Damn those knowledgeable customers!

Regular readers here know my views about marketing over the past 100 years. The word took on pejorative tones with the Creel Committee, and reached its one-to-many pinnacle with the era of Mad Men. Edward Bernays was a part of the committee and widely regarded as the father of professional public relations. In his 1947 essay The Engineering of Consent, Bernays described how to manipulate the public (that’s you and me) with clever tactics. Here’s my favorite line:

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”

This remarkable, narcissistic and cynical statement has crumbled before our eyes today, although most marketers secretly maintain that it’s still applicable. Why is it problematic today? Because people now are beginning to know the extent of the manipulation and are increasingly able to detect it when it’s happening. Hence, Bernays’ “without their knowing it” is problematic today when it wasn’t when Bernays first had the thought.

Thanks to the wonder of YouTube, here’s Bernays himself telling the story of how he advanced the interests of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Bernays’ “torches of freedom” campaign advanced the women’s rights issue for profit, something that continues even today.

Here’s another view of the growing sense that customers are aware of being manipulated. It comes via Doc Searls and his work with Project VRM (Vendor Rights Management). This is a graph comparing the use of the words “consumer” and “customer” in books written since 1780. Notice that the Mad Men era has a clear beginning and a clear end, and it all starts at roughly the same time as the Creel Committee and its work, including that of Edward Bernays. The word “customer” has skyrocketed in recent years, as writers have become increasingly convinced of the pejorative and manipulative reality of the word “consumer.”

books containing the words 'consumer' or 'customer'

This big cultural shift — along with many others brought about by disruptive innovations — signals the dawn of a whole new world with which businesses and people must deal in the years ahead. “Power to the people” has always been a revolutionary theme, and what we’re living is certainly that.

We live in interesting times.

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