Change the Script: it’s time to drop the term ‘consumer’- Michael Brown, Head of Insight

February 8, 2018 | Share this article

Marketers all use shorthand terms – abbreviations and short, easily-remembered phrases to identify certain market and audience segments. Any meeting with a brand team will probably see references to millennials, silver surfers, the pink pound and so on.

But are they doing themselves – and their audience – a disservice by pigeonholing people this way? And even worse, are they causing problems by potentially antagonising those customers when those terms leak outside the marketing trade media and into common parlance?

Look at one of the most commonly used words in the marketing lexicon: ‘consumer’. Our recent research among 2,000 Brits found that 10% of the UK population actually find this term to be offensive. That might sound like a modest percentage, but it represents 6.5 million people. 

Why did they dislike it? They said it felt patronising, and manipulative, and made people sound like mindless animals. Think about it – consuming stuff plays a big part in the average day of a worker drone such as a termite or army ant, but do they approach their prey with the same level of conscious sophistication, emotional and cerebral decision-making and subtlety as a shopper approaches which brand of luxury chocolate or fabric conditioner to buy?

At the risk of annoying the etymologists out there, I’d be inclined to think they don’t. When the people in our survey asked which other words might be used instead of ‘consumer’, terms like ‘shopper’, ‘audience’ or ‘people’ were suggested – terms that seem to imply greater active choice. As one respondent said: “I’m a person above all… I hate the idea of being characterised by what I buy.”

Given that audience segmentation is such a vital part of the marketing process, it’s not surprising that shorthand terms have become integral to how the industry speaks. The problem is that language is more than just how we communicate an idea – and an epithet of a group affects how we think about that group and potentially even dehumanises those within.

When George Orwell called advertising “the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket”, he understood the dangers of treating people as mindless homogeneous groups. Unfortunately, many of the industry’s favourite terms are problematic for exactly those reasons.

Among many parts of the LGBTQ community, for example, the phrase pink pound is unpalatable. In a 3,000-respondent survey UM ran via gay/bisexual male meet-up app Grindr in March 2017, we found that 42% of respondents considered the term offensive. It’s disliked for perpetuating stereotypes, segregating the community, and for incorrectly implying that the audience is particularly affluent.

Meanwhile, the first word of silver surfer might seem innocuous but brings feeble white-haired grannies to mind. And if marketers refer to eco warriors, it hardly generates the mental image of the sensible, everyday people who have become the world’s biggest purchasers of sustainable products.

This verbal shorthand also encourages laziness of thinking. Not all ‘millennials’ want the same things, shop the same way and demand the same approach from their preferred brands. Marketers need to be far more disciplined in how they segment and approach their markets, and shouldn’t presume to rely on default archetypes. If they do the correct work, they can understand the tastes, motivations and fears of their audiences at a more granular level and create messaging that engages and resonates even more deeply.

Perhaps most importantly, given changes such as the recent announcements by the ASAregarding how gender roles should be portrayed in advertising, they can avoid dangerous and offensive stereotyping. They can instead be more thoughtful and respectful in how they approach every part of their audience – and be more trusted as a result. For example, the UM Women in Ads research last year revealed that three quarters (77%) of women claimed they find the way women are generally portrayed in advertising to be stereotypical – and that 62% of those who identify as feminist would be more likely to buy products by brands that challenge stereotypes of women.

Curiously, there’s another factor in the semantics of marketing that should also be raising eyebrows. It’s unclear exactly how this came about, but a lot of the terminology of the industry has a military connotation: we talk of ‘campaigns’, of ‘targeting’ people and ‘launching’ products. This language, by its very nature, creates an atmosphere of antagonism between marketers and customers and seems designed to diminish the other side and portray it as an enemy. Clearly, some of the most common terms and jargon can be problematic and unintentionally offensive, and can lead to ways of thinking that could even damage brands in the long run.

It’s an odd linguistic environment for an industry that’s all about bringing brands and customers closer together. So perhaps it’s time to reappraise what words we all choose to use, whether we’re communicating in writing or in our everyday spoken relations.

Our motivation should be to persuade people to subscribe to brands (e.g. lean in to us) through a transparent upside, rather than to try to shoehorn ideas and goods onto them.

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