Customers, Clients, and Consumers
I’ve often pointed out that we live in an “inverted world” in Late Modernity — a topsy-turvey, inside-out Alice-in-Wonderland looking glass world where values have been inverted and thereby negate themselves, but that few people have long enough historical memories to realise that we don’t actually live in “the Modern Era” any longer. Our current perplexity and disorientation about where we are presently is largely due to the cumulative abuse of language.
The fact is that many words and names no longer mean what they once meant even a hundred years ago. They’ve been debased, largely thanks to advertising, propaganda, public relations, and to what we call “spin”. Nietzsche called that process “devaluation of values” which he equated with “nihilism”: “noble” values debased into “ignoble” ones (ie, “all higher values devalue themselves”). I’ve often mentioned that especially in connection with the confusion of the words “whole” and “total”, which are actually opposite in meaning — a fateful confusion because the former refers to “life” (and the holy) and the latter to “death” (and desecration). This is value confusion, and yet they are treated as synonymous.
Well, as you know, lately I’ve immersed myself in studying “ad-speak” with a view to trying to get a handle on the meaning of what is being called “Marketing 3.0” or “holistic branding” (or values and lifestyle branding), and I’ve noted something very peculiar about the whole thing. The terms “customer”, “client”, and “consumer” are all being treated as if they were equivalent, as if they were simply interchangeable. They aren’t. And if you have even some passing acquaintance with literature from, say, the Victorian Era, they used those terms in quite different and specific senses, and in ways that strike the modern sensibility as being “quaint”.
The major changes in the orientation of speech has come about within the last 100 years, and most especially with the First World War: mass warfare, mass production, mass media, mass consumption, “the revolt of the masses” and so on. The central process here is “massification”, and mass production required mass consumption. Advertising (and propaganda and public relations) stepped in to reorganise the “bewildered herd” accordingly, and largely in terms of clear orders of “producers” and “consumers”. In the process “customer”, “client”, and “consumer” got cast all into the same pot.
The anonymity of mass society produces “consumers”. Consumers are anonymous. A customer, however, had a name. In fact, the word comes from Latin “custos” meaning “protector, watchman, guardian” or, especially, “keeper” or “sustainer”. It’s even related to the meaning of the word “custard” — having connotations of “firm” or “steady”. “Costume” is also related to custos in this sense of “keeping” — wearing the habitual or traditional dress or attire. Today “costume” is more likely to mean a disguise rather than the customary attire. Of, worse, “costume” has become synonymous with “uniform”. Customer and “custodian” are also related terms in the sense of sustaining or keeping or guarding.
Now, something of this inversion of values is reflected in the meaning of “client”, which is related to words for “inclination” or “recline” or “decline” and so on. In Latin it comes from the meaning “to lean” and referred to a relationship in Rome between a plebian and a patrician (or “patronus“). The “client” was a plebian under the protection or guardianship of the patron. In effect, the client “leaned on” the patron for support. And in later times, of course, the “customer” was the one who “patronised” a client — who kept and sustained the client. It was the client who was the tradesman or shopkeeper or who otherwise stood in a dependent relationship to the customer, one based on, usually, mutual goodwill.
“Consumer”, as you may know, comes from words meaning “to abuse”, “to lay waste”, “to devastate” or “to use up”. Nothing to do with “customer” which has the exact opposite meaning — guardian, sustainer, keeper, conserver. Yet ad-speak has collapsed these two contradictory meanings into one another, and has also inverted the traditional relationship between patron and client.
When you “patronised” a baker, a tailor, a butcher, and so on, it was with the intent to sustain and keep them in their trade. A “customer” is, after all, a repeat visitor. The relationship is not anonymous. It’s one of mutual trust and sincerity, even friendship. But the point is, that customers and clients have names, while producers and consumers are anonymous. Advertising and mass marketing turned this relationship upside down, although you could say they were simply responding to the realities of mass society.
The irony is that a lot of advertising today attempts to square the circle by turning “consumers” into “customers” again when they were, and have been, largely responsible for turning customers into mere consumers in the first place. But by “customers” they mean “loyal consumers” or “clients”. Having destroyed the old relationship, they now seek to reconstitute it artificially, and by psychological techniques organised around the key memes of “believability”, “plausibility” or “credibility”. And they’re very concerned with appearing “authentic”, which is a substitute for the old relationship of “sincerity”.
The old relationship of customer (or patron) and client was one of sincerity. It’s implied in the very meaning of the word “customer” as “protector” as implying the intent to uphold or sustain the client in his or her trade or craft. The word “sincere” (Latin sin + caries) means “against decay”. So customer (or patron) and client were both interested in ensuring that the relationship did not decay, for whatever reason. You will note that the word “consumer” has the exact opposite meaning. The original “sponsor” was actually the customer.
For advertisers and corporations, the consumer is not only an object of contempt (and an anonymous beast), but of terror, who can make you or break you. So, naturally, they’re all concerned with transforming this consumer into a customer again by cultivating “brand loyalty”. Consumers only consume “commodities” while customers buy “products” or brands. The self-contradictory character of modern advertising is, I’m sure, why so many admen seem to end up with ulcers and nervous breakdowns (according to Stephen Fox in The Mirror Makers).
The “genuine imitation”. That pretty much sums up the adman and advertising. It’s just replacing “the real thing” with the substitute image of the real thing. But all said, the older relationship of patron and client has been reversed, where it is now the corporation that is the “patron” and the consumer that is the “client”.
The growing impersonalisation of economic society is reflected in the language, in changes in the language over the last century where you have anonymous corporations soliciting anonymous consumers. The sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to this depersonalisation as anomie. Appropriately, the term is connected with “anonymity”.