Feb 18, 2009

Using the word “consumer”

Posted by: Marian Salzman In: consumerism| trendspotting

credit-cardIn the lead-up to New York Fashion Week, the Wall Street Journal talked to Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour about the economy’s effect on the fashion industry. “When the editor of Vogue rails against consumerism, the economy must be in a tailspin,” the story’s introduction read. As it turned out, the sartorial starmaker didn’t seem to be railing against consumerism at all, but she did acknowledge that the culture of excess was rightly winding down, and that the new emphasis is on “quality and longevity and things that really last.”


We’ve used the word “consumer” so consistently for so long that it’s become standard marketing speak. In effect it’s just a way of saying “people who buy stuff.” And since just about everybody buys stuff, it means “people.” We are all consumers.


Now try applying that notion to people back in the 1960s. Sure they bought stuff, but were they truly consumers? The definition doesn’t feel the same when you apply it to that era. You could say it’s because those consumers bought less than we do, or because they didn’t use brands to construct their personal sense of identity, or because buyers back then weren’t as marketing savvy as those today. All are true, but the difference is in the word “consume.”


The dictionary notes today’s marketing angles of the word consume (“to utilize as a customer”; “to utilize economic goods”), but it also incorporates what the word meant long ago and still means: “to spend wastefully”; “to eat or drink, especially in great quantity”; “to waste or burn away.” Think: resource depletion, landfills, globesity, bling, economic crisis.


The question now, as consumers cut back on consumption, is whether the economic crisis will put a definitive end to the uber-consumer mind-set. There is disgust with indulgence, bling, things that glitter—except with images and messages of romance and enduring values. The notion of what it takes to be part of a community is becoming a lot more modest—not lavish. Everybody from MAC to Wal-Mart to Pepsi to McDonald’s can benefit from that. All seem to care about the community, to give back and are not ostentatious. Our propensity to keep trading up our homes, cars, computers is probably going to be wiped out.


When the dust settles, will tomorrow’s buyers still be consumers, or will we have to coin something completely new?


  • paulwall
    Unabated consumerism is obviously an addiction that's not likely to be cured. The addicts have a quick-fix view of the situation because of terms like bailout.

    I certainly hope, though, that the wasteful, gluttonous consumer is a victim of the situation.

    Sadly, I'm seeing another victim. Trust, respect and honesty between people. I'm sensing a growing tendency to, by any means necessary, cover one's butt. Throw others under the bus. Defend one's turf. Win at all costs.
  • paulwall
    Unabated consumerism is an addiction that's not likely to be cured. The addicts believe there will be a quick fix to the situation because of terms like bailout.

    It certainly would be great if the gluttonous, wasteful consumers were victims of the situation.

    Sadly, I'm seeing another victim - trust, respect and honesty between people. Cover one's butt by any means necessary. Throw others under the bus. Win at all costs. Protect one's turf. Walls, when we really should be working together.
  • StuartHarris
    I'm not a total fan of Thomas Friedman but he hit the nail on the head today with his piece in the NYT where he talks essentially about consumerism as a way of life. - http://tinyurl.com/cdloeu

    "We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ... We can’t do this anymore."

    The issue we face isn't "buying stuff" per se, it's buying stuff without having a clear idea of a bigger WHY of each purchase.
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