October 03, 2005

Who's in control? Nobody, that's who. Get over it.

Each time I hear somebody say or see someone has written that, "The consumer is in control," I sense an aneurysm developing. This is particularly troubling to me since I too spent the better part of a year repeating that same mantra to anyone who would listen. Besides, it fits so nicely with the Web's democratic mythos, regardless of release version (i.e., Web 1.0 or 2.0). What makes my temples throb is, however, this patently ridiculous non sequitur being used to rationalize everything from Interactive advertising to select-channel media to increased market research budgets to nonsensical business plans.

The trouble is that it's crap. Well, not total crap. But like any good crap with a chance of sticking to the wall, it's got enough real parts to be plausible, but mostly it's gelatinous fluid tenuously holding those chunks together. One key characteristic of the fluid is that it's, well, fluid. It changes to accommodate pressure, constraint, obstruction, or opening. "The consumer is in control," fits this description.

Scatological metaphor be damned, the problem is the word "control." Maybe consumers do, in fact, have control. But the phrase is used with abandon because nobody ever says, "Hey, now that's just crap," to force some precision what it means. So, the implications are extended well beyond whatever control the consumer may have. I don't want to be (more) tedious, so the following paragraphs will quickly summarize my headaches.

The first issue is: control of what? Can any one side truly be in control of a communication -- particularly one that requires response? The idea behind mass communication and propaganda is that the message is dripped down on an audience over a long period of time with the intent of changing an opinion or perception (hmmm.... brand positioning?). Be that as it may, propaganda depends upon an accepting, probably gullible audience: one that does not critically evaluate messages being pushed at it. This may well be the broad state of affairs in the world. But, it that does not put the propagandist in control in any specific way, except perhaps in controlling the content it is putting forth. If one were imprisoned or set apart from the normal context of life in some way and tortured with a incongruous message (e.g., Jonestown, "Clockwork Orange," any sitting of the House of Commons or Congress), it is possible that the sender of the message has some extreme control over the content and the form of the communication. But, as my parents always said,

"You don't have to listen." And this may be what all those people who chant that "the consumer is in control" really mean. Consumers -- people, if you will -- are exercising their right to not listen, or read, or watch commercials. There are new technologies that facilitate that choice. But -- and here's the important part -- that right has always existed, and technologies to aid in exercising it have also been prevalent (at the prevailing state of technological development). Critically, many or most consumers have not exercised that right to ignore commercial messages. Oh yes, we've complained about bad or misleading advertising, and even about overtly ridiculous public relations spin. But, by and large, people have been and are complaisant about the whole affair. They (we) have chosen to listen and watch and engage and change our opinions and beliefs -- and engage.

What makes anyone think that a legacy human character trait that follows this description above -- admittedly only in the context of commercial mass communications, but throw in political communications, etc., etc., and there is hundreds if not thousands of years -- is radically changing because PVRs and iPods now exist and because "Do Not Call" registries have been formed? As long as you opt to listen, you are susceptible to succumb.

So consumers have always had some control over the communications process, but have persistently given up that control to the marketer. Listen, watch, change your mind based on uncritical assessment of what's shouted at you and, frankly, you deserve to be taken advantage of. Turn it off and decide how and when you're going to accept messages, and you're in control. But the whole notion of control is suspect because there is no real control in this environment.

All of this speaks to the idea of "conversation" in the commercial world if only because a conversation -- regardless of subject or content -- has no controller. An inquisition or interrogations does. A lecture does (in a way, since the audience chooses first to attend and then to listen). But, a conversation -- an interaction -- does not. It is a negotiated communication. And, in my humble view, that is and always has been the state of commercial communication.

The marketer has negotiated well, with clever advertising and misdirection (spin, if you must) with us as consumers. The marketer has convinced us to abandon our negotiating position. Of course, culturally we are predisposed to engage rather than disengage because what each marketer offers a consumer (like new sugar-coated cereal) may be valuable. But that's another matter. Based on this precedent of consumer intertness, the marketer has progressively gotten more sloppy and more overbearing. Dumber and more obviously "wrong" content coupled to more and louder volume of ads has turned the whole environment into a ghetto of communications crap.

So, with the advent of a few technologies and the desire to stand up and shout, "I'm mad as hell and not going to take it any more," consumers are allegedly doing something to force the issue and clean up the communications neighbourhood. Thus some people with an (economic) interest in consumer power start braying loudly that the consumer is in control. Nonsense. The consumer is merely claiming the negotiating position that was hers all along. She is not in control any more than before. She is simply exercising a right to demand that if she is to participate with the marketer, then what she gets out of the interaction/communication had better be worth what she's putting in. The communication process remains a negotiation. And it always will be.

"The consumer is in control." Bollocks.

Posted by Grayson at October 3, 2005 05:31 PM

Thank you! Thank you!! THANK YOU!!!

I am NOT alone in the world...

Posted by: David A. Kearns at October 4, 2005 08:12 PM