Ending the war of words

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When was the last time you ran a campaign to target donors and capture their data? Quite recently, probably.

You do realise you’re talking about my mum don’t you?

There are real, thinking and feeling human beings at the end of the work we do. Of course there are.

But the language we use along the way subconsciously encourages us to dehumanise them – and worse, to treat them like an enemy to be overcome.

There are good historical reasons for this. Marketing as we know it was built in the 50’s and 60’s by the ‘Mad Men’ generation – a generation of (mostly) men who’d fought hard wars overseas.

Campaign. Target. Engage. Capture. All military terms used to describe how you overcome and subdue an unwilling enemy. Hardly how we want to treat donors or customers. (Hardly how anyone would want their mum to be treated.)

Back then, empathy and understanding were merely tools to use in psychological warfare (it was the era of the Cold War, after all). Advertisers and marketers invented concepts such as ‘body odour’ to make people want things they didn’t need. They understood people’s psychological needs in order to exploit them.

Today’s fundraisers and enlightened capitalists understand needs in order to meet them – to help people live better, be happier, gain meaning and purpose. We aim for a win-win, value exchange economy – not a zero-sum extraction game.

We’ve evolved. But have our tools? Has our language?

Technology – particularly database marketing – hardly seem to have helped. We measure people in terms of numbers – which means we increasingly see them as numbers. Segments. Codes. Files.

It’s not too too much of a stretch to say that this war of words changes how we see, and treat, the people we want to make friends with and inspire.

In the world of fundraising, we call regular givers ‘committed givers’ – as though they have a genuine commitment to us. As though they’re more committed than the amazing people who respond to every single cash appeal (those people we lump into the deadening ‘cash file’).

Even calling someone a ‘donor’ suggests that somehow they have us front of mind, all the time. Or that they’re interested in giving us money, not working with us to right wrongs. ‘Customer’ and ‘consumer’, ‘lead’ and ‘contact’. All deadening terms that stop us seeing people as fully human.

So, marketers. Throw off your job titles. Throw out your jargon. It’s holding us back. It’s waging a war of words on the people we depend on to get our jobs done. They’re not the enemy. Let’s stop talking about them that way.

* With huge thanks to Lucy Caldicott and Annie Moreton, both of whom contributed ideas and examples to this essay.