Are We Consumersor Consumed?

Two books explore the question of whether brands control us, or vice versa

Editor's Rating:

The Good: A sophisticated take on how consumers interact with brands.

The Bad: Some may find the analysis too lighthearted.

The Bottom Line: Effectively argues that the new hidden persuaders are us

Buying In:The Secret DialogueBetween What We Buyand Who We AreBy Rob WalkerRandom House; 291pp; $25

Obsessive Branding Disorder:The Illusion of Businessand The Business of IllusionBy Lucas ConleyPublicAffairs; 230pp; $22.95

I was first amused and then slightly alarmed when my daughter came home from preschool and asked if I would put a Go-Gurt in her lunch for the next day. One of her older friends, an alpha-girl, had been buzzing about the yogurt you squeeze out of a tube. At five, she was already a trendsetter; at three, my daughter was eager to follow.

My girl's request—fleeting, trivial, and unrepeated—nonetheless says something profound about our high-impact, omni-consuming culture. But what? Is she—are we all—just easy marks? Or is there a more complex dynamic between the marketer and the mark? Rob Walker, the author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, argues for the latter view. Walker, who writes the "Consumed" column in The New York Times Magazine, offers a sophisticated and sometimes lighthearted take on how consumers interact with brands, defining and controlling them as companies struggle to keep up. By contrast, Lucas Conley, a contributing writer for Fast Company, takes a grimmer view. His book, Obsessive Branding Disorder: The Illusion of Business and The Business of Illusion, is a bleak assessment of how defenseless we are against ad creep, as he calls it. Walker might have been amused at my daughter's request. Conley definitely would have been alarmed.

Walker begins by introducing the concept of "murketing," the ambiguous relationship that exists between the consumer and the consumed. He argues that it is defined by neither unblinking acceptance nor wholesale rejection of brands or advertising, but rather by the public's frank complicity with them. His coinage is unfortunate, but the point is well-taken. The oft-repeated notion that brands are dead, that advertising doesn't work, simply doesn't jibe with our daily experience. Employing lively reporting, Walker shows how just about everyone from Timberland (TBL)-boot-wearing hip-hoppers to Method-dish-soap-using homemakers is embracing and transforming brands. Moreover, he demonstrates how closely intertwined brands have become with our identities. As he says of Generation Y, supposedly immune to branding after growing up saturated with it: "What's striking about contemporary youth is not that they are somehow brandproof, but that they take for granted the idea that a brand is as good a piece of raw identity material as anything else."

In one of Walker's most interesting sections, he describes the "fresh frontier of murketing—the commercialization of chitchat." In 2001 a marketer named Dave Balter founded a company called BzzAgent with the idea of developing a network of volunteers who would get points for spreading "honest word of mouth" about the new products sold by BzzAgent's corporate clients. The volunteers could cash in their points for all kinds of cool products. It turned out to be pretty easy to recruit "agents." What surprised Balter was how few of them took advantage of the rewards program. Apparently they were satisfied with being considered trendsetters by colleagues, friends, and family. Walker concludes: "The existence of tens of thousands of volunteer marketing agents' raises a surprising possibility—that we have already met the new hidden persuaders, and they are us."

This is just what worries Conley in Obsessive Branding Disorder. He runs through the many old and new ways companies market to us: via product placement, perfume-scented cards in magazines, and more. They even do neuroscientific research into how people respond to stimuli. Conley also airs a litany of complaints about excessive branding that can be condensed into two: It is bad for companies, which are "abandoning the trusty, dusty principles of business—innovative products, good service, [and] solid management." And it's bad for the public, since we "grow skeptical of one another as we try to determine what we're being sold."

If you think, as Conley does, that we consumers are a passive, easily-conned lot, then it would be hard to conclude otherwise. I prefer Walker's more optimistic view. But I did nix my daughter's request for the Go-Gurt.

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