Q&A: ROB WALKER,
Author and New York Times columnist
An online exclusive interview
Thursday, July 24, 2008
By Jessica Herman
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While many of us fancy ourselves modern-day Holden Caulfields as we call out the phonies in the world of advertising and marketing, few have articulated their positions with the degree of clarity as Rob Walker. Rather than simply bristling at Doves’ “real beauty” ad campaign or railing on Nike’s purchase of Converse, the Savannah-based writer encourages us to consider how our behavior and attitude reflects our sense of identity. Walker chronicles his findings in his weekly New York Times Magazine column, Consumed, as well as on his blog, Murketing, and now in his book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.
After earning a degree in RTF at the University of Texas in Austin, Walker took a number of writing and editing gigs at business and financial magazines in the Nineties. During his time at Slate, he began reviewing advertising “as a kind of pop culture thing.” A few years later, after filing features on Pabst Blue Ribbon and iPods for the NYT Magazine, he received an offer from editor Gerald Marzorati to try his hand at a weekly column on advertising and consumer culture. By now, Walker says, he’s pretty much been branded as the “guy writing about brands.”
I spoke with Walker by phone in May about his book, his research process and his outlook on the future of advertising.
Stop Smiling: Tell me about the invention of the term murketing.
Rob Walker: Murketing came about specifically because of research I was doing on Red Bull. I was asked to write an article by Outside magazine about Red Bull in its very early days, in 2001. At that time it was not available everywhere, but it was on the radar of media people and extreme-sports people. [The term] came out of not getting what the hell Red Bull was doing, which I sort of describe in the book. They were doing this [event] with kiteboarding to Cuba, and I was expecting a crowd, banners, TV cameras, publicity — but there was no one there except for me and them. The more time I spent there, that seemed to be the point. I made up the word murketing for murky marketing. I thought that would be funny, because I was just getting used to these sort of ad guru people who coined words all the time, so it was like, "This will be my word." It stuck, and my definition of murketing has continued to expand. There aren’t just brands using murky tactics that are hard to figure out and letting consumers fill in the blanks to what it is they’re selling, but there is also this murkiness in terms of the line between what is advertising and what isn’t. It even applies to the idea of who makes brands. Is it companies or cool kids who rebel against branded culture by creating cooler brands?
SS: Regarding the book’s title, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, why do you characterize the relationship between seller and consumer as secret?
RW: People are always saying to me, "I’m not much of a consumer." I think that’s indicative of this attitude a lot of us have in which we distance ourselves from branding and consumption. It’s this idea that it’s interesting to think about other people behaving in funny ways around that stuff, but it’s never you. People are comfortable talking about this when they read these behavioral economic books, that all these subtle things go on which affect our decision-making that we don’t consciously think about, but for some reason we don’t want to apply that thinking to day-to-day consumer behavior. And that’s why it’s a secret. That’s a big thing I hope people take away from the book — having a better sense of their own real-life thought-processes. Having this kind of "I’m above it all and immune to it" attitude is really counterproductive, and it’s exactly the place a marketer wants you to be. I’m not saying you need to make a spreadsheet every time you buy a box of cereal, but maybe thinking twice sometimes isn't a bad idea.
SS: Have you found that people’s aversion to self-identifying as a consumer creates a problem when you’re reporting?
RW: There are people who say, "I’m not much of a consumer, but I'm really huge Nike fan." So they’re happy to talk about Nike. The other thing is that a lot of conversations that lead to columns aren’t so direct. I’m more trying to pay attention to what people are telling me about unprompted.
SS: How do you determine what’s worth writing about?
RW: There are some parameters, such as the product has to be on the market. I’m pitched a lot of products where people are like, "This is launching today and it’s going to be huge." And my response is, "Well, we’ll see." It has to have an interesting following. I'm definitely not trying to tell people what I think is cool. I’m just trying to figure out what people are buying.
SS: I know you do some digging into history and talk to everyday people who you profile in the book, but in general, how do you go about researching your subjects?
RW: In a way the book is a more organic version of what goes on in the column. I'm not a historian by a long shot, but I do try to read books that are, for example, a look back at Procter & Gamble. It’s interesting to look at history, because I feel like we’re kind of in an ahistorical moment where people don’t want to remember something that's more than six months old. Therefore, if I’m the one guy reading some historian’s book about consumption in postwar America, maybe I’ll randomly come across that thing that just so happens to resonate in some way with Crocs.
SS: Which writers on this subject matter have have been influences?
RW: I was a big fan of Leslie Savan’s writing about advertising for the Voice — that was really pathbreaking stuff. I also think The Baffler and Stay Free! are both important venues for finding ways to say serious things about commercial culture in a way that was new and intelligent and — fun is the wrong word, but readable. And maybe most of all, Paul Lukas’ Inconspicuous Consumption columns and Beer Frame zine and related work. He found a way to be critical in the best sense of the word, in a voice that was just incredibly pleasurable to read.
SS: Do you consider yourself a critic or an anthropologist — or something in between?
RW: I would characterize myself as a blend of those things. I’m a critic in the sense that I’m trying to make people think. I’m not a critic in the sense that I’m trying to tell them what to think.
SS: What drives you to continue studying the field?
RW: Well, I think it’s important. Both consumer culture and consumer behavior are sort of trivialized by a lot of other writers. There’s enough people writing about Halliburton and not that many people doing what I’m doing, so I feel like I have a lot of room to have fun with it.