The one word in marketing-speak that absolutely has to go

23 May

I have always used the word consumer somewhat sheepishly. What does it say about the way an ad agency looks at people?

Consumers acquire and ingest. Their process is strictly functional. He consumed his dinner. It doesn’t offer any hint about what degree of pleasure he sought or took from the effort. He simply processed the meal.

Consumers are chiefly concerned with fulfilling their needs. They are not into the experience of consumption by definition. Very much like zombies come to think of it!

Is this a good word to use to describe the intended target for our advertising?

John Hegarty, the renowned leader of London stalwart ad agency BBH, recently opinioned in his new book Hegarty on Advertising: Turning Intelligence Into Magic, that agencies must be creative-driven in the manner of maverick film companies and record labels. We need to think like them and reach out as they do.

Too often agencies have just been businesses driving a bottom-line. The business happens to be advertising and the folks wear black turtlenecks and jeans.

The endemic use of the word consumer reflects that business focus.

What if we changed the word to audience? An audience, participatory or passive, is there to be engaged and entertained. They are there for an experience, driven by a desire to enjoy life or learn something – not to merely subsist, as the word consumer suggests.

The word audience reminds the ad agency that their work has to drive an emotional response.  It has to entertain, hold attention, be memorable, have substance.

How much advertising have you seen lately that passed that test?

I watched a run of ads last night during the hockey game that gave us one stinker after another, each with smiling actors spewing out pap about the business they were selling. Only the Honda Civic spot with the ninja, the lumberjack, the wrestler, the furry beast and the zombie appeared to recognize its requirement to entertain us with something different.

Advertising needs to get better. Do you think changing the way we speak of, and think of, the people we are advertising to will be a helpful start?


12 Responses to “The one word in marketing-speak that absolutely has to go”

  1. GV May 23, 2011 at 8:20 am #

    Lets just use Zombies, since most of us are, including myself when we read, listen or watch.

    You could have a audience of polar bears but are they going to buy anything. No, but us zombies will.

  2. dougbrowncreative May 23, 2011 at 8:29 am #

    Zombies are flocking to Honda Civics in huge numbers. Well, they flock to anything moving in huge numbers.

  3. Lisa Weeks May 23, 2011 at 8:48 am #

    Yes: three cheers for the word audience! If advertising is about attracting and holding someone’s attention long enough to tell them something – something designed to inspire them to act – thinking about those people as your audience seems a productive place to start. Generally speaking, we gather an audience, we plan for them, and we’re thoughtful about what we’ll say to them. This implies respect and appreciation for their time and intelligence. People like that. This ought to be true for any kind of writing we do.

    Great question, thanks for asking.

    p.s. Did John Hegarty opinion in his new book, or did he opine?

  4. dougbrowncreative May 23, 2011 at 9:41 am #

    Lisa I think your comment is spot-on. Planning our material for our audience is good insight. Plus, the photo I used focuses on an individual, as “audience” can ignore the reality that you’re speaking to each person in the audience. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

    As for your P.S. he clearly opined but I couldn’t bring myself to use the word!

  5. Anonymous May 23, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    Bartle Bogle Hegarty – the quintessential London agency in the 80s. Thank you Doug for reminding me of Nick Kamen in the laundrette. Sigh.

    I’m sure the audience viewing figures were higher for the ad breaks than the actual TV shows back then. The reaction to the Levi’s ads was incredible. Every classic record they used went to number one, brylcreem made a comeback and sales of boxer shorts went off the charts. I think the ads even helped sell a few pairs of jeans too.

  6. Felice May 23, 2011 at 10:47 am #

    Oops that was me.

  7. dougbrowncreative May 23, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    John Hegarty reckons the Brits are better storytellers than Americans and that’s why the advertising is generally more memorable. I don’t know if that’s true but I like the idea of storytelling in advertising. Thanks for the Nick Kamen link…remember seeing him in The Face. Whatever became of him?

  8. Felice May 23, 2011 at 11:48 am #

    Nick Kamen is probably still sitting around in his underpants living on the dole in a seedy part of Manchester with Frank Gallagher 😉

  9. dougbrowncreative May 23, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    Is Frank Gallagher the old guy that got caught with George Michael with his pants down?

  10. Felice May 23, 2011 at 1:59 pm #


  11. barry hill, copywriter May 23, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

    audience good. CUSTOMER bad.
    What I’m alluding to is that lately airlines, Via and others have stopped calling us passengers and replaced it with customers, have you noticed? I feel like a piece of meat – in a bad way. At least passenger alludes to being human, ‘customer’ says to me, “our relationship with you is strictly financial.” It irritates me to no end, not least reason it makes me wonder, “Can anyone be thinking at the top of these companies, and how can these muttonheads justify such cozy jobs, while I’m stuck in Advertising.” Oops, maybe revealing a bit too much there.

  12. dougbrowncreative May 23, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

    Interesting observation Barry. I think perhaps companies equate customers with “people who are loyal to our brand”. Not such a bad thing. I would much rather be called a customer then a consumer! “Consumer” and “audience” are internal terms not meant to address the people who are using your service or buying your product. But I sure see how you might feel somewhat commoditized by being labelled a customer. Thanks for the comment mate!

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