Rob Walker has been out touring the nation to promote his new book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue between What We Buy and Who We Are. Portland bookstore, Powell’s, asked Walker to write an essay that would help sell the book (because they’re Powell’s).
In the essay for Powell’s, Walker says no one wants to see themselves as a consumer. It’s too trivial a description for a complex organism. Yet he argues that consumer culture is an important, often misunderstood, topic.
The symbols of the marketplace — brands and logos and all their related signifiers — communicate ideas that we understand without even thinking about them. You already know, or have your own view about, what Nike or Apple “mean,” and I’m guessing that’s not the result of ever having spent any time sitting around dwelling on the matter. You just know. To a significant extent, the phrase “consumer culture” isn’t even necessary: American culture is consumer culture.
According to Walker’s essay, he too thought he was above being labeled a consumer, until big, bad, multinational Nike forced him to see himself.
The moment when I had to reconsider my relationship to branded culture came when Converse, the sneaker company, was purchased by Nike. At the time I’d been wearing Converse shoes for well over 15 years, yet something about the company losing its independence bothered me, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to wear my battered Chuck Taylors anymore. I had to ask myself why. If I’m so indifferent and immune to branding, then how can it be that I’m caught up in the “meaning” of… a brand?