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Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What…

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are (2008)

by Rob Walker

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We try to find our karass by adopting brands as granfalloons. Walker doesn't use [[Kurt Vonnegut]]'s terminology, but I think that's a fair summary of his analysis of how brands work in the era of the 'click'.

The bulk of the book is a very gentle, pleasantly anecdotal series of debunkings. Walker brings up things that are Said about branding, or purchasing, or consumers nowadays, e.g. advertising is harder than it used to be; or, people don't buy based on brands; or, consumers control the market; and provides mostly contrary evidence on the macro- and micro- scales. The macro evidence is generally the increasing profit of big branded concerns, with some studies done on just how effective brands are. The micro evidence is stories of all the consumers and coolhunters and marketers he's interviewed over the course of a decade writing about advertising.

This is not a scholarly or statistical book, but it rises above catchy stories. The prose is slightly bloggy (paragraphs that start with 'So', for instance), but clear. Walker's summary of human, especially late-modern adolescent human, nature is simple but sturdy: we all want to (a) be unique individuals and (b) be part of something bigger than ourselves. And, in consumer society, we mostly do this by choosing which brands to surround ourselves with. No brand can afford to gamble on whether we're choosing it for Unique Rebellion or Belonging, so the most successful ones now try not to say anything explicitly; 'murketing'. Successful brands that convince us we're separate but are successful because they're used as symbols general enough for lots of people to 'belong'. Rap and skate-punk culture are both here, and Hello Kitty, and Walker manages to be sort of affectionately respectful towards all their fans. He's even pleasant about paid and volunteer buzz-marketers, the people who write online reviews and shill things to their friends for no explicit reward (although the agencies that coordinate them get paid a lot).

Walker manages to be respectful on two grounds; first, that our conflicting desires are real problems and our attempts to resolve them therefore worthy of respect, however innately doomed; and second, that almost everything in the market is now about equally good, so it doesn't matter which brand we choose, scorn, or shill. He has a third half-reason, that trying to base consumer behavior on deeper ethical grounds (that covers anything that affects anyone else) doesn't work, since it's weaker than our personal needs and harder to be sure of.

On the other hand, the only 'brand' Walker describes as bringing happiness in the long run is that of Saddleback Church, which arranges small long-lived groups, and expects them to do some good outside the group. There's nothing like a long time in a small group to throw our real individualities into high relief; and doing good in the world really is belonging to a project larger than ourselves. Walker adds that many of our favorite objects are so because they remind us of real relations; or that we make real relations while following, or inventing, brands.

The crafters on Etsy have another story, that they express their art for others to live with beautifully, not in mass-production sweatshops; but that seems as dependent on mass-production of half-finished source materials. Also, as Walker points out, the commonest success story for an online craft seller is to make herself a subsistence pieceworker -- no health insurance and no leisure, and she can't scale up because that changes the story.

I was increasingly anxious as the book went on not just because Young People Today assume there's nothing better than a good brand, but because the whole thing paints a picture of a US economy based entirely on selling altered T-shirts and iPod cases. That doesn't seem sustainable. I'm also suspicious of the assumption that, because all commodities (stoves, etc) are currently very similar in quality, they're as good as they could be for the price. It seems to me that most objects are only as good as they need to be to last until the next expected kitchen makeover; and because we expect to update the 'stories we tell to ourselves about ourselves', that's not very long. We've made advertising constant instead of replacing it, just as constant email access makes work constant without reducing it. ( )
2 vote clews-reviews | Dec 16, 2010 |
One of the best book on behavioral economics and identity I’ve read. Walker benefits from the wisdom of earlier writers, such as Ariely and Atkins, but brings his own ability to ask great questions to the table. Much better than more superficial works like Buyology, it is Walker's questions that elevate him above many others. Seeing modern marketing as targeting the ideal balance between empowering individual identity and fostering community, Walker finally brings advertisers onto a playing field that should be very familiar to religious professionals. Like Gladwell’s Tipping Point, Walker’s Buying In is analysis and reflection that is as helpful to those seeking to build meaningful spiritual communities as those seeking to hawk their wares. ( )
  ebnelson | Feb 16, 2010 |
The focus here is on the specific brands we choose when we buy things, rather than on just how much stuff we're buying in general. Although there is some of the latter too, especially in the context of creating new markets. Some nicely-balanced examples of how our choices are more complex and less shallow than popularly assumed and how brand communities are real communities. The line between using stuff to reflect your self vs using it to build a self. His arguments for the virtues and artistic value of the indie producers, however, were less convincing. And a compare/contrast of the t-shirt boys vs the crafty girls (or at least his portrayals of them) could be an interesting article. I'm reading a lot more about consumerism than I'd realized -- I'd already read many of the books/articles cited in here. ( )
  kristenn | Jan 10, 2010 |
Good read. Basic premise is that we decide meaning for brands and stuff that we surround ourselves with. Some interesting research was reviewed, and was much better that snoop. I was generally engaged with most of the chapters, but the last couple seemed a little tedious.

After reading this and Snoop, I would like more of a discussion and analysis on the irrational use of things around us to define ourselves or even shape who we become. There is still this notion in economics that everything is rational, when research by Goffman and others have shown that we sometimes make decisions and "face" changes for reasons that are far from rational. ( )
  wvlibrarydude | Aug 21, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812974093, Paperback)

Brands are dead. Advertising no longer works. Consumers are in control. Or so we're told. In Buying In, Rob Walker argues that this accepted wisdom misses a much more important cultural shift, including a practice he calls murketing, in which people create brands of their own and participate, in unprecedented ways, in marketing campaigns for their favorites. Yes, rather than becoming immune to them, we are rapidly embracing brands. Profiling Timberland, American Apparel, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Red Bull, iPod, and Livestrong, among others, Walker demonstrates the ways in which buyers adopt products not just as consumer choices but as conscious expressions of their identities. Part marketing primer, part work of cultural anthropology, Buying In reveals why now, more than ever, we are what we buy—and vice versa. 

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:49 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"Consumers are "in control." Or so we're told. In Buying In, New York Times Magazine "Consumed" columnist Rob Walker argues that this accepted wisdom misses a much more important and lasting cultural shift. As technology has created avenues for advertising anywhere and everywhere, people are embracing brands more than ever before - creating brands of their own and participating in marketing campaigns for their favorite brands in unprecedented ways."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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