Tuesday, March 18, 2003

One more (OK, a couple more)

By a retired US Army Special Forces officer, titled The Idiot Prince Will Have His War. With details about the recent wargames that I had just heard in passing, and with insights on the complexities of ethnic rivalries and goals in the region. And some news on Saddam's gassing of his people in Halabja.

[Later]

They keep coming. Add to the list of great pieces:
Many great resources at TomPaine.com and openDemocracy.

Sunday, March 16, 2003

A flood of excellent articles against war in Iraq

Finally, people who would like to make peace and avoid war are finding their voices. The last fews days have seen a virtual deluge of pointed, eloquent, well-reasoned, (usually) temperate essays that reflect the feeling of people around the world who believe there is a better way to make the world safe than to attack Iraq now. They include:
Thought it would be useful to collect pointers to them in one place. Thank you, everyone who forwarded them to me. Some links require subscriptions.

The vigil ongoing

We had 130 people on a beautiful twilight and evening. Stood in a large circle silently for an hour, then consolidated and chatted a while. I sent a picture to the Moveon site, which they published, although they put the wrong vigil name on it. It's the first image (the darkest one) on this page.

My world clock sez it's just 7:30pm in San Francisco (it's 11:30am Monday here). Makes me smile, thinking about who might be out there in SF, LA and Seattle. And watching the world spin. Wonder if there was a vigil in the Azores.

Heading off to a Hong Kong vigil

In case you missed it, Moveon.org has started a 24-hour, round-the-world candlelight vigil today for people who believe going to war now is not the right answer. Head to www.globalvigil.org and you can find out what vigils are happening in your area (almost 6000 vigils are listed now). All vigils start at 7pm local time.

There are four vigils in little Hong Kong and the New Territories. I'm heading off to one now. There's no WiFi there, so I'm not taking my laptop/webcam. Woulda been nice.

If you can't participate in person and still want to indicate support, turn on your house lights, your outdoor lights, your christmas lights (this also from the Global Vigil site). Maybe it will show up on satellite pictures.

Monday, March 10, 2003

Advertising is war

If you examine the language that people in the businesses of advertising and consumer marketing use every day (and more), you'll realize that it is dismayingly similar to the language that an Army missile battery or Air Force bomber wing uses. Brand managers "launch campaigns" to "hit" their "target" demographic segments with messages that might as well be missiles, smart bombs or mortar rounds. They aim "flights" of ads at those "demos" -- the industry shorthand for demographic segments. They measure progress as improved market "penetration." Doc often describes the military metaphors of marketing.

Are the "impressions" left by ads really dents in people's psyches? (Or burn scars in their hides from "brands?") Those impressions, measures of behavioral conditioning, are how companies in the ad business get paid. Advertisers do depend largely on the memories these impressions create, so the psychic dent is more than a metaphor.

In advertising, the best targets are "captive" audiences: people hemmed in by checkout lines, high-rise office building elevators (note the name of the company that puts displays in elevators) or airplane and taxi seats, who these days have to view individual video monitors that are difficult to turn off. Those targeted pop-up ads that will appear on our cell phones as we pass specific stores may as well be "bounding" mines (which pop up before exploding, rising a foot or two off the ground so they can disable more people). The Direct Marketing Association is the officer's club in this war; during the dot-com bubble, startups were fighting one another to become the arms suppliers.

If this all sounds too macabre, be comforted that the business of managing consumers probably became a military operation out of necessity. How else to reach mass markets? The change we are going through right now (to strike a small positive note) is from marketing as a military operation to marketing as the building of relationships (read Cluetrain), given the novel capabilities of the emerging infrastructure.

Notice that consumer marketing is like artillery or bombing, not hand-to-hand combat. Distance is crucial. In On Killing: the Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, a morbidly fascinating account of the psychological effects of wartime killing on soldiers, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman describes the relationship between proximity in combat and resistance to killing. It's pretty logical: The closer the killer is to the victim, the more he resists the act of killing. Long-range warfare is far easier on the soul than hand-to-hand combat. That is, soldiers (or, more likely, pilots, sailors or gunners) who cannot see their victims because they are killing with weapons that work at long range, such as missiles, high-level bombers and artillery pieces, suffer almost no psychological damage from their actions, while those who kill at close range almost invariably do.

Modern mass media is an almost perfectly anonymous medium. Media buyers and ad servers keeps marketers and potential customers at a great distance from one another. Nothing climbs back up the long chain of people and companies that take a marketer's ideas about a product and get them aired on TVs or printed in magazines. Targeted media is anonymous, too. Do you really know who that telemarketer was? The representatives usually adopt fake names. Sometimes, they are all told to call themselves "Bob" or "Susan," to match the direct-mail piece they are supposed to handle, or so callers think they are getting more personal service. Nice personalizing touch.

Grossman describes several kinds of distance that affect one's perception of proximity to the intended victim. The first is cultural distance, which is a function of differences of race, class or nationality between the killer and victim. Simply put, it's harder to kill someone who is like you than one who is different. It's even easier if you believe the different person is somehow inferior. Military trainers have known this for years, and make sure to paint the enemy as different, dumb, evil and deserving whatever punishment is headed their way. You don't want soldiers to see the enemy as similar to themselves. It might weaken their resolve and make them consider other strategies -- or get killed themselves as they hesitate, tormented. You do want soldiers to fight.

In mass marketing, cultural distance gives the "shooters" emotional distance from their targets. Marketers and advertisers tend to be well educated. Often, their targets are the less educated masses. This cultural distance is one of the epidemics brought about by consumer marketing. Sellers who think little of their buyers find it easier to objectify them. Marketers therefore feel a little less like the targets themselves. As in combat, objectifying the targets makes it easier to manage them.

The devices that separate soldiers from their targets create mechanical distance. In warfare, intelligence units far from the battle front program target coordinates for the next mission's smart bombs and missiles. Artillery spotters radio in coordinates that gun batteries then translate into directions, elevations and powder charges. In night combat, infantry soldiers wear infrared telescopic goggles that turn humans into greenish blobs. In consumer marketing, the people doing the selling are often separated from the people building what they sell, and the long food chain from marketing department to TV provides plenty more mechanical distance. In fact, it makes it very easy for marketers to forget altogether what their activity does. Few feedback mechanisms exist to bring market wisdom back into the design, development and manufacturing functions. Companies consider many of the processes that could offer feedback, such as customer service and customer interviews, to be non-essential, so they outsource them to third parties.

Interestingly, Grossman's last kind of distance, physical distance, isn't really a factor in media, because the moment consumer marketers leave their offices, they are immediately surrounded by the missiles that they sent. They are probably more aware than most of what is going on and therefore better able to screen it, but they can't avoid it. They have no special code to deflect all junk mail or e-mail spam. In this sense, we're all unavoidably targets. When advertisers, marketers and data miners leave work, they are targets, too. They're just better informed than the other targets. They're in on the game.

"War, indeed," you might say. "There's no violence or killing in consumer marketing. It is harmless. It makes buying fun, and it delivers good stuff that people really want." Perhaps so. Consumerism is a luxurious trap, not a life-threatening invasion. But why does the military analogy fit so well? If all ads and direct-mail pieces had to have the name, address and photo of the actual originator, would they continue to exist? Would the phone ring less at dinnertime if those telemarketers had to give you their home phone numbers? Probably.

Let's find more productive ways for companies selling things to engage with people in authentic, trustworthy ways. Only then will the idea that advertising is war seem backward and outdated.

(Just in case: I'm not trying to brand all advertisers as evil or marketing as bloody. Those fields attract tons of smart, well-intentioned people. Unfortunately, the way those fields operate then forces those smart people to do things to "consumers" that they wouldn't necessarily want done to themselves. It is the rare marketing job that is free of this pressure.)

Thursday, March 06, 2003

If not "consumer"

So what should we be called, if not consumers? When in doubt, wherever you see “consumer,” replace it with “person” or “individual.” That's a good start, but context matters. As luck would have it, there are many other words that work beautifully when used appropriately. For example….

In business

"Customer" is a fabulous word. Unlike "consumer," the dumb endpoint of two long food chains (one to make and distribute the item, the other to market and pitch its messages), "customer" carries a sense of shared responsibility between buyer and seller: The selling company warrants (at least minimally) that its product will continue to work for some time, or it will repair or replace it. If not, enforcement mechanisms such as the Uniform Commercial Code and the courts offer recourse to try to set things right. A supplier and its customer have a better balance of power than a producer and its consumer. Not that consumers don’t have recourse to exactly the same laws. They do, but they are treated with less respect.

The OED dates “customer” back to 1440, defining it first as “One who acquires ownership by long use of possession; a customary holder” and also as “One who frequents any place of sale for the sake of purchasing; one who customarily purchases from a particular tradesman; a buyer, purchaser.” The definitions offer a sense of time passing, of continuity and relationship.

For services, the word “client” is usually more appropriate than customer. Lawyers and dentists have clients (the idea of consuming a dental visit is certainly unappealing). People who offer services often have ongoing, more personal relationships with their clients.

If you’re trying to win someone’s business, they are a prospective customer, or “prospect.” That’s fine. Instead of being in your target market, they might be your preferred or ideal customer or customer group. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with “buyer,” “seller,” “supplier” and “partner.” Businesses wouldn’t run quite as well without “employees,” “managers,” “recruits,” “stockholders,” “shareholders” and “stakeholders.” Wherever you turn, reasonable words abound.

The more specific the word, the better its use. In a conversation I had a few years ago with a marketer from Kraft General Mills, one of the largest consumer-products companies in the U.S., she noted that her teams think and talk about their audience as “moms with kids.” Excellent.

“Consumer” has become such common usage that it will be difficult to dislodge from everyday conversation. One of its most ingrained uses is the “consumer market,” which refers to ordinary people who shop at grocery stores, in catalogs and on the Web. How about calling it the retail market, as we used to? “Selling to individuals” also works.

The consumer market also encompasses manufacturers of consumer packaged goods (which we used to call food, dry goods or household goods) and consumer electronics (personal electronics? home electronics? home entertainment?), as well as consumer protection agencies and publications such as Consumer Reports, which developed to protect consumers from consumer marketers.

Dropping “consumer” does take a little getting used to, but being mindful of it is the important part.

In civic life

The sphere of private activity is full of great words such as “individual” and “person.” We are “citizens,” “students” and “participants.” “Members” belong to things, for a fee or for free; the same goes for “subscribers” and their subscriptions. In our leisure time we are “fans,” “players,” “spectators,” “viewers,” readers,” “listeners” and “contestants.” Unfortunately, there are also “patients,” “victims,” “subjects” and “prisoners.” When we get together in various contexts, we form “families,” “teams,” “groups,” “communities,” “audiences,” “gangs” and “classes.” Why talk about “demos” (marketing shorthand for demographic segments), when you can talk about groups of people?

The word “user” gives many people the willies, including my futurist friend Paul Saffo from the Institute for the Future, whose standard reaction to it is that “only two industries call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and computers.” Personally, I have no problem with “user.” The complaint doesn’t make much sense: drug addicts and PC users have little in common, except maybe those long bouts of playing Everquest or surfing the Web. In some settings, “user” is short for “end user,” an honest attempt to describe the person at the very end of the selling chain, the one who is really going to make use of the product or service in question.

A different objection is that users are people who use other people: They are moochers, manipulators. Skeptical as I am of marketing and advertising, it’s unlikely that the PC hardware and software industries are trying to call their customers addicts or moochers, even subconsciously. A third objection is that users use things up, much as consumers do.

Unfortunately, people who dismiss “user” ignore how powerful a word it really is. Users put things to use, a magical feat. They circulate ideas, build things and put them to work in the world. Talk about co-production. Users prize usefulness, which is one of the key attributes of products and services that treat people as individuals rather than as consumers. “User” and “end user” aren’t about being used, they’re about putting things to use, and there’s a world of difference.

Sumers? Prosumers?

There's a good reason Bob Metcalfe is a pundit. When I told him that I had named my little one-person company Sociate because I enjoy associating people and ideas, then talked about my beef with the word "consumer," he zipped back with the following: Since “to sociate” is ”to associate” without the “ass,” then maybe in the future we’ll just be “sumers:” consumers without the “con.”

Similarly, my friend David Isenberg makes a strong case for Alvin Toffler's word “prosumer,” the idea being that it would represent the pro of consumption, not the con. (Isenberg, formerly of AT&T’s Research Group, describes himself as a “prosultant;” naturally.)

Coining terms that stick is a mark of good punditry, but it is more important that we escape all forms of ‘sumption that describe us. I support just being thought of as people. Individuals. Capable, ordinary folks with wants, needs, skills and aspirations. Any word that separates us from being individuals works against us, makes us easier targets, allows the people targeting us to think of us as collections of objects to be manipulated, rather than humans to be heard and served. That’s why we shouldn’t coin any new word.

Besides, as far as the business of buying and selling goes, we’re not doing anything new. We are slowly cycling back to older ways of doing business based on relationships and reputations, even though the business environment has been changed irrevocably by technology. If we master the new technologies and use them judiciously, we will find a new point of balance that is far healthier for all parties.

A few years back, Michael Schrage wrote a sage piece titled The Relationship Revolution, which recommends a nifty experiment. Wherever you see the word "information" in daily use, replace it with "relationship." Thus, information technology becomes relationship technology, and the information age becomes the relationship age. Nice.

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

"Consumer" bothers Gillmor, too

Merc columnist Dan Gillmor just blogged his frustration about the word "consumer," echoing my feelings, as do almost all the people who commented on Dan's post. As Dan, Doc and most of my friends know, I've been sitting on many thoughts about this topic for some time. No longer. Be right back, with more.

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

America-centrism

I'd like to elect a President whose platform is global well-being, one who doesn't end speeches with "God bless America," but rather with something less self-centered.

God has already blessed America with geological isolation (much harder to be Poland or Alsace, getting overrun every few decades) and abundant natural resources. And sharp and industrious as US citizens are, there's no reason to call them the smartest, ablest people on Earth. C'mon. Everyone's pretty damned smart, all over the world. People exist in different settings, which means some barely get by, others can't express themselves freely and still others get tracked down and jailed, or worse. Helping to level the global playing field, without imposing our doctrine, is one of the best goals we can have.

If we're going to invoke God (remember separation of church and state?), let's invoke him for everyone.

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