I became a sucker for alternative (though now mainstream) strategies of visual, verbal and telepathic persuasion. I have brand loyalties for sneakers, apparel, soft drinks, computers and mobile phones, and ‘buy in’ to the idea that these brands actually represent me. This is why I read Rob Walker’s Buying In with great interest – and why it is essential reading for designers promoting brands for others or entrepreneurially creating products on their own.

Walker writes the ‘Consumed’ column for The New York Times Magazine, focusing on youth brands, and blogs on He invented the term ‘murketing’ after studying a campaign for the energy drink Red Bull. Although the campaign rejected textbook strategies to raise brand-awareness, the product was everywhere. Why? Because consumers bought into it. The product’s ubiquity and viral positioning in the marketplace made its viability go without saying.

‘Any product or brand that catches on in the marketplace does so because of us,’ Walker argues, ‘because enough of us decided that it had value and meaning and chose to participate.’ The choice is the key here. He calls this the secret ‘dialogue between consumer and consumed’.

Product marketing has become more an extension of pop culture than a mere business. Unilever’s Axe deodorant is a paradigmatic example of this. Since the 1920s deodorants were marketed in a ‘rational’ category focusing on BO (body odour) and effectiveness. But today Axe (Lynx in the UK) is portrayed as a babe magnet, ‘the kind of thing that will not only attract pretty girls to the young male consumer, but attract them in groups.’ Videos of sex-mad women were virally spread throughout the internet in a campaign that was more about stimulating cultural imagery than cautioning against social ostracism.

Today’s consumers, armed with media filters like TiVo and some consciousness-raising notions about the evils of consumption, are wary of conventional advertising such as television commercials. Though acknowledging that ‘professional zeitgeist watchers’ might like to call this a ‘paradigm shift’, Walker warns against buying in to the myth of a genus of rebellious anti-consumptionaries, or even ‘new consumers’ that do not want to admit they consume because it feels ‘a little trivial’. The modern consumer is not defined by rejection but ‘by frank complicity’.

Buying In convincingly outlines Walker’s ‘murketing’ theory, and introduces key concepts such as the ‘Desire Code’ psychology exploited by new marketers. The insidious practice of using you and me as agents of ‘brand storytelling’ is exemplified by Dave Balter’s BzzAgents, which recruits undercover representatives – ‘real’ people – to generate word-of-mouth for clients. Like Stasi operatives, these enthusiastic propagandists need little financial recompense – selling the brand is its own reward.

Buying In is a handbook and cautionary guide to the numerous viral strains, including Facebook and other social media, as well as the tools of ‘fragmentation and clicks’ that engage, enable and encourage unique demographics to become loyal members and entrepreneurs of the consumption class. Although Walker also discusses DIY and craft, and the idea of ‘making goods speak to power’, it is not always clear to me whether, like Naomi Klein, he is an ‘adbuster’ or a pragmatist. He is, however, an astute chronicler of the current shifts in commercial culture. Like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, this book signposts the future of media.

Steven Heller, design writer, New York

First published in Eye no. 70 vol. 18, 2008

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.