Much of my week is spent thinking about consumers, consumption, decision-making and attitude changing. After years in the marketing and advertising worlds I now teach graduate students how to discover and employ consumer insights. Some people in my profession prefer the word “customers” to “consumers”, consumers impling a one-way street. Manufacturers make what they want to make and consumers buy it. Customers is supposed to indicate more of an equal relationship between the maker of a box of soap and the head of household buying it a well as reflect the importance of service by the former to the latter.
I’m old school and can’t seem to shed consumer from my vocabulary. Not that I think consumers are at the mercy of manufacturer. If and when I do think about this and manage to use a different word I use “people.” Seems to be the most accurate word of them all. We’re just people acquiring and using tools to sustain and elevate our lives.
Something I heard author Toni Morrison say recently brought this “you say customer” and “I say consumer” debate to the forefront for me. Asked how she thought today’s culture or society differed from the one in which she grew up she answered: “We used to be citizens. Now we are all consumers.”
She went on to say: “I grew up poor and it didn’t matter what color you were you were picking up stray potatoes down by the train tracks with the white kids and the black kids. And we shared that potato because we were citizens. Today we just consume.” Her point (from my point of view): citizens take care of each other knowing that it benefits society. Consumers watch out for themselves because they are concerned with personal not societal benefit.
That may be a harsh or misguided assessment of Morrison’s words that I’m sure I’ve paraphrased even though I tried to write down exactly what she said. Severe or flat out wrong, I can’t help believing one way of living is better than the other. So from now on I plan on preparing my students to find the true citizen in every consumer. Or customer. Person.
Cartoonist: Tom Fishburne