Marketers should stop using the word “consumer” and train themselves to use “customer” instead. This goes double for digital marketers.

I issue this challenge to all brand marketing and advertising agency folks reading this post: get a jar, stick it on your desk, and put a dollar into it every time you use the word “consumer.” After a month, if you have more than the price of a latte, then that means you have work to do. If you have less than the price of a latte, I’ll buy it for you next time I see you.

So why should “consumer” be a four-letter word?

“Consumer” denotes a one-way relationship. Marketers produce products or messages about products; consumers then passively receive those messages, and then the consumers robotically buy the products because the message has triggered an unconscious behavioral subroutine. This is Skinner-box advertising, and it has never worked in quite so tidy a manner as traditional marketers would have us believe.

I have similar objections to the term “viral” when it comes to marketing. In medicine, a virus invades a victim’s body and does things to that body beyond the victim’s control, requiring medical intervention and lots of rest before the offending virus finally makes a clumsy exit. Viruses are nasty — nobody wants one — and can even kill you.

Negative reinforcement advertising may not work all the timeDo we want to associate marketing with something that makes people sick? More importantly, marketing simply does not work that way. Our customers are not our victims. See Henry Jenkins’ more accurate and useful notion of “spreadable” media as an excellent alternative to viral, and don’t miss Sean X Cummings diatribe against viral marketing programs.

Back to consumers versus customers, if you call somebody a consumer then on a basic level that means you aren’t prepared to listen to that person and in this age of blogs, online reviews and two-way, conversational marketing that’s a big mistake.

Customers are active agents who make all sorts of decisions: conscious, unconscious, habitual, out-of-left-field and more. If a brand is lucky, then somebody will make your brand their customary choice when buying a product, whether it’s milk, shoes, a car, the TV show you watch every week or anything else. It is my custom to drink Peets’ coffee rather than Starbucks, but I’m not addicted to Peets (really, I can stop any time) and nobody at that particular establishment has brainwashed me.

One of my favorite literary uses of the word “custom” comes from Chapter 22 of Huckleberry Finn, where Huck sneaks into a circus and watches a drunk insist on riding a bucking horse. The horse throws the man this way and that, after which the man suddenly stands up on the horse and takes off suit after suit until he is revealed as a talented trick rider. The crowd goes berserk with joy, and Huck says, “Anyways, it was plenty good enough for me; and whenever I run across it, it can have all of my customs every time.”

Brands have to earn custom through things like quality and service, not through military tactics where we have campaigns and targets.

The good folks at AA say that the first step in making a change is admitting that you have a problem: who among us is ready to admit that using the word “consumers” is a problem?