You Consume What You Are

Rob Walker’s “Buying In: The Secret Dialog Between What We Buy And Who We Are” might not seem, at first, to have much in common with a book about Celine Dion. But when that book is “Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste,” by Carl Wilson, it really does.

“Buying In” is about the ways that people assign meaning to consumer objects and use them to define themselves – and whether the phenomenon of consumerist identity is a good thing. “Let’s Talk About Love” is about Celine Dion, yes, but it’s about the ways that people assign meaning to Celine Dion, and what those meanings are, and whether any one of them is universally correct.

Celine Dion is widely disliked but also widely loved. Schmaltzy, kitschy, commercial and soulless? Beautiful, pure, and filled with love? Both? It wouldn’t hurt to have a chapter about her in “Buying In,” right next to the discussion of skateboard culture and the rise of Timberland work boots among hip-hop fans.

At different points and en route to different destinations, both books make the same point: People want to be regarded as individuals and also they want to feel like they’re part of something larger than themselves. Various kinds of consumer behavior sate those apparently contradictory needs, often at the same time. I tend to think of it as sort of a tribal behavior: I’m a skateboarder, not a preppie. I listen to Neko Case, not Celine Dion. You get the idea.

One of Wilson’s point major points is that regardless of her actual merits, Celine Dion comes in for a lot more criticism than she would otherwise, because people want to distinguish themselves from people they see as being Celine fans. He covers a lot of ground getting there: The philosophy of aesthetics and taste the evolution of contemporary pop music from 19th century music halls, the origins of pop-music criticism, the Quebecoise culture that formed the background for Celine’s rise to popularity, and more. But ultimately, he’s just trying to step back and give Celine a listen and see what it is that other people love about her. He doesn’t quite manage to like the material himself, but he at least gains some understanding for the tribe of Celine.

Meanwhile, Walker’s interest is the way marketers try to get people to buy things, and whether they have any idea why people actually are buying what they do. He, too, covers a lot of ground: BzzAgent and the Word Of Mouth Marketing association, case studies of Scion and Red Bull and skateboarder culture, the history of advertising and the belief that “kids today are immune to advertising,” which seems to have been in effect since at least the 1900s. The ongoing focus, though, is the way that buyers determine the meaning of what they buy at least as much as sellers do. He talks about how brands like Timberland and Pabst have been the beneficiaries of consumer-driven rebranding that’s turned them into consumable meaning, and how they’ve played along with it rather than resist it. And he talks about how Red Bull and Scion have latched on to existing communities to try and build themselves credibility with different groups.

There are plenty of great anecdotes and at least a couple lessons anyone in sales, marketing, or product development should learn, but he’s got one big point at the end. He says that products may symbolize individuation and community, but they don’t create them. The goal of marketing (or murketing, as Walker calls the latest devious and confusing marketing techniques) is to convince people that a product will provide those emotional needs. But it can’t.

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.

In both cases, we’ve got an examination of our unexamined consumer preferences turning out to be moral choices – and often not very good moral choices. Both books remind us to look carefully at what we consume, and whether we consume it at all, and how we position that consumption as a signal to other people.

3 thoughts on “You Consume What You Are”

  1. At the risk of wasting a lot of your time, reading this makes me think you might really like John Leland’s “Hip: The History,” which crosses a lot of similar territory to what you’re describing here, but along a very different path.


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