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Stupid Consumer Arguments

In promoting the Renegade Consumer message, and even the more general message that consumers are far more hamstrung and limited in rights than most people believe, there are certain common arguments that newcomers toss out again and again.

Most of these arguments stem from the smug assurance that consumers—smart ones, at least, which always includes the speaker—just know that marketing is a weak shuck that can only mislead the weak of mind and will. And not a few of these views are carefully fostered by the marketing world, using flattering assurances, direct and indirect, that of course the reader/viewer/listener is much too smart to fall for any deception—so they should buy this product.

What follows are three of the most common arguments in this vein. Understanding them and their relatively simple counterarguments give you powerful tools to lead a newcomer past the cardboard castle walls of their mistaken belief, and into the beginning of a better understanding of their role and situation as a consumer.

1: The Budweiser Argument

What I call the Budweiser argument is one of the truly simplistic rejections of not just Renegade Consumer thinking, but pretty much all very basic consumer awareness thinking. It's usually phrased thusly:

I just saw an ad for Budweiser, and I didn't run down to the store for a six-pack. Obviously advertising doesn't really work... not on me, at least.”

Well, where to start? With these points:

  1. This person does not understand that advertising is rarely meant to provoke an immediate response. Only a very small subset of ads, whether on TV or in print, are meant to make the recipient leap up and go or do or buy something that minute. There aren't many more, at a major advertiser level, that are even meant to have an effect from that one exposure, or in any short term. Advertising for most consumer goods, from major makers, is meant to be cumulative—months, years even a lifetime of conditioning so that eventually Budweiser! jumps off the shelf into their arms. It's all about long, subtle conditioning of biases that are triggered at the moment of selection from the shelf.
  2. More generally, this person does not understand that advertising is a small part—not always even a significant part—of product marketing. There are many other forces building the conditioning to grab that brand when it's seen on a shelf. Most major consumer products are promoted in a dozen ways, only one of which is what we perceive as advertising.
  3. And underneath it all is the belief that advertising—or even marketing—has to “work” in some obvious, defined way that is consciously perceived. That, for example, seeing a Bud ad would provoke a powerful desire to run get a six-pack and chug one down. Marketing most certainly does work, but not with the sudden force of an avalanche. More like a sand dune slowly engulfing part of a city, and just as irresistible if the process is not fully understood.

Believing you are immune to “advertising” is almost certainly an indication that you are more susceptible to marketing's effects... because you don't recognize them except in the smug belief that you are making your own free choices.

2: The Peanut Butter Argument

I love it when my grocery store tracks my purchases, because it means they will always have my brand of peanut butter in stock.”

Well, no. Well, maybe in the earliest days of grocery tracking, at the crudest level of data collection and interpretation. But not since.

For one thing, a store doesn't need to track who buys Skippy Extra Chunky—they can simply look at their shelf sales total for the same information. Either they sell enough of it to keep on the shelf, or they don't, and whether or not Suzy Q. Strawberry or Shopper F2150979 buys it is largely irrelevant. If Suzy and/or F-number are the only two buying it, it's going to disappear from the shelf.

But it might not have, in days past. Grocery stores used to stock a vast number of slow-moving items on the theory that having jellied anchovies on the shelf was essential to the people who bought the six cans a year they sold. There was both a slight pride in “having everything” (or at least more than the guys across the street) and a sense that having each of these slow sellers kept some segment of their clientele happy.

But that's not how it works any more. Not in any store that uses shopper tracking, which is a majority these days. The profit margins are too slim and the entire food industry too brutal a battleground to allow such slack and sentiment to run things.

Tracking who buys what and doing so on a running basis generates a profile—which can well be anonymous—that is subject to intense and subtle interpretation. It is possible to infer, for example, which customers won't care if they stop carrying jellied anchovies, and which ones might actually shop somewhere else if such a low-sales item isn't available. So if you like an obscure natural peanut butter with cinnamon in it and your shopping pattern shows you won't mind if it's no longer available, don't count on there being your three jars a year there any more. On the other hand, your profile might show that you spend $6,000 a year there and are likely to expect that oddball product to be available... in which case it is worth keeping on a bottom shelf.

But more likely your choices of peanut butter will shrink to the eight or ten brand and size combination that 90% of shoppers buy... and too bad about that fancy stuff, or even another major brand, or a full selection of sizes. And that's what intense consumer tracking is really all about, these days: being able to reduce the inventory to only the most profitable items, without losing one extra customer by not including select low-traffic items. Tracking you and every other shopper has let the store reduce your overall choice to only what is most profitable for them and their suppliers.

As for anonymity, and those who are smug because they gave a false name or phone number or even use two or more cards... that really has little effect on the purposes and goals of the process. They don't really care too much what you, as an identifiable individual, buy... but then again, it is usually trivial to connect this shopping data to the much larger consumer behavior record at data aggregators. So that plastic-sack mask doesn't really do you much good.

Which leads to...

3: The Chicken Argument

I don't care if Google and Facebook track everything we do, because there are so many chickens in this flock they can't possibly know or care what any one of them does.”

Well, maybe in prior eras. It was not that long ago that computing power and algorithms that could handle more than a few dozen data points for a few thousand records was NASA- and NSA-grade stuff. Now, the processing theory and algorithms of “big data” make analysis of enormous data sets productive, and the immense computing power to run them is within the grasp of relatively small firms—and rentable by anyone.

Big data allows analysis of hundreds of data points across hundreds of thousands of records, and like any comb with finer and finer teeth, can extract enormously subtle inferences and show patterns that are not readily visible to coarser interpretation. Things like spotting customers who may only remain with a store because of a few specialty items become simple... as does deciding how many of those customers you can afford to lose by closing out all the low-sales, low-profit inventory you can.

Those who don't understand this revolution in both data management and data interpretation that is transforming everything from government to healthcare to (especially!) marketing likely assumes that stat is as they learned it in back on college... whether five years ago or fifty. It's not, and few things hold as much promise—and truly dark potential—as the rise of big data. Yes, your scrawny little record of shopping is of interest and value, especially when it's added to the huge aggregate of data about you and your life in the major accumulators like Google and Acxiom.

And none of it is used for your benefit, peanut butter or otherwise.

This should really be called the Ostrich argument... but that applies to all these viewpoints and more, because here as in so many other situations, poking your head in the sand doesn't cover your ass.

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