Stop Telling People They’re Products

“You are the product!”

Social activists who try to use this rhetoric to chip away at capitalism’s confidence have it wrong. Their message is that people are becoming products to be bought and sold. Their intentions are close, but so inaccurate that they are destined to be ignored by the people who need to hear it most.

In fact, this messaging is dangerous for the very reason that it’s obviously wrong. The suggestion that people can be products doesn’t sufficiently honour the human condition. So if you believe that people should not be products, then rejoice!

They can’t be!

Humans have too much power, too much agency to make for good products.

It comes from the same sloganeering factory as “you are what you eat”. It sounds deep, but it’s mostly meaningless.

Here’s why the messaging is close, though. In this era, people have become used to being constantly assaulted with an over-abundance of didactic voices telling them to be better consumers. I mean “better” from both perspectives — the sellers’ desire for them to be more eager to spend money, and all of the review channels that champion wise, discriminating and stewardly market engagement.

The constant barrage of contradictory messages puts people to sleep.

For example, there isn’t just a bewildering array of varieties and sub-varieties of shampoo on the shelves. There are also all-natural shampoo alternatives that you can make in your kitchen. And there are people trumpeting the evils of hair-washing altogether.

In this conflicted mess, telling people that they are becoming products is a failing strategy. People are not the products, so this tune only connects with the choir of insiders singing it already.

It’s also patronising — being arrogant and demeaning has a deleterious effect on the resonance of an idea.

Here’s what we need to know: Capitalism is based on huge levels of potential deception. Marketers keep trying to engage potential customers with self-fulfilling prophecies. If it works, and their buyers actually do have positive associations with the experience of their products and their brand, then their promises are rendered legitimate.

But, and this is the big but, promises that aren’t fulfilled are likewise made illegitimate. We have been used for our money, and effectively lied to.

How keenly do we feel that?

We are so accustomed to being thrust into this confusing mish-mash of half-truths and half-lies that it becomes more and more difficult to parse them out at all, let alone stridently call for change and restoration.

Now, let’s add relativity to this. No-one’s experiences are universal. Detractors can effectively be shouted down by a fan-club. The fan-club can be shouted down by detractors.

No-one’s right. No-one’s wrong. Everyone’s just loud.

All right, there’s the problem. What’s the solution?

Negative noise will not grow a positive message.

It will grow fear, uncertainty and doubt — if we’re wise, we flip this back on itself. We question the sources, and wonder how they benefit from these negative feelings they provoke. But that’s just the start.

We have to remind people that they cannot be products. They are too complex, too active and too unpredictable for that. They have too much power and agency.

People need to be put (back) in touch what they need and want (and they need the tools to understand the difference). Asking great questions does that. Providing generative suggestions does that. Empowering collaborative action does that.

Those are the kinds of things that no mere product can ever be capable of.