Re-thinking “the consumer”


Over the years I had come to feel faintly queasy about portraying people as “consumers.”

I worried that it squeezed all empathy and understanding out of our perspective, reducing people to the moment of purchase or consumption.

To mere mouths and wallets.

Then I read this exchange:

Magazine: Who are your heroes in real life?”

Artist: “The consumer”

The choice of language felt deliberate – no predictable mention of “the audience.”

It’s made me change my mind.

And made me think that at least the language of “the consumer” offers a more honest perspective than that of “the audience.”

For it reminds us that is people who ultimately determine the terms of engagement – it they who determine what is successful, and is not.

It reminds us that by and large, people are not waiting or looking for what we put out – as Gossage reminded us all those years ago, “When advertising talks about the audience, it doesn’t mean its audience, it means somebody else’s, gathered there to watch or read something else.

It reminds us that people will have a choice – that if not satisfied, they will move on.

That we are not the only ones in their lives.

That what we make occupies but a tiny portion of people’s attention, enthusiasm, time, and lives.

That as seasoned exercisers of choice and discretion, people are smarter than we often given them credit for.

It reminds us that they consume US .

That they are not OUR audience.

And that if we truly wish to have them think of us, value us, and keeping coming back to us, we’re better off giving them something wonderful, rather than something merely adequate.

Then again, a fresh, divergent, more brave, honest and enlightening perspective is what David Bowie always offered us.


Source: Vanity Fair


  1. Pete Heskett

    I love that Gossage quote.
    There was an interesting moment in a BBC documentary about Bowie on telly last night when the journalist John Harris from the Guardian was being interviewed and he said that with his Nile Rodgers 80s ‘Let’s Dance’ period he “transcended being an artist and became on icon, or to use that most inadequate of modern terms, a brand”. I hadn’t heard this quote from Vanity Fair but is interesting to see that maybe, like Warhol, Bowie had started to play with the cultural impact of modern marketing and was much more comfortable with this than fans like Harris.
    Anyway, I’m drifting off topic but you’re making a very interesting point here about our practice. Maybe reverting to thinking of people as consumers is less about trying to conduct a Vance Packard style mass manipulation exercise and more about respecting the fact that the context of how and why something is consumed is really the only relevant space brands should ever take their marketing into. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the man with the hardest name to type into WordPress ever, wrote a lovely book called ‘The meaning of things’ which deals with the psychology of consumption and is possibly a worthy Alibris hunt for a bookworm like your good self.

    • Martin Weigel

      The Warhol parallel had occurred to me too… another mind able to peer into our future.
      I’ve come across Csikszentmihalyi (if only that were a legitimate Scrabble word) but not ‘The meaning of things’ – cheers for a good recommendation!
      Of course, I may change my about the whole thing by the time the day is over.
      Thanks for making the time to read, comment, and recommend!

      • Pete Heskett

        No thank you, your blog is always a joy to read.
        ‘Flow’ is what gave Csikszentmihalyi his icon status but ‘Meaning of things’ is his “Low”.
        Okay, that is a rather discordant riff but worth a bid all the same…