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”.


12 responses to “Customers, Clients, and Consumers”

  1. davidm58 says :

    In regards to what you call “the central process of massification,” I’m reminded of Gebser, page 93:

    “Its roots can be traced to the inadequacy of the synthesis of duality, an inadequacy manifest in abstraction and quantification. As long as the moderating quality of the mental consciousness was still effective, abstraction and quantification were only latently capable of negative effects. But when moderation was displaced by the immoderation of the ratio, a change most clearly evident in Descartes, abstraction began to transform itself into its extreme form of manifestation (best defined by the concept of isolation), while the identical process led from quantification to amassment and agglomeration.

    These consequences of the perspectivization of the world evident in the isolation and mass-phenomena of our day are patently characteristic of our time. Isolation is visible everywhere…And it is the same with mass-phenomena: overproduction, inflation, the proliferation of political parties, rampant technology, atomization in all forms.

    …Yet it is eminently worthwhile to inquire as to what sustained or reinforced the ‘development’ over the past four centuries which led to these results. It can be found in the notion of technology that brought about the age of the machine with the aid of perspectival, technical drafting; in the notion of progress that spawned the ‘age of progress’; and in the radical rationalism that, as we are surely justified in saying, summoned the ‘age of the world wars.'”

    It is in this context which Gebser then says, on the next page:

    “If the destructive might of such ‘progress’ is not weakened, these developments, according to their degree of autonomy, will automatically fulfill the law of the earth. Depending on various factors, this can require decades or again centuries. If the law of the earth is not yet to be fulfilled, the process of outgrowing and mutation from the old and deficient mental structure will extract or sublimate sufficient energy, strength, substance – or whatever we may call it – so that the structure that is overcome will have no greater destructive effect than, say, the deficient mythical or deficient magic residues in us or in the world.

    …only a completely new attitude will guarantee the contination of the earth and mankind, not some sectored partial reforms (reforms are always merely efforts to revive something) – then the consequences of the deficient residua of an age such as ours, which is itself deficient, will soon assume forms, will necessarily assume forms that will make the previous events of our time look like mere child’s play. If we are soberly prepared for this, then there is nothing terrifying about it; it will be terrifying only to those who feel threatened, and they will be the ones affected.”

    I think what Gebser is saying here is ‘what goes up must come down,’ and ‘the higher you climb, the harder you fall. I agree with Peter Pogany ( that “the law of the earth” is in some ways a reference to the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Pogany summed up Gebser’s position this way: “What collective thinking has come to consider progress is indeed turning out to be a progression away from equilibrium between the individual and society, between humanity and nature.”

    • Scott Preston says :

      This ended up in my spam box, for some reason. Just discovered it, so I didn’t reply sooner.

      The “law of the earth”, as Gebser uses it, still remains something of a mystery. Gebser took it from the Gilgamesh Epic, so whatever “law of the earth” might have meant for the Sumerians, it probably wasn’t identical with the second law of thermodynamics, but with some mythological theme. Enkidu only learns the law of the earth after his death, but he doesn’t tell Gilgamesh what it is. I know that the Sumerians had a pretty bleak picture of the afterlife — bats eating dust forever in darkness — so I suspect the “law of the earth” has some connection with that bleakness. What the Sumerians may have thought the “law of the earth” was, Gebser apparently recognised it. But to understand it in the way Enkidu understood it, I might have to become more conversant in Sumerian mythology.

      • abdulmonem says :

        Being from the land of Sumer and have been brought up in that culture and knowing the law of opposite as the supreme law of the supreme and his cosmos including the earth, I can say with assurance that the law of opposite is the law of the earth, as it is the law of the creator as one sufi once put it when he was asked how did he comes to know god, He who have enacted the law of opposite through the operation of his names and recited , the first and the last , the seen and the unseen, the bestower of life and the imposer of death, the wrathful and the merciful and the above and the below. The activator of his names in the field of the human consciousness and others, after all what are we doing but utilizing the concept of his names and their derivatives, positively or negatively in our understanding and communication. We harm or please, deceive or guide others through the words, the unseen effective energy of sound, tone and form.

        • davidm58 says :

          I haven’t had a chance to add an additional reply until now but yes, and yes. Yes, the phrase “the law of the earth” comes from the Gilgamesh legend, as Pogany points out. He says “Enkidu, the main hero’s savage avatar…let’s him know that current trends have tragic consequences in their tow.” It’s not that Gebser was necessarily thinking specifically of the 2nd Law of Thermodyanmics. More likely he was thinking of a spiritual principle that “could be considered identical with the second law” as Pogany states.

          I said it is “in some ways a reference to the 2nd law,” but I think it would have been more accurate to say it is in some ways a parallel to the 2nd law.

          And yes also to Abdulmonem. I like this concept of the law of opposite. When I think of the 2nd law, i always see it in relationship to the 1st law of conservation of energy as well as to the proposed 4th law – Howard Odum’s maximum power principle. Taken together they hold one another in check as an expand/contract polarity. So Gebser is referring to technological overreach where we’ve put too much into pushing “progress,” to the point where “the tragic consequences” are now in their tow. Hence my statement, “what goes up must come down.”

          Peter Pogany: “Penetration into the average consciousness that technology as the solver of all of mankind’s problems is in a failing mode is signaled by an increasing recognition that the second law of thermodynamics or “the law of the Earth” has an important bearing on the future.”

          • Scott Preston says :

            let’s him know that current trends have tragic consequences in their tow.”

            That’s pretty much it. What kinds of consequences, though, is the question — the prophetic question. Gebser does indeed speak of “The Consequential”, and this is definitely connected with his understanding of “the law of the earth”, and probably with the 2nd law of thermodynamics. My interest, though, is how this “law of the earth” was understood and represented in the different consciousness structures — the magical and the mythical. Of course, in myth it is “Nemesis”, and the issue of hubris and Nemesis is probably connected with the “law of the earth” (and the Erinyes or “Furies” or “Harpies” being Chthonic beings). Probably the terrible mother, in the Hindu form of Kali Ma, is a representation of the “law of the earth” as well. Kali Ma is about the most horrifying thing I can think of (I believe this is Blake’s “Shadowy Female”). But if Kali Ma is it, I’m puzzled why Gebser just didn’t say so.

            I think, that, in order to gain any further insight into “law of the earth” as it was understood in mythical and magical terms, I’m probably going to have to re-read Erich Neumann’s The Great Mother.

            • davidm58 says :

              Hmm, yes, interesting to consider how the different consciousness structures would interpret “the law of the earth.” For the Archaic structure probably no awareness at all of this, since, as Gebser points out, it seems that they could not distinguish between the colors of green and blue and therefore could not distinguish between earth (green) and sky (blue).

      • Steve Lavendusky says :


        Homo Sapiens Survivalus
        Homo Sapiens Mysticus
        Homo Sapiens Exploiticus
        Homo Sapiens Absoluticus
        Homo Sapiens Materialensis
        Homo Sapiens Humanisticus
        Homo Sapiens Integratus
        Homo Sapiens Holisticus
        Homo Sapiens Universalis
        Homo Sapiens Cosmicus

  2. abdulmonem says :

    It is a crisis of excess, the massification in everything,specially in the field of information and data that no longer play a role of clarification but become as tools of obscurity and ambiguity and most of the time as tools of perversion. Tools in distancing the human from understanding what is going on, making him forget his real message in this earth which forms an integral part of an ever expanding cosmos that has its laws in birth and death, in conservation and entropy, in love and hate and construction and destruction and the in-between movements. The laws that the materialists who took matter as their idol start refusing to ascribe them to a wise entity but ascribe them stupidly to a nature that made itself and its laws., thus deceiving humanity in the name of science. We need to wake up and recognize the continual interplay of these opposites that cancel each other when ever the negative excess reaches it limit. It is really sad to find the human who has been called to read the cosmos in order to appreciate the creativity of the creator he used his knowledge against the one who has given him the ability to receive knowledge and to communicate knowledge. I feel we are living in time of correction that the corrective signs will manifest themselves negatively or positively as required. The story of the adman who caught ulcer is indicative.

  3. alex jay says :

    On information, data, admen and whatever? I thought I’d share something from the not too distant past (in my terms of reference – the absurdly romanticised and equally maligned ’60s). Compare the content of this JFK speech to the current discourse among this shit shower of pretentious leadership whores vying for power/money around this disfunctional planet:

    • Scott Preston says :

      There are two factors in JFK’s speech addressed about “secret societies”. The first external factor, somewhat exaggerated for effect, is the “monolith” of the supposed “international communist conspiracy” and the Red Scare, which (after the opening of the Soviet archives) wasn’t as organised or monolithic as Kennedy portrayed it. But then, Kennedy was looking to recruit the press and public opinion for his disastrous meddling in Vietnam and his “counter-insurgency” and counter-revolutionary policies in Latin America. And given his own role in the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the escalation of the Vietnam War, somewhat ironic to talk about “secrecy” in those terms, suggesting that there was an element of disingenuousness about Kennedy’s concern with secrecy, and that the speech may have contained an element of deflection.

      The second factor in Kennedy’s speech is addressing the internal — the “Shadow State”, as it were. But this was simply an extension and continuation of Eisenhower’s warning about “the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex” and how it tended to take on the same features as the external “monolith”, exemplifed, for example, in the Pentagon’s proposed “Operation Northwoods” that Kennedy finally killed off before it could be implemented. No publicity about that was there?

      So, I think Mr. Kennedy did as much to abet the rise of the Shadow State as anyone.

  4. abdulmonem says :

    The Sufis are always inclined to address the message and not occupy themselves with the messenger, that is why they say we may get the wisdom sometime from the mouth of the insane. Insecurity is a product of mistrust, disbelief, that is why the emphasis is always on the self. To address the self before addressing the system or the circumstances is the path of the wise. We live in a time in which the dominance of misplacement of attention is rampant so is the perverted intention, the two ills that will definitely kill those who live under their masks. The garment of value is always worn by the true and the false and the only way to distinguish between the two is by those who are helped by the light, the creative energy of everything, The creative source, that is the informational names that can not be perceived without the human conscious physical support. We are living in a world of wounds that is prone to kill and starve the other forgetting that god through his sun or his rain or his air caters to the evil and the good ,the righteous and the unjust. Tolerance, compassion, empathy and help are the tools for spiritual resurrection away from the coffin of material wealth, the money lenders, the parasites that are vulturing and maraudering the beauty of the human life. Life is programmed on departure, not on permanence, the fallacy of continual progress and growth that deny the truth of death.

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