Are Consumers Mindless Sheep?

by on January 1, 2010 · 21 comments

sheepOne of the themes you come across again and again in public policy debates about privacy, advertising, marketing, or even free speech battles, is the notion that the public at large is made up of mindless sheep being duped at every turn.  And, as Berin Szoka and I noted in our paper “What Unites Advocates of Speech Controls & Privacy Regulation?” if you buy into the argument that consumers are basically that stupid then it logically follows that people cannot be trusted or left to their own devices. Thus, government must intervene and establish a baseline “community standard” on behalf of the entire citizenry to tell them what’s best for them.

But there are good reasons to question the premise that consumers are blind to efforts to persuade or influence them — regardless of what type of media content or communications efforts we are talking about.  I was recently reading Communication Power by Manuel Castells and liked what he had to say about how so many media critics make this false assumption. Castells rightly notes:

Interestingly enough, critical theorists of communication often espouse [a] one-sided view of the communications process. By assuming the notion of a helpless audience manipulated by corporate media, they place the source of social alienation in the realm of consumerist mass communication. And yet, a well-established stream of research, particularly in the psychology of communications, shows the capacity of people to modify the signified of the messages they receive by interpreting them according to their own cultural frames, and by mixing the messages from one particular source with their variegated range of communicative practices. (p. 127)

That’s exactly right, and it is even more true in an age of ubiquitous, interactive communications technologies. “The people formerly known as the audience” have the unprecedented ability to talk back, to compare notes, to collectively criticize and hold accountable those who previously held all the cards in the mass media age of the past.  Most consumers are perfectly capable of judging the merits of advertising, commercial messages, or other content on their own; they cast a skeptical eye toward most claims but process those claims alongside other counter-claims, independent judgments, informational inputs, and “cultural frames,” as Castells rightly argues.  We need to give the public some credit.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    Amen, Adam! It's important to note that consumers also have “have the unprecedented ability to” switch to alternative content distribution channels if you don't like what's being served up, as I noted recently in my piece about “Cable Freedom” being “a Click Away,” just as is “Search Engine Freedom” in our “Cutting the Video Cord” series.

    to deny that consumers are capable of “clicking away” is to assume that they are mindless sheep.

    <img class=”alignright size-full wp-image-24304″ title=”Sheep in pasture” src=”http://techliberation.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Sheep-in-pasture.jpg” alt=”Sheep in pasture” width=”346″ height=”214″ />The New York Times, to their credit and despite their editorial position on cable regulation, certainly seems to have a higher opinion of our intelligence—or they wouldn't have bothered with Bilton's excellent do-it-yourself guide. In the case of television programming, the “sheep” have begun overrunning whatever “gates” once contained them and flooding into the verdant pastures of Internet video programming abundance. More will soon follow in droves, and cable operators will do everything they can to keep their “grass” (programming choices) as “green” (abundant and diverse) as possible, just to compete. The FCC's continued meddling is simply unnecessary, counterproductive and dangerous as a precedent for outdated regulatory controls.

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  • Brett Glass

    Alas, when a company achieves a monopoly, it's tough to click away from it. For example, how many pages on the Net could you access if you declined to go anywhere where Google had a presence? (You couldn't even go to this site if you did…. As my script blocker shows, this site contains “Google Analytics” scripts which attempt to place Google tracking cookies on visitors' computers.) How much of the Net's video could you view if you declined to go to YouTube?

    The way to avoid any need for “search neutrality” is the same as the way to avoid any need for “network neutrality” — ensure that there are healthy competition and healthy markets. This might require some intervention under antitrust law (Google does engage in anticompetitive practices and monopoly maintenance, as described in that NYT article). But if it's done properly we won't need to intervene further.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    OK, Brett, so what's the remedy? If you were antitrust regulator, how would you keep Google in check “properly?”

    That idea may sound nice in theory, but in practice, it is painfully difficult.

  • Brett Glass

    Berin, you are right: no one said it was easy to fix broken markets. However, we can learn from past successes — for example, the breakup of the Bell System (which worked temporarily, at any rate). One approach might be to take a leaf from Google's own book. Google's lobbyists advocate that no ISP should be a content provider, claiming that this creates an irresistible incentive to engage in anticompetitive behavior. Well, then, perhaps the way to inhibit anticompetitive behavior by Google is to force it to divest its content businesses and/or its non-search advertising business. Google could hardly protest this without being hypocritical, since it is lobbying for the same treatment of ISPs.

  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    Well some industry people believe that the consumer are mindless sheep. As a prelude to the Consumer Electronics Show, the New York Times has the following article: Trying to Add Portability to Movie Files. In the article's author quotes Mr. Singer (Sony Pictures Entertainment) as saying: ““Consumers shouldn’t have to know what’s inside,” he said. “They should just know it will play.””. The Sony rootkit scandal was an example of this uninformative mentality and the damage it can cause to the uninformed consumer. Furthermore, companies are very seldom transparent when it comes to practices that are anti-consumer in nature. For example when was the last time a company advertised that it was making its product smaller or charging more?

    Consumers are not sheep, but companies need to be transparent so that consumers can be informed and make rationale decision.

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  • gcr

    Are consumers straw men?

  • gcr

    Are consumers straw men?

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