Buying In

by First name Last name on 12/14/2008 | 14 Minute Read

Editorial photograph

Various Method product packages (via Method Home site and the dieline)

Journalist, Rob Walker writes the weekly “Consumed

column for the NY Times Magazine. Equally adept at addressing both the

business and cultural aspects of his subject, Walker’s well-reasoned

column has emerged as an unusually clear window on the murky world of


His book, “Buying In, The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are” came out this past Summer.

box vox: One

of the companies you write about in your book is Method. You make the

case that buying one of their cleaning products is not a strictly

rational decision, since so much of their product appeal is based on

how cool the packaging looks, rather than how well the product works.

Because of their packaging, Method seems to have inspired one of those

impromptu brand communities that you discuss elsewhere in your book.

Their products are regularly celebrated in package design blogs like

The Dieline and I know of at least one designer’s blog (Nathan Aaron’s “Method Lust

site) that is devoted to nothing else. Of course, package designers may

have their own self-serving reasons for loving Method, but they don’t

seem to be the only ones who are buying Method because of its decorator

packaging. Is it possible that Method has built a business entirely on

a demographic of aesthetes who want every detail of their lives to

reflect their own overarching good taste?

Rob Walker: It

was actually one of the founders of Method who told me that their

customer feedback indicated that people who bought Method products were

often surprised that they worked—that is, they were attracted to the

packaging for whatever reason, but had some kind of suspicion that

there would be some kind of tradeoff of function for form. I thought

that was pretty interesting, that people would buy a household cleaner,

of all things, on that basis. It’s not like dish liquid is a good

candidate for the “conspicuous consumption” theory of consumer


So I think it’s pretty clear that design was a major

part of what has built Method’s business. BUT ... I’m not sure that I’d

go quite so far as to say they’d built their business totally on the

aesthete demo. That that demo was not crucial.

Here’s what I

mean. One of the things that most interests me about Method is that

they have an eco-friendly or “green” story to tell—their products are

(they say) made without many of the toxic ingredients common to

household cleaning products. But they chose not to make that their main

selling point, their main way of differentiating themselves at the

shelf level. They went with the “good design” strategy instead. They

don’t hide the other, eco-ish story, they just skipped the traditional

strategy of, you know, putting a tree on the bottle or whatever.


I think this strategy worked well at a time when the broad idea of

“good design” was much in the air. I think there were plenty of

consumers who had been in essence conditioned by a variety of cultural

forces (many of them commercial) to pay attention to the idea of “good

design.” And Method offered both a kind of novelty at the shelf, and an

easy way into that broad idea.

I’m generalizing wildly. But

still. I think it was both a clever strategy and, on some level, an

admirable one. I think it’s clever because the truth is the eco/green

thing is really easy to knock off—especially in symbolic/design terms.

(Just add a tree to your package and you’re ... green ... ish.) Many

consumers don’t want to “do their homework” about such issues, so

devious design/packaging strategies can work. And Method, as far as I

can tell, had the right facts to back up their eco claims for anybody

who did do their homework.

So I think that’s clever

because really striking visual design is actually harder to knock off,

if it’s done right. Copycats look like copycats, and it can actually

strengthen the position of “the original.”

And I think it’s

admirable in the sense that there was something going on behind the

“good design.” (I am not particularly impressed by the argument that

buying “good design” is its own reward, which is in effect what many

observers seem to believe.) There was something ethical (for lack of a

better term) about the product—but they aimed for an audience larger

than the one that is overtly tuned in to such issues. And it would

appear that they have attained such an audience. For now!

(Interview continues, after the jump...)

Editorial photograph

Above: some of Kate Bingaman-Burt's “Daily Purchase Drawings.” Kate was profiled by Rob Walker in a 2006 Consumed column, and (like most of us) she has purchased some of the brands discussed in Walker’s book.

box vox: If a product’s “ethical” features are such a poor selling point, it kind of makes you wonder just how unethical a product must be to provoke some consumer backlash. (Lead paint on toys? Melamine in baby formula?)

I sometimes get the feeling that, rather than being an

“incomprehensible ogre” today’s consumer is pretty guileless and

accepting of product claims—particularly those ethical product claims

that give consumers an opportunity to be virtuous simply by making a

purchase. Although, your chapter on American Apparel

makes a convincing case that ethical claims aren’t worth much in any

case, since they don’t appear to help products sell. You write, “the

simple act of not buying something has always been—and remains—the form

of consumer power that brand managers fear most.” With that in mind,

what do you think of Reverend Billy & The Church of Stop Shopping?

Rob Walker: I

can’t say I’m an expert on Reverend Billy—I’ve never interviewed him,

or attended an event, etc. But I’ve always found his stuff pretty

interesting when I’ve read about it. There’s a sense of humor involved

in making the argument, and I think that’s a good thing. I suppose the

obvious question is whether he’s preaching to the converted—whether his

work mostly has an impact on people already sympathetic to his views.

But I would imagine his approach gets a new convert every now and then.

And I always have a lot of respect for people who have an actual point

of view and don’t make a bunch of compromises, who stick with it

despite daunting odds.

On the broader subject of not buying—I’m

not exactly a “simple living” advocate or whatever, but I do think

there’s been an unfortunate drift in the broad idea of “consumer power”

to mean, basically, complaining online so that the company gives you a

discount, or whatever. I’m not convinced that that strategy leads to

lasting and meaningful change—either in the way companies behave, or in

the way we as consumers behave. In a lot of ways it’s in what we choose

NOT to buy that reflects values and thinking. And many of the more

lasting consumer movements of the past have involved the threat of

not-buying as a way to spark changes that benefited everyone (not just

individual complainers). So that’s what I’m trying to get at there. I’m

not sure if that puts me anywhere near the sort of critique that

somebody like Rev. Billy is offering; I really made an effort to write

the book in a way that might cause people to think, but wasn’t telling

them what to think. But I certainly think it’s a good thing to have

voices like his out there.

Editorial photograph

Timberland box photo from RayStudio’s Flickr Photostream; Timberlands in natural and pink with matching hang tags; on right: Timberland puts an “environmental impact statement” on each box, alluding to the nutritional labeling required on food packaging.

box vox: You’ve coined the term “murketing” to describe

today’s “murkier” marketing techniques. Is murketing just the logical

next step in a continuous evolution running from the “step-right-up”

hucksterism of 19th century medicine shows to the increasingly subtle

forms of story telling in the ads from the 1950s and 1960s—to the more

oblique marketing messages we get today, where we can supply whatever

meaning suits us best? Or is this something new and underhanded?

Rob Walker: It’s

the logical next step, but it’s still new, and may still be underhanded

in its execution. What’s really murky in contemporary consumer culture

is how consumers are in effect complicit in the process, and I suppose

you could say one of my themes is not just “this is happening” but

“you, the consumer, need to know what’s up so you can be in the right

frame of mind when you approach the marketplace.”

I guess what

I’m trying to say there is that I generally don’t see a lot of upside

in someone like me, say, slamming marketers for coming up with clever

new tactics. That’s their job! (And slamming them for it is actually

Rev. Billy's job—among others.) That said, I very much think it’s

useful for the consumer to understand how marketing messages are

changing, and getting more oblique, etc. Then they can be better

equipped to make their own decisions about what’s underhanded or

not—and proceed accordingly.

One of the interesting things

about the book has been the range of reactions to murketing as a

concept. Some people clearly find some of its manifestations totally

outrageous. Others have totally different views, and basically think it

all sounds pretty cool.

box vox: That consumers are complicit in “pulling the wool over their own eyes”—(as you put it in your book)—is

such a great insight. It really explains a lot. What I sometimes

perceive as consumer credulity might instead be a stubborn ostrich-like reaction. Please don’t tell me anything that might

jeopardize my love for this brand. (As your affection for Chuck Taylor All Stars was jeopardized by learning about Nike’s purchase of Converse.)

Towards the end of “Buying In” you mention an article by Jon Gertner (The Futile Pursuit of Happiness).

I remember reading that article back in 2003 and it really stuck with

me. What I took away from it was the inevitability of buyer’s remorse.

That whatever you wanted—if you actually got it—would NOT make you

happy. (Or not as happy as you thought it would for as long as you

thought it would.)  Meanwhile, “happiness” is probably the best-selling

“brand promise” there is.

In the same chapter, you cite two

sorts of materialism, and—(like cholesterol)—there’s a bad kind and a

good kind. The bad kind, promises happiness that it cannot deliver and

is called “terminal materialism.” The good kind is “instrumental

materialism”—those things we possess that actually mean something to

us. While I hate to think that I’m in the business of promoting terminal materialism, it’s pretty obvious that an awful lot of advertising (and packaging) seeks to push those buttons in us. Is there any future, do you think, in trying to sell products by appealing instead to instrumental materialism?

Rob Walker: You

know, that’s the sort of question I was hoping the book would inspire

among marketers and designers. I can’t say I have any easy answers, but

what I like about the way you’ve framed it is that it really sets the

bar pretty high. I think the objects that mean the most to us over

time, as individuals, get their meaning from us, from how the object

fits into the narrative of the individual life—not from a “great brand”

or from “good design” or from any other property that gives objects

marketplace value.

In a way the whole game for marketers and

designers depends on terminal materialism—depends on the idea that the

consumer will always want the next new thing. Often that point gets

made by citing “planned obsolescence” and so on, but I think it’s also

a function of the very normal desire for progress. Consumers want to

experience progress; creators (including designers) want to, you know, create.

Sometimes there’s a bit of denial about this, I’ve encountered the idea

that a designer will argue that his or her new creation is so awesome

on some level that the consumer will keep & use it forever. But I

find that line of argument is often a bit suspect and based on wishful

thinking. Even if that appeals to instrumental materialism, it still

does so by insisting the consumer can only gain access to that mode of

life by way of ... buying a new product!

I was just saying to

someone the other day that if I had a lot of extra money it would be

amusing to create a massive marketing campaign on behalf of “things you

already own.” Of course the problem with that is there’s ... not much

chance for profit in it.

I guess it would take somebody smarter

than me to offer a definitive program for appealing to instrumental

materialism. But as a mental exercise for producers it seems worthwhile

to me to at least ask: Is this new thing real progress, or mere

novelty? Is there something intrinsic to what we’re doing here that

offers real improvement (and not just by the totally lame standard of

“making the consumer’s life better,” which I hear all the time and in

my opinion is so vague it can be used to rationalize pretty much

anything)? If the object is sold on the basis of offering a sense of

community or individuality—does it really deliver on those

things, or is it merely trying to capitalize on the widespread human

hunger to satisfy those yearnings? Will the pleasure and utility of

this thing last beyond the purchase moment? Does it offer possibilities

for rediscovery well beyond that purchase moment?

Actually this is a weird example because the object itself is kind of silly, but I wrote a while ago about the Chumby.

While I don’t endorse that specific product (I don’t endorse any

specific product) I was interested in the creators’ notion that because

the device would get new, free software updates, its functionality

would increase over time, without a new purchase being required—in

other words the idea was that unlike most gizmos it was not doomed to

obsolescence from the start. Or that was the theory. Again, without

getting hung up on that particular product, I thought that notion was


Anyway, I guess it’s obvious by now that I don’t

pretend to have answers, but I do think there’s value in asking

questions that are harder to answer—and more interesting—than the usual

ones that I hear, which always seem to be about which new-media tactics

deliver the best ROI, and that sort of thing.

Editorial photograph

Photo of box with grommets from Diego Rodriguez’s metacool blog;  wooden Converse package by Sandstrom Partners (via the dieline); Chuck Taylor, himself; cross-referential "Beef Jerky" poly-bag packaging for Bodega x Converse Jack Purcell—(note:

the nutritional label in this case is all about beef jerky, unlike

Timberland’s environmental impact version); a loyal consumer and his

collection of 1000+ Chuck Taylor sneakers (via Emma Thea’s Design Talk blog.)

box vox: There were several brands of shoe discussed in Buying In: Converse, Nike, Timberland (& Adbuster’s Blackspot).

I had some thought of ending this interview on a personal note and

asking you what brand of shoes you wear. Your comment about not

endorsing a product, however, has warned me off from that line of

questioning... So instead, I’ll ask a you more general, but potentially

more personal question.

I know from your web site that you and

your wife, “E” live in Savannah. One thing about buying stuff that

marketers sometimes overlook: it’s not always a sole, solitary consumer

who makes the purchasing decision. So much of what you read out there

gives the impression that we each live alone in our own consumer

bubble. That every purchasing choice is yours and yours alone to make.

If you’re married or otherwise sharing expenses, however, these

decisions are generally open to negotiation. (Personally, my own attitudes about buying stuff and spending money are different from my wife’s.) As writer of the NY Times Magazine Consumed column,

how do you feel about the traditional countdown of shopping days in

December? Are you and your wife on the same page with gift giving? Or

is Christmas shopping like a busman’s holiday for you?

Rob Walker: We’re

totally on the same page on gift-giving—we don’t do it! We've really

never been very big Christmas people. When we lived in New York we

always went to Chinatown on Christmas day ... very fond memories. But I

digress. Speaking for myself, I like the idea of a time of year sort of

dedicated to good cheer or however you want to put it, I think that’s a

great thing for everybody. And I think Christmas is a fun thing if kids

are involved, but we don’t have kids. So I’m not Scrooge. But I’ve long

been very ambivalent about the trappings of the holiday, and I guess it

was 10 or 15 years ago that one of my brothers suggested that we

(siblings) shouldn’t buy gifts for each other anymore, it was silly, we

should just up our charity or whatever, etc., and I certainly agreed.

And since then I’ve kind of just ... not done the whole Christmas

thing, and yes, E and I are on the same page on that. Although we do

now send out holiday cards. Plus I have some excellent holiday music

that I break out for one day a year.

I’m a little worried this

makes us sound like “simple living” types or something, and that would

be very misleading. (It also may just make us sound weird, which might

be true.) Basically my wife and I live well below our means, largely

because I’m so paranoid about money. We have done a fairly good job of

saving. But we also certainly spend.

Obviously I now think

about consumer behavior, including my own, much more than a normal

person would. I think the most interesting thing I can say about that

is that it’s very routine for me to go through this pattern—I’ll learn

about something that I think would make a good column; I get really

interested in it, talking to people who have bought it or who made it;

I have this moment where I want it (and I am forbidden from accepting

free stuff, so that means I am mentally preparing myself to buy it once

the column is done); and then I write the column, and it comes out, and

... I’ve lost interest. I’ve sort of had the exciting moment of

interest and anticipation and engagement ... but now I’ve moved on. And

often I realize, Yeah, that’s something I might have bought, enjoyed

for a short time, and forgotten about. But I got much of the enjoyment,

without ever actually buying it! In a way, I think sometimes the column

can serve a similar function for the reader, a sort of virtual

consumption —you can engage in and think about this or that object or

brand or whatever, and learn all about it and have your own ideas about

it. But if you like, you can get all that without buying anything.

Well, except for the Sunday New York Times. But that’s totally worth

the money.

More seriously, that Converse stuff you mention was a

big motivator in writing the book: Realizing that I thought I was

“immune” to branding and certain commercial-persuasion influences, when

I wasn’t. It was a learning experience for me, and I encounter that

“I’m immune” attitude so often, I hope that what my work in general

does is make people think about material culture in a new way. People

actually seem more open to that they did a year ago. We’ll see.

Editorial photograph

Photo on

left: one of the New York Public Library’s 28 reservable copies of

Buying In; on right: self portrait by the author. Also check out: the Murketing Journal.

box vox

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