The Rob Walker Interview
Today I chat with a guy who writes prolifically on topics in the area of money culture, consumption and advertising. He's the man behind the Consumed column in the New York Times Magazine, writes the Murketing blog, is the author of the book Buying In and works on many other projects including Unconsumption and keeping up his own site which lists even more things he's worked on.
Who are some of your favorite contemporary writers?
First, I would say all contributors to The New York Times Magazine. Second, all contributors to the soon-to-be-launched Significant Objects project.
Beyond that it's very hard to get specific because I am such a thorough fanboy of so many contemporary writers. I guess I can say that the most recent contemporary-ish novel I've read is The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I know I am a few years late, but it was astonishing. I realize I am not taking a radical stance by expressing admiration of Cormac McCarthy, but a thorough rundown of contemporary writers I look up to would run to several thousand words.
Do you get a lot of free stuff sent to you for Consumed? What are some of the more unusual items you've received if so? What do you do with it?
Actually, I do not.
The Times has very strict (and smart) rules about keeping/accepting anything that could be construed as a "gift." So I actively discourage people from sending me stuff. If I need to see/handle something (Flip video camera, Chumby, etc.), I prefer to request it, and then return it. (Or in the case of something like Cheetos Giant, I'll just go buy a bag.) One thing I did keep -- because its value was low enough under TImes rules and it would have been absurd to return -- was some Brawndo samples. They sent two cans; I drank one, and the other is my fridge.
People do contact me a lot and *offer* an amazing amount of stuff, electronics, sneakers, whatever. I just politely decline. Although I am very explicit about this "don't send me stuff" policy, there are companies that still seem to think I'm sort of a Consumer Reports type who tests things, or that I'm like the cool-new-shit blogs (those are the people you should ask about free stuff -- some of those folks get tons of it), and often they will send products to my attention at The Times. For the most part I never even know about it. Every so often somebody figures out where I live and sends something to my house. This is a pain in the ass, because it means I have to take it to Goodwill, or mail it back.
One peculiar thing that made its way to my home was a sort of "gift basket" from a conglomerate. A variety of products were placed in an Easter basket, which was wrapped in cellophane. It was a a really weird mix of stuff -- snack foods, paper towels, condoms. I don't know what they were trying to communicate, but the feeling any reasonable person would get from it was: "Wow, these people own everything. How creepy."
Oh, and another amusing thing I got once was a cookie from Ecko (the clothing brand), with their rhino logo rendered in icing. I ate it.
I saw you mention the 3/50 project on your blog: which businesses would you spend your $150 on?
I try not to say anything that sounds like an endorsement but I suppose these three:
Back In The Day Bakery
Maldoror's Frame Shop (this one is really more relevant to E, my wife, but I do like the owners)
We probably spend $50/month at each of them anyway.
What blogs do you read every day?
All of them.
What's your favorite thing that you've bought lately (that's not an everyday necessity?)
The new Booker T album. (Or really, the MP3 version off Amazon.) If that doesn't count as a "thing" then I guess I would say noise-canceling headphones that I bought last year. I know that's not "lately," but I have a hard time rendering judgment on a purchase before at least six months have elapsed. For example we bought a new coffee maker a couple months ago, and loved it for a few weeks, until we realized all its flaws, and now I hate think it sucks, but we're stuck with it. But the headphones I love as much today as the first time I used them. Mostly I use them on airplanes; they are top notch.
Also I bought some Timberland shoes I really like, around six or nine months ago, but it looks they've been discontinued since I bought them. This is why I'm not a coolhunter and why the column is not based on my personal taste -- much of what I like is immediately shut down. That's been true ever since I got addicted to Welch's Orange drink as a kid.
Do you think there's a line between being conscious about the things we consume and overanalyzing it?
Of course. And I'm probably on the overanalyze side. But really most people, most of the time, buy fairly mindlessly. The think about maybe one purchase in twenty. The rest of the time they're on auto pilot. Not everybody, but most people.
I think most people would be happier in their consuming lives if they put a bit more thought into it. In the end, you're more likely to spend your money in ways that satisfy if you take the time to think about what matters and why, etc. etc.
You're a very prolific guy: do you have a writing schedule?
I have a slight bias for writing in the early part of the day. But I don't have a hard-and-fast schedule. Except that I work every day. It's pathetic.
What are some (not-breaking news) topics you're most tired of hearing about in the news? I'm thinking, on my end, anything Twitter-related for the moment.
Just kidding. That's a good example. In the mainstream press, I'm tired of the general vibe that anything related to the Internet is still somehow a novelty. As in: "Whoah, this dude got a book deal (or similar) based on his Web site (or his Twitter account, or his Youtube video or whatever)!! Can you believe it?" Or, "Some guy took this picture with his cameraphone! Can you believe it??" Of course we can believe it. It's happened a zillion times, the Internet is normal, mobile technology is normal, everyone is used to it, everybody gets it, and nobody is surprised anymore. I'm not saying don't cover these things, but stop acting like it's all some crazy new freak show.
Meanwhile, in the Web world, I've pretty much heard/seen enough about steampunk. And I don't need to see any more pictures of unlikely things made of Legos.
I feel like I should also be tired of Octomom. But I love the word "Octomom."
What are some of your favorite SNL fake commercials?
The best one is from the first season -- an ad spoofing twin-blade razors. It was for a fake three-blade razor, explained with the tagline, "Because you'll believe anything." And as you know, that turned out to be true. I believe we're currently at five-blade razors. That's almost twice as good as three.
I also loved Bad Idea Jeans. And Levi's Three-Legged Jeans. And probably some other ones that didn't involve jeans.
What are some of your favorite real ads?
Um. Anything with a puppy. I actually can't think of anything right now. I thought that Padma whatsername ad for the fast food place, where she makes out with a huge sloppy hamburger, that was pretty amazing. And those "sponsored by" videos on PBS where Chevron explains how it's saving the planet, those are always funny.
For Buying In, what were some of your most invaluable resources? It seems like it can be a slippery topic to pin down with certainty.
I tried, in Buying In, to draw on a variety of resources -- history, experts, psychological studies, etc. But I think the most important stuff was the actual reporting -- meaning that I went places, I showed up, I talked to actual human beings. Just people, people who don't have publicists -- or even blogs or Twitter accounts. (That's right, such people still exist!) I listened to what they said. I did my best to weave all of that together.
BUT, having said all that, I also tried not to project the idea of "certainty." I tried to offer enough of a structure for the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. The book is meant to be more of an informed framework for coming to your own answers, as opposed to a set of rules.
How does it feel to be the 233rd person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
I'm truly honored that you could only think of 232 other people worth interviewing before my name came up.