Last week I wrote about how I’m increasingly finding that the word community is being used in ways that I find annoying, if not downright offensive. As if to prove this point, over the weekend a number of ‘community spokespeople’ managed to work themselves into a frenzy because Google chose to honour Cesar Chavez, who spent his life trying to help the poor. Whereas, obviously, they should have commemorated the death of Christ by putting up pictures of mass-produced chocolate eggs.
Obviously though, community isn’t the most offensive word out there. No. That distinction belongs to another word entirely.
Yep, you guessed it.
As someone who works in marketing, I probably hear this word at least ten times a day. And I probably say it or type it almost as many times again. But it’s actually a horrible word, and one that we should all try to stop using, at least in its current usage where it’s used to describe the people who brands want to buy their products.
Firstly, consumer has incredibly passive overtones. It brings to mind a motionless slob, sat on a sofa being spoon-fed junk food & junk TV. A burger-inhaling drone gorging on Biggest Loser, immune to the irony inherent in the situation. Is this really who we want buying our products? Is this the sort of people we, as advertisers, agencies and publishers aspire to talk to?
Secondly, if there’s one thing that most of us should be able to agree on, its that one of the biggest problems facing the planet at the moment is that we are burning through the earth’s resources quicker than we can ever hope to replace them.We are, quite simply, consuming the planet that we rely on to survive. Which is why, I feel, that in a world where we need to move away from green-washing to actual effective action, we shouldn’t be spending so much of our time trying to get people to consume things.
So what, considering the fact that I work in advertising, which depends on people buying things, are the alternatives?
One is to treat people with respect and we can do this by changing the nature of our relationships with them, simply by changing the language. By thinking of them as consumers, it’s almost impossible not to dive to the lowest common denominator in order to find something that people will want to consume; this is particularly true for the media. But if we think of people as audiences, we change the dynamic and therefore the entire relationship.
You can see this in the attempts by news companies to move from free website to pay-walls and metred models, and their need to differentiate themselves from social news aggregators.
Whilst the digerati mock these efforts, they should, in fact, be lauded. Because people will consume crap if it’s free, they’re a little less likely to pay for it, which could have the effect of improving the quality of the content that surrounds us. Treating people as an audience, with the ability to decide to withhold their applause, is much more likely to result in truly great content than thinking of them as mindless consumers, content to lap up any old rehashed churnalism. Maybe it will even save us from a TL:DR world.
Secondly, we can start thinking of things to sell people other than actual products. This shift, from consumers to customers, means that companies will be forced to start to value what happens after a sale, as much as what goes before it. It means that it’s important that you spend as much time telling people what not to buy, as what to buy. Patagonioa did it with this ad.
And whilst it’s not about the environment Nike are writing the rule-book on this by moving from a company that ‘just’ sells trainers and track-suits to one that sells services and experiences. Not every brand can make a FUELBAND, but every brand should have something to offer its customers, other than the product that sits on the supermarket shelf.
Because, apart from the ethical connotations if they don’t then they have nothing to differentiate themselves from own-brands and pile-them-high retailers and the only thing that will end up getting consumed is what’s left of their brands’ advantages.