Let’s not kill our customers, okay?

This is a little quirk of mine. I’ve mentioned it to any and all who roll their eyes and say, “Yes, we know. Now get over it.” But I’m not quite blue in the face, so here’s my plea:

Can we in marketing stop referring to our audience as “targets”? Please?

A target is something you shoot at. Or drop a bomb on. When I was in the Navy, one of my (many) collateral duties, besides choosing the movies to show in my squadron’s ready room, was Targeting Officer. It was my job (along with all the other Targeting Officers on our aircraft carrier) to select, analyze, and recommend targets for destruction to our command. Mostly they were contingencies, just in case the country in question pissed us off and we got the order from the White House to unleash hell (coded and authenticated by two-man control, of course). But the operative word here was “destruction”.  That means wrecking property and taking lives. That’s the job of the military. And it was the specific task of targeting.

So now, when I hear the term used in marketing to describe the people who you’d like to buy your products, I wince.

Make Sales Not War.

A few years ago, long after we’d gotten over the national trauma of Vietnam and before we got into less traumatic Afghanistan and Iraq, it was fashionable to use the Marketing-as-Warfare metaphor. Marketing professionals (who had themselves rarely been in an actual war) loved to use martial language to put hair on their otherwise low-T careers. They talked about “taking the high ground,” “planting the flag, ” or “stealing a march” on the competition. They didn’t just introduce new products, they “launched” them, like you’d launch a missile. Like the military they grew to love TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) to describe otherwise banal abstractions like CPM (Cost Per Thousand–the “M” means “mille”), USP (Unique Selling Proposition), CTA (Call to Action), QSR (Quick Service Restaurants–you know, Fast Food), SEM (Search Engine Marketing).  It’s all been very Pentagony. The very term “campaign” came from bellicose origins. And potential customers, of course, were now “targets”.

The military origins have pretty much disappeared through overuse and these terms are now accepted as industry jargon. But, as George Orwell pointed out in 1984, the subversion of language can have a subversive affect on our view of the world. I’ve come to think that the hyper-aggressive language now used in marketing has colored our view of our customers. When we “target” them, I think we unconsciously regard them as marks, as prey, as the enemy. Language has that insidious power. We are horrified whenever someone uses a racial epithet because we are conscious that it diminishes and dehumanizes the person. But I would submit that using the term “target” to describe your customer, also diminishes and dehumanizes that person. Only we’re just not conscious of it.

When Mark Twain was writing Huckleberry Finn, few European-Americans were conscious of the offensive nature of the “N” word on our African-American fellow citizens.  It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement raised all of our consciousness about the offensive power of that word, and the malicious intent of it, that it came to be proscribed. Now it is disconcerting to read that classic and see that now-offensive word so liberally (ironically) used in a conversational way.

I want to proscribe the term “target” in reference to our customers. You know, for Dr. King.

“Well, what else are you going to call them?”

I was actually challenged by a colleague last week, as if he couldn’t think of an alternative.

How about just “customers”? Or, we could fall back on the old phrase they used when I started in the business, “intended audience”.  Not as macho, granted, and a tad literal. But it’s descriptive. An audience is composed of people you want to entertain, to interest, to cajole, to entice…in short, to persuade.  Marketing isn’t just about selling stuff; it’s about persuasion. And it’s certainly not about destruction.

So, let’s just think before we speak, shall we? Maybe (and this is the ’60s in me coming out) if we stopped calling them a “target market” we’d subconsciously love them more. And maybe get better at persuading them.

Now excuse me while I go back to playing Call of Duty.

 

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