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    The Myth of the Prosumer: Nobody Really Thinks Brands Trump Politics

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    It’s the great recurring corporate dream of the web 2.0 age: That people are giving up on politics and forgetting about basic governance in lieu of becoming “good consumers.” That people are turning instead to social media to become “empowered” and no longer need to worry about stuff like voting in elections. That we can change the world by buying the right stuff, and telling other people in your “networks” to buy the right stuff too.

    That if your company adopts the correct corporate social responsibility programs and tailors your product to suit the tastes of the do-gooding zeitgeist du jour, people will confuse purchasing that product with bona fide altruism.

    And perhaps never before has that we dream been so thoroughly distilled into a single white paper as it has in Communities & Citizenship: Redesigned for a New World, from an international advertising firm called the Havas Group. The “research” contained therein purports to reveal that consumers, and especially a class of super-influential trendsetting consumers called prosumers, are much more interested in “personal responsibility” and “ethical consumption” than doing stuff like paying taxes. 

    According to the report, which was gobbled up at Fast Company and promoted in a post entitled "How Brands And Personal Responsibility Are Trumping Politics,"only 4 in 10 people worldwide still trust their national governments. Now, the report claims, people put the most stock in “personal responsibility.”

    Except that every last drop of this report is unscientific malarkey, and has been carefully presented to make corporations salivate and maybe get its authors invited to the next TED event.

    Case in point: The graph that purports to prove that people have moved beyond governments shows that a vast majority of people believe behaving “ethically and responsibly” is the most important in determining whether someone is a good citizen. But its cast alongside “pays fair share of taxes,” “votes in local elections” and “donates time and money to political causes.” See what they did there? Obviously “he’s a good person” is going to outrank “he votes” when it comes to assessing whether someone’s a good citizen. “Is self-sufficient” is more interesting, but the same holds—we’d all rather someone pull their weight on a regular basis than vote in the occasional election. Come on. It’s beyond apples vs. oranges; it’s comparing a person’s preference of general virtue or bland civic functionality. Obviously we’ll take the goodness.

    But it gets worse.

    The report claims that 61% of “prosumers”—whoever they actually are, no working definition is provided; I’m assuming it’s another annoying synonym for ‘millenials’—think they have more influence as a consumer than a voter. 64% think that “a person who recycles regularly but never votes is a better person than a person who votes in every election but doesn’t make an effort to reduce his/her waste.” That’s compared to less than half of the “mainstream” (losers) who agree with each.

    Now, this is both a weird question, and ironic, because recycling is actually a pretty great example of how corporations manipulate the public into feeling good about themselves for their own gain. Lloyd Alter is fond of saying that “recycling is bullshit,” for precisely this reason. See, once upon a time, beverage companies were on the brink of being forced to account for the waste their product generated—most likely by providing reusable cups or hauling the waste at their own expense. But in a brilliant move, Coke, aligned with other beverage makers pushed to shift the burden onto consumers—by advocating for recycling programs. Now, the taxpayer has to pay for recycling centers that allow beverage companies to continue to manufacture single use disposable billboards—and we feel good about ‘doing our part’ in the process. It’s perverse.

    But clearly, voting seems ineffective in nations around the world. We’re all fed up with gridlocked politics. But also, we always have been! Show me a society at any point in history that’s been wholly pleased with its democratically-elected body (40% actually seems pretty good to me!), and I’ll show you someplace Thomas More wrote about, or at least one that’s located in Scandinavia.

    Moreover, the only reason that folks might get the impression that buying stuff can replace other more fundamental civic duties is the relentless rise of social responsibility campaigning perpetrated by corporations worldwide, and the benevolent futuristic halo that still glows around our shiniest world-changing tech companies. CSR budgets are millions of dollars deep now--when I think of Pepsi, now I instinctively conjure images of smiling African children for some reason. And people actually take lower wages to work at Apple, remember, because they’ve confused it with a force for good in the world. And I guarantee you that most of those 64% of prosumers own iPhones, which of course are manufactured in horrendous conditions by low-wage workers—conditions you’d most likely need a democratically-organized society in which to vote in laws to protect against.

    Now, sure, it’s more fun to buy stuff than to organize or to stand in line to vote in boring elections. But these survey results don’t prove anything about general attitudes towards politics or political ideals vis a vis corporate do-gooding. Politics is messy and often dull but there are a million ways to engage it outside of the options accounted for in this dumb survey: protests, boycotts, demonstrations, etc. There are no questions that focus on those avenues. And no big-picture queries that question the importance of democratic values themselves—what’s more important, helping to maintain a stable democracy or supporting charitable corporations? Never makes a showing.

    What we actually learn from this report is simply that people think it’s important to do good things, a little less important to vote for people who also do good things, and that, of course, social media has “empowered” us (that always has to be thrown in somewhere). Nowhere is there a convincing case made that anyone thinks that buying good stuff is better than fulfilling civic duties--just some oddly constructed graphs and baseless extrapolations--but the press release blares on anyway. Brands are not “trumping” politics, they are just getting embroiled deeper into the stew. We may indeed be increasingly confusing CSR initiatives for genuine and durable social improvement, but nobody is giving up on politics to become a prosumer. Not even in your wildest fantasies, all ye marketing departments of the world. 

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