We are all sheep

Pax Arcana

Here’s a question many of us should probably wrestle with: When we’re sitting at Redbones in Davis Square all self-satisfied in our black Chuck Taylors, drinking a Pabst Blue Ribbon, are we really that different from the guy wearing Dockers and Nike sneakers at Applebee’s? Not in terms of food quality, obviously (Redbones rules!), but in terms of how we arrive at our shopping decisions.

For decades, Chuck Taylors and PBR have been emblems of the anti-corporate underground — symbols to your fellow travelers that you aren’t about to start wearing and drinking what the TV tells you to. But look around Redbones on a Friday night. Count the Chuck Taylors. Count the PBRs. Clearly those things are selling. How?

New York Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker says many of us are just plain deluded in thinking that we’re somehow impervious to marketing. In his new book, Buying In, he examines the relationship between what we buy and what it says about us. According to Laura Miller’s Salon review, your affinity for PBR is less of an anti-marketing statement than you may think:

PBR was more sure-footed: The brewer carefully cultivated its image among the indie crowd by taking great care not to cultivate its image: no ads on local radio, no celebrity endorsements (despite nibbles from Kid Rock) and certainly no TV. PBR’s divisional marketing manager, cribbing tactics from Naomi Klein’s anti-corporate manifesto, “No Logo” (full of “many good marketing ideas,” he told Walker!), worked to make PBR “always look and act the underdog.” He was so successful at retaining the brand’s cachet (or anti-cachet) that one 28-year-old Oregonian whom Walker interviewed had a foot-square Pabst logo tattooed onto his back. “Pabst is part of my subculture,” the kid told the writer, pointing to the absence of Pabst advertising as evidence that “they’re not insulting you.”

The kid may have a point. PBR’s approach is certainly less annoying than the blitzkrieg of rap-rock TV commercials many national beers shove at us. But its also true that PBR’s success is largely the product of marketing. Which means you (and I) bought it.

The same goes for Chuck Taylors, which still have some resonance as a symbol of underground culture, but which at the same time are the sole (!) property of Nike, Inc., which gobbled up Converse years ago. Don’t be fooled into thinking that preserving the Chuck Taylor brand’s “authenticity” has not been the subject of many a meeting at Nike HQ .

This is all very confusing. Even worse is that last night, as I was typing today’s Pax Arcana entries on my Commodore 64 and blasting Cold War Kids on my iPhone, I spilled some two-buck chuck on the Ramones T-shirt I just bought at Urban Outfitters. I just hope there’s some hipster-vetted laundry detergent that can get that out for me.

We are what we buy [Salon]
Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are [Amazon]

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “We are all sheep

  1. When I was in College, there was this Swedish dude who came in and did a presentation about all of these photos he’d taken around the world and some of the stories behind them. A few were of the owners of PBR, who it turns out were actually quite racist. Kinda turned me off of the PBR tall boys for a while, until the Dirty Bird had $0.25 tall boys that is.

    But that doesnt matter anyways, as the last Pabst Brewery closed down in 2001 and they are brewed by Miller these days. The San Antonio headquarters is just a data center.

  2. When I was in college I super-glued beer cans to the ceiling of my dorm room and hung other beer cans from springs dangling from them.

  3. I guess I am main stream… because that Pabst Blue Ribbon beer tastes like piss. Sam Adams, Brooklyn Beer or Adirondack if I drink at all. If I’m going to pick an alternative non advertised vice it won’t be a legal one.

    SUCKERS! I’m into the good Sheeeee-At. Cheach on the corner has a Madison Avenue firm with skinny “Blue State” ladies. They pimp’n the good hoes to the self righteous.

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