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“Consumers” or “Multipliers”?

Grant McCracken
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The term “consumer” is a fixture of the marketing, media, and cultural worlds. It is hard to imagine certain conversations without it. Lucky little term. “Consumer” is coin of the realm.

On the other hand, as Marshall Sahlins says, every theory is a bargain with reality (1976, 45). It helps us think some things. It discourages us from thinking others.

On the whole, “consumer” was a better term than the alternatives, “customer” or “buyer.” It evoked the distinction between producer and consumer, reminding the corporation that capitalism is not about the art of the possible but the art of the desirable. It doesn’t matter what the corporation does. It will sell only what the consumer wants.

Charles Coolidge Parlin made this paradigmatic shift official when, in 1912, he offered the slogan “the consumer is king.” A. G. Lafley, the CEO of Procter & Gamble from 2000 to 2010, renewed the term’s centrality when he reminded his staff, as he often did, “the consumer is boss.” (See, for instance, Markels 2006.) The term “consumer” has helped capitalism take the larger view.

On the other hand, not everyone likes the term “consumer.” Some think it’s antiecological. “Consumers” sound like ravening beasts who must destroy what they buy instead of renting it from the recycler.

Others dislike the term “consumer” because it suggests that the consumer always destroys value and can’t actually ever participate in its creation.

There’s a third reason to question the term “consumer.” When it comes to the tech sector, information economies, the software and Internet user, the term “consumer” is simply odd. After all, in what sense can we be said to “consume” digital goods, when they are not scarce in any conventional sense, and they are not diminished by the act of “consumption”?

Jerry Michalski (2003) and David Isenberg (2007) have both spoken out against the term “consumer,” noting that the term forces us to participate in the very assumptions we are called on to question. At the very least, and this is the Sahlinsian wisdom again, “consumer” prevents us from seeing the consumer in new ways.

My preferred term is “multiplier.” Consider this sentence, amended from a story in the Wall Street Journal: “American multipliers spend more than $8 trillion a year on everything from popcorn to Porsches and eye exams to electricity.” Or consider this conversational fragment from the corridors of a branding firm: “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see what the multiplier thinks.”

A “multiplier” is someone who will treat the good, service, or experience as a starting point. Multipliers will build in some of their own intelligence and imagination. They will take possession of a cultural artifact and make it more detailed, more contextually responsive, more culturally nuanced, and, lest we forget the point of the exercise, more valuable. Using a term like “multiplier” will help the meaning maker keep new realities front and center. If there is nothing in the product, service, or experience that can be built on, well, then it’s back to the drawing board.

There is a diffusion angle here as well. Multipliers will add value by involving others. They will multiply the value in collective acts of construction. Furthermore, the multiplier will use his or her instruments and networks to publicize the innovation.

Finally, the term “multiplier” may help professional creatives acknowledge more forthrightly that their work is in a sense out of their control. All they can do, and what they must do, is to invite multipliers to participate in the construction of the meaning by putting it to work for their own purposes in their own world. Only thus is success made possible.

The term “consumer” treats meaning manufacture as an endgame. The term “multiplier” suggests, on the other hand, that what the professional creative does is merely the beginning of a larger cultural process.

References

Isenberg, David. 2007. “FCC Fudges Its Broadband Report—but Finally Gets One Thing Right!” isen.blog, Feb. 5. http://isen.com/blog/2007/02/fcc-fudges-its-broadband-report-but_05.html.

Markels, Alex. 2006. “Turning the Tide at P&G.” U.S. News and World Report, Oct. 22. http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/061022/30lafley.html.

Michalski, Jerry. 2003. “If Not ‘Consumer.’” Sociate (blog), March 6. http://www.sociate.com/blog/archives/2003_03_01_archive.html.

Parlin, Charles Coolidge. 1912. Department Store Lines. Philadelphia: Curtis.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1976. Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

 

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