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Douglas Van Praet

An Open Letter to Advertisers — We Are Not Your “Consumers”

Consumers are not in control. Advertising is out of control.

Dear Advertisers,

Every time you call us “consumers”, a part of me winces. This label you have assigned us is misguided and counter-productive. It borders on arrogance by putting corporate interests before customer concerns. The worst offense is that it presupposes a sale you have yet to earn. Our purpose is not to consume your product!

But this perspective has long framed your approach to marketing with emphasis on improving your bottom line not the quality of our lives. Billions of dollars are spent on market research and billions more in advertising aimed at creating better ads and sales tactics not better products and services.

So I find it suspicious that according to you, we are no longer just consumers anymore. We are now the rulers of our own destiny and your brand. And it is you that is celebrating our new found empowerment popularized by your oft-repeated refrain: “The Consumer is in Control”. Allegedly power has shifted from corporations to consumers. We are now supposedly the creators, critics, marketers and advertisers of your brand all wrapped up into one.

Yes, it’s true that we now have access to more and more information about your products and your competitors. And we take to the web and our social networks more than ever in hopes of leveling the playing field. But we do so not because we control you, but because we don’t believe you. We trust people not companies.

And you have trained us well to look for the hidden meaning in your words. My suspicion is that all this talk of consumer control is simply reverse psychology. This is just more smoke and mirrors to distract us from your ploy to create more ads and sell more products under the guise of our upliftment.

Neuroscience solidly refutes your assertion of consumer control. In fact, we now know that the vast majority of human decisions, especially the brands that we buy, are made unconsciously. We are all being conditioned by our media environments below the threshold of our own awareness on a deep intuitive emotional level. And it is this implicit conditioning not rational deliberation that is driving our brand purchases. Science has demonstrated that mere exposure to your brand can generate preference through familiarity. And as ad clutter increases our ability to critically filter these messages diminishes. Where is the control in that?

The evidence suggests that it is not the consumer that is control, but the increasing trend toward disruptive advertising that has become out of control. As global ad spending increases across the planet, we are now exposed to thousands of sales messages each day. And “disruption” is your prevailing buzzword for better innovation. But rather than disrupting markets and competitors with better products and services, most of you have chosen the easier route by merely shouting about the brand, and moving your old ways to new media. In addition to print and outdoor ads, we now have banner ads. Junk mail is now also Spam. And TV commercials live on, recycled through forced exposure that stand as roadblock and gatekeeper to the content we are really interested in. Where is the progress in that?

We are not “consumers”, “buyers”, “non-responders”, “laggards”, or “eyeballs”. We are humans. And if you raised your sightline and defined us more authentically you will not only deepen your empathy but also widen your profit margins. In the age of technology, you are at grave risk of becoming out of touch with the real-life, flesh-and-blood needs and challenges of people—not consumers.

I know it’s not easy to be a marketer in a constantly shifting landscape. But you are supposed to know what it’s like to walk in our shoes. So let’s start by getting real for a change. Let’s invest in honesty and better solutions to our life challenges not just ads. It might just facilitate a symbiotic exchange between us based on trust, creating both profitable brands and satisfied customers.

If you’d like to level the playing field against advertisers, check out my book, Unconscious Branding. Or follow me on Twitter.