Why the word ‘consumer’ is an irritating marketing use (and abuse) of language.

The word ‘consumer’ is an irritating misuse of language.

This short piece is a soap box moment that’s been waiting to get out for some time.

I have a massively irritating issue with the word ‘consumer’. I hear more and more commentators talking about ‘consumers’ out of context. It is turning in to one of those language things that becomes entrenched in daily use by all and sundry.

People refer to consumers as though it represents some part of society the speaker isn’t part of. It sounds like a derogatory description when it comes from the lips of politicians. It can feel like a put-down, along the lines of “consumers should take more care of their diets…. (whereas people like us are sensible and smart)”.

For example, a banking official talking on a news programme about reforms said, “the consumer has the right to know…….” Did he mean the general public, or the customers of banks? Either way people are not consumers of banking services, they are customers and members of the general public. I don’t consume products from my bank, I’m a customer.

A food industry official on BBC TV news talking about the horse meat saga said “…the food industry has the interests of the public……” and I nearly applauded her for correctly defining to whom she was referring.

That well-known media man John Billett used to make me smile when he referred to his clients as customers; a distinction, I always felt, that suggested a difference. A customer has a different status to a client, by implication. John always talked about his customers which I felt demonstrated a respectful perspective on the relationship.

Anyway soap box stowed away for the time being. Grrrr.

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About Paul Simons

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Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.