February 21, 2013

Who The Hell Is "The Consumer?"

One of the things that gives me big chuckles is listening to account planners and creative directors talk about "the consumer."

"The consumer" is someone they think they know a lot about. Apparently she attends the same pilates classes as planners, and goes on mountain bike rides with creative directors.

Despite their unctuous devotion to mouthing the word, most people in advertising don't know the first thing about "the consumer."

This point was reinforced to me recently by two things I read. First was a blog piece by the great Dave Trott, writing about the reaction he gets to his cockney accent when speaking to business groups.
"Was the white collar world of marketing and senior management made up exclusively of middle class people with middle class accents?
Did they think everyone, everywhere was exactly like them?
Because here’s a funny thing.
Where I grew up everyone had cockney accents.
Around three million people.
And I’d lived my whole life without anyone ever commenting on it, until I started doing talks to people in marketing.
People who, apparently, never hear anything but middle class accents."
The second occurred when I was doing some research on automotive trends. I was reading a piece about how some cars stay in the hands of owners far longer than others. The writer of the piece thought he had uncovered a startling anomaly. He found that people with crappy cars held on to their cars longer than people with quality cars. Why would people hold on to lousy cars, he wanted to know?

He was digging around for explanations for this crazy fact. I'm pretty sure this would have stumped most agency people.

So here's the answer Mr. Strategist -- they hold on to their crappy cars longer because they don't have any fucking money.

Unlike us marketing wizards, people in the real world are forced to buy crappy things and hold onto them. To them, Walmart is a way of life. To us it's a punch line.

Here's something I wrote three years ago in a post called Reality At The DMV...
I'm thinking of making a monthly visit to the DMV a condition of employment for everyone on my staff. 
I want them to see what the people they're making ads for really look like. I want them to see the people they never see at the restaurants they go to; never see at the bars they frequent; never see at the focus groups they attend; and never hear from on Twitter.
In other words, I want them to see the "consumer" they're all so very certain they know everything about.


Anonymous said...

So true. Reminds me of a talk from Steve Harrison where he explained his thoughts as to why so many young creative teams hit the limelight then disappear. One great campaign catapulted them to a new position/agency, with a bumper salary. So they started taking taxis rather than the tube or the bus, eating at the posh restaurants rather than the caff, etc etc. And they stopped living like or mixing with the very people they were trying to talk to with their ads.

Anonymous said...


The latest survey in the UK states that poor people buy cheap food and nobody knows why? And that sometimes they borrow more money than they can afford.

consumerama said...

Love this piece. Hate the over use of the word consumer. So much I named my blog after it.

Unknown said...

Love it. Even the phrase, "The Consumer" injects a healthy and safe distance between the marketer and the people they are trying to reach with their wizardry.

Some absolutely spot on observations. Again.

Rob Mortimer (aka Famous Rob) said...

I hate the word consumer. I hate it. It's a summation of everything that is wrong in the world of marketing.

Rob Hatfield said...

Everyone is a consumer. Who we should be talking to is the "customer."

Anonymous said...

In addition to the DMV, may I propose visits to Walgreens/CSV, etc., but late at night?

There's nothing quite like those places after midnight.

Chris S. said...

Ad people have a startling fear of being "regular" people. We've taken on the industry's misguided need to find the next big thing as a personal crusade to be "ahead" of the social curve.

The problem is that, as creatives, part of our job is to change perspectives, not isolate ourselves from them. If you can't identify with anyone, how can you sell anything to them? How can you craft a message to someone you refuse to understand?

The short version of this is that we ad people need to get over ourselves.

Unknown said...

I say 'people', or, when I'm feeling a bit more precise, 'people we want to buy our stuff'. And I make a face like I'm sucking lemons every time someone says 'consumer'. I quite like the sound of not getting the bus to work though.

Jeffrey Summers said...

Amen Brother!

Anonymous said...

I loath the word consumer, but what really disgusts me is viewing focus groups with clients and agency teams who think it is sport to poke fun at the participants - most of whom have not grown up with the same socio-economic advantages that they have. If you can't show some humility and empathise with the people you trying to sell stuff to, how will you ever succeed.

Anonymous said...

"Consumer" isn't a negative word, it's just picked up some baggage.

As a manufacturer, I sell to stores. Those are my customers, or as Nick says "people who want to buy my stuff."

Which means I still need a word to use when I'm talking about the end-user, the person who takes my product home, who indirectly sends me money.

Jeff said...

Bet that come Monday morning, 30-to-1, most agency water-cooler chatter will be about; 'Argo' V. 'Lincoln' and hardly none about
Patrick V. Harvick V. Biffle...

Which is telling!

Do the same thing per;
Wal-Mart V. CostCo
Republican V. Democrat
Sondheim V. Spielberg
Muddy Waters V. Roger Waters
You won't find a spirited debate, but rather a common chorus?

Agencies don't HIRE, they CAST!

And they do so unfailingly alike,
and unlike the constituencies they
profess to know so well.

Anonymous said...

How come agencies can differentiate COKE & PEPSI.
Yet clients can't differentiate IPG/OMC/WPP...

In 1970 you could spot the works of O&M,DDB,Burnett.

Today, not so much!

If branding is so great, how come all the agencies (personnel & works) are all so interchangeable?

Tm Callaghan said...

For some years in Dubai, in the winter months when it was cool enough, I would cross the creek dividing where I lived to where I worked on an 'abra', old wooden boats with a motor that chugged you across between Deira and Bur Dubai. My colleagues all thought I was mad, the only white guy who used the abra service. I changed agencies and caught the bus to work. 5 dirhams, rather than the 60 in a cab. The other passengers would stare at me; what's a white guy doing on a bus? Simple; these are the people I'm selling to. How else can I know them? But that's a lesson ad people either never learn or forget. Kipling's 'walk with kings, nor lose the common touch' says it all...

Paul Angeli said...

“The Consumer is Not a Moron; She’s Your Wife.” Mr David Ogilvy

BK said...

The Consumer is the sister of The User. Somebody else we know everything about.