We are NOT consumers

I happened to notice a fairly informative blog today: Consumer-generated Media, by Pete Blackshaw.

The posts are on precisely what you’d expect: the read/write web, pinko marketing, and so on. But I have one beef with the site, and that’s the word “consumer” in the title.

The blog’s subtitle is “Did you get the memo? The consumer is in control!”

My question to Blackshaw is: didn’t you get the memo? It’s been right there in the Cluetrain Manifesto for years now.

Straight from the Cluetrain website:

If you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get …

We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers.

We are human beings, and our reach exceeds your grasp.

Deal with it.

As I mentioned recently, Doc Searls has coined a new term: producerism. I like it. I like it a lot.

I’ve always hated the term “consumer.” How denigrating to be referred to only as some entity with an enormous mouth, eating mass-produced, mass-marketed products 24/7. We’re moving beyond that. People are rediscovering their innate urge to create, to produce, to share.

“Consumer” is a recent term, historically speaking. I’m struggling to remember my university Communications courses, but I believe it originated almost simultaneously with modern mass media (radio, TV) and mass marketing. Before then, people were citizens. or workers. Or producers. Anything but “consumers.”

I think it’s about time we sent that term back to the trash can of history.


6 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Well said John; I hate the term of consumer too, although many marketing agents still think of their target markets as a herd of sheep with credit cards.

  • I have enormous respect for Doc Searls and the ClueTrain Manifesto, and I daresay it catalyzed me to leave P&G in 1999 and start (forgive me for using this word) a “consumer” feedback portal, PlanetFeedback.com. But let’s please remember that that landmark book was the start, not the end, of the “conversation.” I know there’s a constituency out there that has issues with the word “consumer” – and I respect and attentively listen to those arguments, and – but I stand by the term “consumer,” especially in the context of “Consumer Generated Media” (CGM), for many reasons.

    I do believe there’s a real consumer movement and revolution taking place on the web, and the term consumer effectively (and inclusively…more so than “producer,” I think) captures the essence of the new power, clout, leverage, and yes, “buyer behavior” that’s reshaping the web, driving innovation to meet “unmet needs,” etc. That’s not to suggest the other terms being used out there – producer, user, citizen, people, etc – are not appropriate; I think they accommodate key nuances in the conversation, and in some cases may be more appropriate.

    Let me add some personal context. I’ve identified with the word “consumer” across a broad tapestry of experiences, starting with my years as a student activist at UC Santa Cruz, and later as a legislative aide in the California legislature, where “consumer” issues – from insurance to advertising guidelines — dominated our focus. Later, my training at Procter & Gamble introduced an almost-compulsive focus on consumer understanding and meeting “unmet consumer needs.” When a CEO like A.G. Lafley insists “The Consumer is Boss,” I frankly think he’s echoing, reinforcing, and perhaps even lending another layer of credibility and persuasiveness to “Web 2.0” thinking.

    As for the argument I’m hearing that there are more “producers” today than “consumers,” I’m in a different place, and my view is informed by analyzing tons of data and research. The “producers” of content are actually the biggest “consumers” of content. When I have more time, I can elaborate. It’s really quite fascinating.

    This is a very good conversation, and I look forward to being an active “participant.” I can tell the discussion is being elevated because just yesterday Joe Jaffe (www.jaffejuice.com) brought it up to at the iMedia conversation. This discusion is all upside…for everyone.

  • Thanks for the extended comment, Pete. I understand a little more of where you’re coming from now.

    I agree with your point that there are more “consumers” out there than “producers,” at least if you view it from a web/internet point of view. And I even agree that all us “producers here on the web are enormous “consumers” of data and reports and blogs and news, etc.

    (Sidebar: what about other ways of being producers …. offline … in careers, etc.)

    I still feel, however, that using the word consumer gives marketers and entrepreneurs a one-sided and shallow picture of people.

    From a marketing perspective, understanding the whole person, and not just his or her buying behavior, has got to yield better insights into who a person is and what that person is all about … not to mention what he or she might want/need in the future.

    And from a general perspective, I just find it more respectful to not label people “consumer.”

    One more point:

    When I read blogs, news, you name it, I don’t feel like I’m consuming something. Rather, I feel like I’m sifting things, some of which I will integrate into myself, some of which will stimulate thoughts I would not otherwise have had and which will then become part of who I am, and some of which I will reject or forget.

    Same thing for physical products that I buy: do they belong “in my story” … do they fit with how I see myself when I look in the mirror … do I want them to become part of my personal “brand.”

    It’s a much more complex behavior than can be adequately captured in a word: “consume.”

    But I respect the points you’re making as well. I guess we’ll agree to disagree.

    Thanks again for your long and well-thought out comment.

  • I guess the word consumer is going to be worn out eventually or only used for some marketing areas. We’ve been called “consumers” for so long that, even though the way of trading and accepting goods has changed, we just repeat what we’ve been called.

  • Exactly … you could kinda take a Marxist/deconstructionist viewpoint and say we’ve adopted the language of our oppressors.

    (I wouldn’t say that, but it’s fun to adopt the perspective for a minute!)