Helping You Change The Way You Shop: The exclusive Buying In book-club reader’s guide

Posted by Rob Walker on November 12, 2008
Posted Under: Buying In (the book)

“This is a great moment of reckoning for the household economy at all levels of the income stream,” Harvard marketing professor Nancy Koehn told Marketplace recently.

It is true. This is a great time to rethink your consumer habits in a serious way. The present financial crisis is distressing on many levels — but it is also an opportunity, to change the way you shop, to shed bad habits, to forge a different relationship with material culture. I don’t mean simply cutting back for now, bargain-hunting and pinching pennies for a while, and hoping things get “back to normal” next year. I mean it’s an opportunity to make permanent changes. To change the way you consume, forever.

One of the primary aims of Buying In is to pull back a curtain for consumers on the way the commercial-persuasion industry has really changed in recent years, and on the way that the consumer mind (the human mind) really works, and isn’t going to change. The point of this exercise is to help consumers to make better decisions. The book does not argue against or complain about materialism or branding, per se — rather, it aims to explain the reality of these elements of contemporary life, and thus leave the reader better positioned to make consumer decisions that are productive, and that satisfy.

I am aware, of course, that the book also has an audience in the world of marketing professionals, or at least a certain segment of that world. However, it is with the consumer audience in mind that I have created the Reader’s Guide to Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are. you will find it after the jump.

If you are a participant in a book club, you may know that publishers often create such guides for books that they see as likely candidates for book clubs. This one is partly based on having read other guides (like the one my publisher, Random House, created for Po Bronson’s book Why Do I Love These People?) In addition, it was influenced by the experience of promoting the book — the questions and reactions that came up on call-in radio shows and appearances before audiences, as well as interviews, reviews, and online reactions to the book. It was also shaped by suggestions from Alex J. Mann, a student at Penn State. (Thanks again, Alex!)

Unlike a traditional, publisher-created Reader’s Guide, this one is dynamic: It includes multiple links to additional reading that either amplifies the book’s themes, critiques them, or questions them. From time to time this guide will be changed or updated, as new critiques emerge.

Like a traditional Reader’s Guide, it is intended to spark discussion in a book club or other group setting. As indicated, now seems like a very good time for such discussion. So if you are part of a book club, or know someone who is, consider Buying In — and the guide that follows.

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

The Reader’s Guide

[More reviews, reactions, endorsements, interviews (and purchase information) here.]

[ --> Exclusive book-club offer here.]

1. In October 2008, as a major financial crisis was making itself felt as a major factor in the presidential election of one of the world’s best-known consumer-behavior trend-watchers told Salon: “There has been a very well-known shift in power from marketers to consumers. Consumers have been really good at celebrating how smart they are, how empowered they are. We’ve been picking that up for at least a decade.”

Buying In, while acknowledging that such critiques have been the conventional wisdom among many trend gurus for years, argues the opposite: Given the decline of the personal savings rate, the soaring of credit-card debt, and the likelihood that (per the more recent conventional wisdom) too many people have been living beyond their means for too long, it is hard to see how consumer empowerment can plausibly be asserted as the dominant trend of the 21st Century.

As you read the book — and after you finished it — did you find yourself thinking that the commercial persuasion industry has lost “power”?  Or has that industry simply found new ways to exert its power? How do you square the idea of consumer empowerment with rising levels of consumer debt, declining rates of saving, and swelling landfills? And how does it square with the more recent critique that many consumers have been living well beyond their means for years? What changes do you think authentic and lasting consumer empowerment would cause?

2. Many people respond to consumer culture by marginalizing its importance to them as individuals: “Oh,” they say, “that’s something other people engage in. Me, I’m not much of a consumer.”

Here is a short essay related to Buying In that was written for the Powell’s newsletter, arguing that consumer culture, consumer behavior, and consumer decisions matter quite a bit, on both a societal and personal level — and that these are subjects worth ruminating about, and talking about.

Why do some people resist the idea of taking consumer culture and consumer behavior seriously? Do you think greater reflection on and engagement with those topics would lead to better consumer decisions?

3. The four chapters in the book’s opening section, The Desire Code, examine the fundamentals of branding (defined as the process of attaching an idea to a product) and its relationship to consumer behavior, starting with outward, symbolic manifestations of branding (logos etc.) and moving gradually deeper into the consumer mind. Chapter One, “The Pretty Good Problem,” chapter suggests suggests that while we live in a world increasingly riddled with logos, it is ultimately consumers who give those logos meaning, and decide which ones are “authentic” or not.

Non-commercial symbols, associated with religions, nation-states, military service, civic groups, and so on, also have meaning to many people. How are these different from commercial symbols (logos), particularly if the latter’s meaning comes from a “dialogue” between consumer and consumed, as Buying In contends?

4. The opening chapter also draws on Brian McVeigh’s research into the appeal of Hello Kitty, particularly his concept of “projectability” — basically, the idea that the cute cat character has no intrinsic meaning, only the meaning we project onto her. Others have cited Buying In while suggesting that something similar happens with politicians, from Barack Obama (see this Salon piece for more) to Sarah Palin (see this Dangerous Intersection post for more).

What do you think? Are politicians like brands?

5. Chapter Three, “Rationale Thinking,” draws on a variety of psychology studies to describe, basically, how our own minds can lead us astray — spotting patterns where none exist, remembering things that never happened, and so on.

Do you ever feel your own consumer decisions seemed rational at the time — but later seemed to be driven more by a rationale? Do you see the consumption patterns of others you know being affected by such factors? How do you guard against rationale-thinking decisions yourself?

6. The fourth chapter, “Ignoring The Joneses,” argues that the most important “audience” for our consumer behavior is ourselves. This online review at blog Weatherpattern.com keys on the book’s point that, as the reviewer summarizes, “we buy into brands and their products mainly in order to a tell a story about ourselves to ourselves, not just to other people.”

That review concludes: “I would have liked to see Walker take his ideas further in a more normative direction, and explore the possibilities of walking away from our brand attachments. What would happen if we unplugged from our brands? How would we and those around us react to separating ourselves from our possessions? Is that even possible? Even better, what stories would we construct about ourselves? Who would we be?”

Those are provocative questions. What do you think? Is it possible to “unplug” from brands? A comment on the post suggests choosing brands that are “the most socially responsible,” though the Weatherpattern replies that the current measures of “social responsibility” aren’t adequate. Again: What do you think?

Or to go at the question from a different direction: What are some brands you buy repeatedly, and what do they mean to you? Are they “socially responsible”? Do you think the brands you buy have similar meanings to other people, or do you feel that what they mean to you is unique and personal? Which scenario (means the same to all, or means something special to you) is better?

7. In a review on Goodreads.com, William offers an interesting and relevant digression about buying jeans at J.C. Penney’s. As a rule he had been a buyer of Levi’s — “the only choice for a true Westerner, which I was.” But he had made the “momentous decision” not to buy that brand anymore, because he’d decided he didn’t want to spend more than $15 for a pair of jeans. But actually pulling the trigger to buy two-for-$30 Arizona jeans at Penney’s wasn’t easy — “because in my mind Arizona as a brand name is totally lame,” he writes. “It evokes a fake West.”

Ever have an experience like this? Confronted with something that’s clearly cheaper – but that happens to be a “totally lame” brand? What did you do? (William did buy the Arizona jeans.)
Are there brands you refuse to buy? Why?

8. The book’s middle section documents the changes in the nature of the commercial persuasion industry, and its role in the dialogue between what we buy and who we are, in the early 21st Century. Broadly, the book argues, the line between marketing and everything else has gotten murkier — thus the term “murketing.” Examples in the book include everything from a television show created by a deodorant brand to word-of-mouth agencies that enlist your neighbors to talk up products.

In the New York Times Book Review assessment of Buying In, reviewer  Farhad Manjoo says of murketing (the concept), “once you understand it, you notice its footprint everywhere.” As you read, or having finished the book, do you see examples of murketing?

(Murketing.com posts dealing with murketing as a concept are constantly updated here; links to articles elsewhere that include examples of murketing are constantly updated here.)

9. Buying In repeatedly offers historical context that suggests many of today’s “new” developments, such as consumer skepticism about advertising, are not new: From citing a 1939 Harvard Business Review article about the “new consumer” that sounds like it could have been written yesterday, to discussions of radio, youth culture, and other topics that suggest much that we think of as unique to our time is more of an evolution than a break with the past.

Given this context, what do you think is really different about contemporary consumers, compared to, say, your parents, grandparents, or prior generations? Are we savvier than they were? What does the story of Pabst Blue Ribbon, as recounted in Chapter Six, “Rebellion Unsold,” suggest about today’s most cutting-edge and skeptical consumers?

10. A review on the blog Marginal Utility observes: “Walker’s point (I think) is that the more we are able to shut out advertising foisted on us involuntarily (‘the power of the click’ in his terminology), the more we invite advertising into our lives voluntarily on what we believe are our own terms. The power of the click doesn’t decrease the amount of ads we consume; it just makes us believe we direct and control the flow.”

Do you think technology has given us more control to avoid marketing – or has (directly or indirectly) exposed us to more marketing than ever? Do you feel more exposed to marketing than 10 years ago, or less? More “in control” — that is, able to avoid marketing whenever you want to — or less so?

Chapter Seven, “Click,” includes a discussion of how media create new forms of audience, or “public.” How do you think the “public” formed around a newspaper is different from that formed around a television broadcast, a blog, or message disseminated (perhaps in the form of a Twitter tweet) to 100 people from a cell phone? Are there pros and cons, or is one of these forms inherently better, or more honest, than the others?

11. A review in The Washington Post, by Jay Dixit, concluded: “In this new era of participatory marketing, many brands’ meanings — once crafted and maintained from atop the peaks of corporate hierarchies — now originate from consumers. We once feared an Orwellian future in which big, scary corporations secretly manipulated our thoughts and desires. But commercial influence has become an open-source project.”

What do you think about, say, consumers creating ads, or forwarding marketing videos to friends, or joining “word of mouth” agencies? Are these forms of marketing better, more “authentic,” because consumers get involved voluntarily?

12. Goodreads asked: “Popular behemoths like Facebook or up-and-comers like micro-blogging phenom Twitter are making it increasingly easy for us to broadcast every aspect (however mundane) of our daily lives. How are marketers starting to cash in by harnessing our love of trendsetting — being the first to know about it, love it, and spread it?”

Buying In suggests (in Chapter Ten, “The Commercialization of Chit Chat”) that this is a key to word-of-mouth marketing, whether formal or informal: The positive feelings of being the first (in one’s social circle) to know, and of influencing others. Do you talk up things you’ve bought? Do you think you influence others?

13. Laura Miller’s review in Salon, referring to the “Brand Underground” chapter, observes:

“Walker regards such projects as a logical progression from youth cultures past; style has always been an important way of signaling both ‘individuality’ and membership in a particular group. True, skater culture revolved around skateboarding and punk culture around music, but each eventually reached the point where Ramones T-shirts outsold Ramones albums and the demand for skaterly ‘soft goods’ dwarfed the demand for skateboards and helmets. Why not just skip the preliminaries and jump straight to the stuff? ‘In this instance,’ Walker writes of the new streetwear product lines, ‘the symbols, products, and brands aren’t an adjunct to the subculture — they are the subculture.’

How would you explain such phenomena — buying skateboard shoes if you don’t skateboard for instance? What do you make of a phenomenon like the “sneakerhead” culture discussed in Chapter Eleven, “The Brand Underground” — can a subculture revolve around material goods? Can a brand serve as a form of expression, when its creators see it that way?

14. Jezebel.com writes: “When I think about my ‘stuff’ I just think that yeah, it’s cluttered, but I like it. A blank wall is boring and makes me a wee anxious. But I do wonder: Do interesting people have interesting things? Or does having interesting things make you interesting? And if not — surely there are interesting monks, for instance — why do we think possessions make a personality?”

What are three of your recent purchases, and why did you buy them?  Did your purchase(s) reflect your pre-existing interests — or did the excitement of the purchase spark a new interest?

15. Julian Dibbell, in The Telegraph, writes: “Walker ends his book celebrating one murketing-age phenomenon where the consumers have plainly pushed the commercial producers aside: the DIY craft scene centred around Riot Grrrrl knitting circles and hip craft-auction websites such as Etsy.”

But, Dibbell continues, the crafters in Chapter Thirteen, “What’s The Matter With Wal-Mart Shoppers?,” do not seem “any more exhilarating — or exhilarated — than the most dedicated corporate brand fans…. [They seem] no more alive to their passion than the obsessive Nike sneaker connoisseur.”

Do you think passion for handmade objects is different than passion for Nikes? Does it matter?

16. This post by Matthew Hutson on a Psychology Today blog puts advertising in the context of “magical thinking,” and cites a bit from Buying In:

“A fashion label produced by a pair of guys known as Andrew Andrew was just that: a label. They set up a sewing machine in a storefront in SoHo and, according to one of the Andrews, ‘we would sew this oversized label onto your sweater, making your shirt part of our line.’ The product is the same, before and after. The only difference is what it now signifies via its label and associations–a purely informational/metaphysical transformation. Walker summarizes: ‘People do not buy objects. They buy ideas about products.’ To believe that your sweater is fundamentally different, an object changed by an idea about the object: Doesn’t that smack of magical thinking?”

What do you think: Is there an element of “magical thinking” in the way consumers interact with branded objects? Does the same object seems somehow different if it carries a luxury logo, a more middle-of-the-road logo, or no logo at all?

17. One of the themes that recurs in the book is the relationship between the various factors that make consumption pleasurable, and what psychologists call “adaptation” — the tendency for such pleasure to fade, and for consumers to be poor judges of how long that pleasure will last. On a practical level, this is what results in many of us having closets full of clothes or other objects that seemed great at the time, but have long since ceased to please us.

Has that ever happened to you? Is it something that can be avoided by buying cheaper goods? By way of more careful reflection about how long the pleasure of purchase will last? Are there things you already own whose pleasure you might rediscover if you made the effort?

18. Anne Elizabeth Moore, in an interview about the book on the Anti-Advertising Agency Website, asked: “So your book posits—correct me if I’m wrong—that consumers have always held greater power in the marketplace to grant meaning to mass-produced cultural symbols than those producers have acknowledged. To what do you attribute this difference in perceived vs. actual power? And to what use do you feel can such power be put?”

The reply in part: “What is consumer power? Is it getting a free replacement product because you vented on a blog? Is it the ‘opportunity’ to have a ‘conversation’ with Starbucks about what new flavors they should introduce? Is it designing your very own Nike shoe? Or is it the various accomplishments of past movements, ranging from food labeling to safety belts to divestment from South Africa? Those questions can be answered in a variety of ways. It’s basically up to consumers to decide: What’s important? If ‘we’ have the power, then maybe it’s worth thinking whether ‘we’ want to use it for something more significant than ragging on Comcast.”

And later: “Really it’s a matter of consumers (that is, people living in First World consumer cultures such as the United States) deciding: Well, what’s really important? And: What are we willing to sacrifice and fight for in order to get it?”

Do you think contemporary versions of consumer empowerment (ad-skipping, complaint blogs etc.) are more or less significant than earlier iterations of consumer power (boycotts, calls for regulation such as labeling)? Is it possible to make real change through individual marketplace decisions, or is collective action necessary? Can the two notions be merged? Will they inevitably merge?

19. The final chapter, “Beyond The Thing Itself,” cites research suggesting that the objects that are most “meaningful” to individuals are rarely chosen on the basis of traditional or rational factors such as intrinsic quality, marketplace value, cutting-edge innovation, or aesthetics. Rather, they were chosen for connections to something more significant in the individual’s life: family or social ties, episodes in the narrative of a life, connections to religious faith or some other belief system.

Buying In suggests that much of the goal of commercial persuasion is to offer more short-term attractions that short-circuit or end run such considerations. Do you agree? If you were told you had only a few hours to grab only a handful of your possessions and evacuate — which objects would you rescue? How would you decide?

20. Online reviewer Secretly Ironic wrote: “Walker doesn’t think it’s possible or necessary for people to stop imbuing consumer objects with meaning, but he wants people to be aware of how and why they do it, and to understand that a symbolic purchase isn’t a substitute for actually having your own identity or being part of a community.”

An idea that emerges in the book’s final chapters is the “invisible badge” – a notion that re-envisions the “status symbol” in an internal way that is not necessarily connected to consumption, but rather to behaviors or beliefs. The idea is further explored in this essay, “The Invisible Badge: Moving Past Conspicuous Consumption,” which was written as a kind of addendum to Buying In. Examples are taken from the realms of religious faith, environmental activism, and elsewhere, but the common theme is that “These notions—each turning on finding a thing to do that does not involve merely buying something, but that has value both real and symbolic—these notions are what the invisible badge is all about.”

Can an “Invisible Badge” offer the same pleasures and satisfaction of the “badges” offered by the commercial marketplace? If you had to name your “Invisible Badge,” what would it be?

Reviews, interviews, and critiques related to Buying In are collected regularly here; some highlights are here.

Comments on this post are turned off, because the point of this guide is to get people talking to each other, not to me. But as always, you know how to reach me if you need to.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

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