Consumers and the Free Market

I hate the word “consumer.”

Perhaps not so much the word as the concept.

It makes me think of bacteria. Consuming everything around them. Excreting something in response.

When I talk about the world as a marketer, I use the word “consumer” a lot. Grad school was all about understanding consumer behavior. About conditioning consumer responses. About motivating consumer actions.

I imagine a school of fish swimming synchronously in one direction, then suddenly, just like that, simultaneously changing direction.

In a marketer’s ideal world, the marketer is the cause of this inexplicable direction change. Silently orchestrating actions. The master of cause and effect.

Not even the fish know why they move.

But they think it is their choice.

To be clear, I don’t think of this as my own professional ideal, and there are many, many marketers who don’t think this way. But that’s what the word “consumer” makes me think of.

It dehumanizes people. Treats them as objects to be manipulated. As only consumers of product. Of value only insofar as their purchasing power.

That’s what I think of in this Black Friday Cyber Monday holiday shopping season excitement.

On the one hand, I think it’s disappointing that stores now open on Thanksgiving day. On the one hand, I think you’d have to be crazy to go out in the Black Friday rush. On the one hand, I agree that Thanksgiving could facetiously be renamed Thanksgetting.

But on the other, I need to give a tip o’ the hat to the marketers who thought it up. Who convinced people that they wanted to spend Thanksgiving shopping ’til they dropped. Who engineered a system that appears to give bargains while only benefiting the businesses’ bottom line.

It’s easy to say that people choose to go shopping on Black Friday. But I’m not completely convinced that they do. Like the school of fish, what appears to be a choice may in fact be a carefully orchestrated phenomenon.

Free choice isn’t always as free as you might think.

And this causes me pause when I think of the free market.

People are free. Consumers are not.

So if you have a market built entirely on consumers whose actions are deeply, perhaps intrinsically, motivated by marketers; whose reality is manipulated in the form of fake bargains, purchasing environment and countless other strategies; if your market is built on these manipulated consumers

Is that market really free at all?


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