The Marketer’s Argument for Political Correctness

This President’s day, I learned that at the time of his death, George Washington’s Mount Vernon farm had over 300 enslaved persons.

Not slaves.  Enslaved persons.  That little difference–the politically correct difference–makes all the difference.  And that difference matters not just for so-called snowflakes but also for marketers.  Marketers can’t live in their own world; they must live in the worlds of their customers.

Some background: on President’s Day, I took my son to Federal Hall, where Washington was inaugurated for his first term, and watched a historical interpreter discuss Washington’s relationship with slavery (yeah, I’m that kind of dad).  She gave a thorough and nuanced account that covered the number of enslaved persons he owned, how he treated them, how many he manumitted and how he expressed his views on slavery.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

All the way through, she used the term “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves.”  Despite four years at the Kremlin on the Crum and 16 in one of the most notoriously liberal neighborhoods in the country, it took me a moment to understand why.  To Washington, they might have been slaves, but to themselves, they were, well, themselves.

Imagine Bob, who was enslaved.  Maybe he cooked well or told funny jokes or loved to dance.  You can bet that when he met someone, he didn’t introduce himself as “hi, I’m Bob, the slave.”  No, he probably said “hi, I’m Bob.  Have you eaten?” or “do you know why Jews put candles on their graves?*”  With the benefit of history, we can and should respect the wishes of the oppressed, not the oppressors.

If you’re still reading, you’re probably thinking “great sociology lecture, Ben, but what’s this got to do with marketing?”  It’s simple: as marketers, we need to address consumers as they see themselves, not as we see them.

After two decades in this rodeo of a career, I’ve learned that most businesses exist to solve business problems, not consumer problems.  I don’t mean this remark as criticism.  It takes a lot of effort and resources to build a car or create software that works or even just to make a toaster that doesn’t catch fire.  I can’t blame businesses for putting operational needs before customer needs.  That said, these businesses need reminders of why they’re in business in the first place.

Let’s start with an obvious one: I’m sure you’ve heard that only drug dealers and software companies call their customers “users.”  As someone who spends hours daily on social networks, browsers, productivity software and any number of app, I don’t consider myself a “user.”  I consider myself someone who wants to see what his friends are doing, to see what’s going on, to get some work done or to find a nearby pizzeria.

Clearly, business shorthand does not rise to the level of cultural genocide, not by a long shot.  However, I think consumer-first terminology and PC language share the necessity of putting emphasis in the right place, upon the people most affected.  I would find it easier to address the brief of “help someone find pizza easier” than “improve this mapping app for our users.”

From this perspective, consumer-first terminology doesn’t just give us warm fuzzies about our audience.  Rather, it helps us empathize with and serve our customers better.  So I charge you with this challenge: the next time you have to talk about a group of people, either as customers or as a segment of the population, try using the words they would use to describe themselves.  I can’t promise you that anyone will ever talk about you on President’s Day, but I can promise you that you will begin to see your world a little differently.


“*Because they’re Israelites.”  We don’t, but why ruin a good joke?

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