SFI Blog Team
I am not a product.
Written by designer Lindsey Foust.
The Consumer Is Not A Person. The Consumer is one role that a person plays. I believe that it is important to understand the relationship between the consumer and producer, but most importantly who the “consumer” actually is. Being a consumer is a part of the human experience in the current day and age. However, the “consumer” is not a person.
The consumer is a collection of data that predicts how humans will interact and engage with their brands in order to capitalize most productively.
The customer is a human being who decides to put their capital towards a brand whether that is for social, economic, or essential purposes.
I feel that most companies use these terms (consumer vs. customer) interchangeably, but the most significant difference is how universal yet mysterious the term consumer is. This is due to the fact that most companies spend thousands of dollars marketing to an ideal consumer, but this is not always who the customer ends up being.
For example, we’ve seen Victoria’s Secret be unsuccessful in making this distinction. Their ideal consumer is conventionally gorgeous by their own unattainable standards. However, Victoria’s Secret customers are normal everyday people who want to feel beautiful in their undergarments regardless of their shape or size. Victoria’s Secret failed to understand what females want in their lingerie because males dominated the marketing scene with the goal of making women look good for men. In 1977, businessman Roy Larson Raymond founded Victoria’s Secret, and ever since, males have created the agenda for what is expected to be the standards of women. This is where the customer-to-brand dissociation parallels male to female marketing strategies.
Failing to understand that the imaginary consumer that is talked about in boardrooms is different from the customer is why Victoria’s Secret isn’t the luxurious and desirable brand it once was 20 years ago. Other brands did come onto the scene as well during this era. Ex: Aerie, Fenty, Calvin Klein, etc., however, they “sold” the concept of normal or more realistic women in lingerie, not models. This resonated more with customers, not consumers. By grouping all human identity into the role of the consumer instead of understanding the individual being that is the customer, brands will never reach their fullest potential in terms of profit, brand loyalty, and longevity.
The customer never wants to be profitable, or at least be exposed to or acknowledge this reality. The customer doesn't want to feel like a pawn or recognize the fact that they are making money for someone else by buying into their brand image. Like falling for a trap, they bought into it. The customer wants to fit into the narrative of the brand's image as a collective member whether that's by raising social status, perception, or ability to feel special. This feeling comes from adding value to one’s life, a perception of a better life, or even the physical serotonin release due to the product’s emotional ties to our personal lives.
With this being said, once we can understand that the consumer is not a person, we can stop marketing towards “them” because they never existed. What if marketing simply promoted a product for what it was without targeting any particular consumer? This would lead to a shift from an idealized consumer to an audience of people. Would customers become more authentic and less curated? Would this allow for natural growth through customer word of mouth combined with more generalized advertisements? What if a product was simply promoted without another agenda? It would be beneficial for brands to have more generalized ads in order to attract a loyal and authentically built customer base. Right now, brands work by shoving advertisements into curated communities hoping someone might bite. With generalized advertisements, no one is ever being baited. Customers are simply drawn to great products and brands that match their own lifestyles. I can’t specifically name any brands practicing generalized advertisements -- not any fashion brands at least. A more practical brand like Fruit of the Loom would be the best example, but even then, there is still a target consumer and demographic involved.
The fashion industry can communicate that the consumer is not a person by re-aligning marketing campaigns away from the delusional fantasy world that fashion currently lives in. By giving fashion a personable and realistic space to exist in the industry, a bridge can be drawn from the consumer into a customer. The door needs to be opened to the real world. This is where the customer lives and the imaginary consumer dissipates from reality. I feel that Patagonia is a strong leader that bridges this gap in terms of “opening the door.” For example, their “Don’t Buy This Jacket Campaign” broke the fourth wall by urging customers to not give into overconsumption on one of the most profitable days of the year: Black Friday.
Fashion education can communicate that the consumer is not a person by understanding that the student is not a product when recruiting for their programs. A student is not a consumer of fashion education; however, they are marketed to that way. I believe this is true of all programs to some degree, but with fashion being the most idealized and glamorized compared to the reality that students face. I remember being “sold” into the idea of my past design education and how I experienced being a target consumer. I was a high school senior located just a few miles from the University of Cincinnati who was also interested in design. I never fully reflected on how this process was actually me being marketed to as a consumer of higher education. At some point through our education, we are taught inexplicitly to then also be the marketer. Whether that’s through presenting a project during a final critique, putting our best selves forward for co-op positions, curating a portfolio of our best work, or answering excited questions from a tour group passing by. We are selling an image of ourselves, our education, and our hard work.
To elaborate more on my personal experiences within design school, I was surrounded by students who all worked under a collective “brand” itself: DAAP. The school sells itself just as well as any large corporation looking to profit off of their target consumers would. Finals week is advertised and referenced by professors to students as “Hell Week.” Students are given DAAP themed stickers, mugs, shirts, and even free meals as if they are pro-athletes about to face off in the Super Bowl. Not to mention the free advertising and exposure that students give the program. Essentially, by inducing a cult-like atmosphere, DAAP is able to create how we perceive ourselves and our environment: the best of the best. We are brainwashed to think that our program is a brand, and we must dress, work, and act accordingly to fit in. I remember specifically receiving a free mug saying, “In a relationship with DAAP.” The obsessive and overwhelming culture of consuming ourselves with this brand is the only way to fit in with our peers. We have to live according to DAAP by breeding an ideal image of ourselves according to the design school's curated vision of hardworking, aesthetically dressed, over-involved, and one-of-a-kind students.
We can then reflect on if this truly is a bad thing: selling ourselves. It’s turning ourselves into a product, therefore it is a dehumanizing process whether we like to acknowledge it ourselves or not. Even if it benefits us, the process of selling ourselves is draining and needs to be recognized. Do we really believe that we are at our core who we are on a resume? In my experience no, I am much more than that. When we have the time to reflect on this transition, we can see that capitalism is the driving force behind us all. I started to question these things as a student when future DAAP students would ask me questions about my program and my experiences. I felt that I was always having to defend myself, but to who? Am I saying great things about this program because I truly feel this way, or am I just regurgitating what I’ve been subconsciously consuming all these years? My responses never felt genuine. This is because I was marketing DAAP just as they did to me. I had become the marketer in order to uphold a fictional facade. This was when I realized that I had been treated as a product of a system that programmed me meticulously in order to generate more capital.
The media can communicate that the consumer is not a person by practicing ethical marketing, treating the consumer as a human, understanding we are not a product, limiting data mining and collection, consent to “cookies” and targeted ads, and fewer advertisements (especially on social media). I believe it is very feasible to see a future of social media with limited to no ads if consumers paid for the service. For example, specifically, gaming apps will have you pay a one-time fee for no ads. I think this is a fair deal that many would consent to. Another great example is Spotify's business model of paying a monthly fee for no ads. This works just as well as a one-time fee and lays the groundwork for a consensual relationship between the customer and a service.
The Social Dilemma (a documentary-drama hybrid): “examines the various ways social media and social networking companies have manipulated human psychology to rewire the human brain and what it means for society in general. Through a series of interviews with Silicon Valley engineers who designed the technologies they now fear, along with discussions with various tech and psychology experts, The Social Dilemma offers an eye-opening look at a world that so few really understand.” (Philip Sledge) After watching the Social Dilemma on Netflix, I felt that I was a product after being exposed to the fact that my data is profitable. My data allows for brands to curate content directly to my phone. Whether that’s through advertising, slightly swaying my perception, or promoting a product. A lot of boundaries are being crossed. Although the documentary seemed a bit dramatic and played up, the message across the board was clear: we are a product.
It is up to all of us to understand and recognize that the consumer is not a person. The consumer is simply one role that a person plays.