Consumers Are People Too; A Short PR Story

“What you do, Sidney, is take this product brief and use it as a basis for the press release,” Wanda Medlock said. “We’ll be doing the roll-out in two weeks so you’ll need to get the release done ASAP so we can get it to the clients for approval.”

Sidney Gellings nodded his agreement and took the brief his boss held out. “I’ll get on it and try to have something to you by tomorrow lunch,” he said with an earnest smile.

“Awesome!” said Medlock cheerfully as she spun on her heel.

Twenty-two and just out of college, Sidney had been lucky to find his first job with the large New York public relations firm Buckman & Billings. They handled a lot of big consumer accounts doing media relations, special events, and the whole gamut of PR activities of which most people have never heard. You remember that fast food chain where the lady found the foreskin in her cup of macaroni and cheese? Turned out it belonged to her boyfriend and she’d stuck it in the mac and cheese then tried to blackmail the chain. B&B did the PR cleanup.

Sidney scanned the product brief. It was written in dry outline form:

Product: Gringos Habanero Flavored Cheese Balls

Profile: Crunchy bite-sized balls of fried dehydrated cheddar cheese flakes infused with the (artificial) flavoring of habanero chilies.

Target consumer: 11-24, male and 24-42 household gatekeeper.

Tagline: “Great cheese balls of fire!”

Mascot/icon: Chico Chupacabra

Packaging: Bags, 6 oz. 12 oz. 16 oz. 32 oz.

Price point: $1.49 for “Big Snatch” 12 oz. bag

There was some more information on Gringos Habanero Flavored Cheese Balls explaining nutritional information (next to none), calories from fat (a lot) and so forth. The product was made at a plant in Buffalo, New York.

Sidney had no idea what a chupacabra was so he Googled it and found a drawing of a hideously ugly four-legged animal that looked part reptile and part mammal, that might or might not exist in Mexico. It supposedly sucked the blood of farm animals for its sustenance. How anyone had decided a chupacabra was a cute icon for any sort of food product, Sidney couldn’t imagine. But then, that wasn’t his problem. Writing the press release was and he wanted to make sure it impressed the B&B higher-ups so he dug in and started writing.

By four-thirty he had something he liked. He finished up another assignment and then went home. The next morning, fresh, he went through the Gringos press release line by line. At 10:30 he e-mailed the first draft to Wanda Medlock for her review:

Hey W- here you go. Know what a chupacabra is? I do! Very unappetizing little critter! Please let me know what revisions you would like if any! SB

After lunch, Sidney checked e-mail and saw the one he was looking for from Wanda;

Sidney – Awesome! Just one little switchero. Where you say “people” it should say “consumer.” Please fix and I’ll send to client! Great job! W

Sidney thought about this. The people who ate snack foods were…people. Human beings. In the case of Gringos Habanero Flavored Cheese Balls, they were young male persons ideally washing down the hot snack with the soda pop Gringos Brand’s other division happened to make.

Sidney wondered about that word, “consumer.” Why did they want him to define people eating cheese balls as merely consumers, as though that’s all they did; consume? They surely had lives beyond eating and drinking, right? They played hacky sack, they went to school or, like him, worked in new jobs. They had girlfriends (or boyfriends). They triumphed and they suffered. They got sick. Some lived, some died. But to the good people at Gringos Brands, they just consumed. That was their only role in this world. It seemed small minded.

Hey Wanda, Sidney wrote, “don’t you think a more accurate description of those who buy the product is “people” and not simply “consumer.” I always strived for accuracy when I was writing newspaper obituaries for the Sheboygan Daily Sun and it seems to me “people” and “person” is a better noun. Let me know whatchathink. S

The response came back fast and terse.

S – Consumer is the correct “noun.” W

Well, that didn’t go well, Sidney thought to himself. Wanda was maybe twenty-eight or nine, but she was his boss. Her boss was a rather effeminate account group manager named Tim. He seemed approachable, although Sidney had only met him once at his interview for the job of assistant account executive. Not knowing or really caring very much about the protocol, he decided to send the press release to Tim for his opinion.

Hi Tim, I hope you’re doing well and thanks again for bringing me on board. I’ve been working on the attached press release and wanted to check your opinion on something. I have referred to those who buy and eat Gringos Habanero Flavored Cheese Balls as people and persons in the attached release. I understand the preferred terminology is “consumer.” My problem with that word is that it reduces the individual buying the product to simply a being that eats. Nothing more. We don’t seem to be acknowledging that there simply might be more to the customer than the ability to move his jaws up and down and swallow. Your thoughts? Sidney Gellings.

As an afterthought, he copied Wanda Medlock. He got up and went to the men’s room. When he returned, there was an e-mail from Wanda, followed by one from Tim. He clicked on Wanda’s:

WTF!!!! You went to Tim after I told you to word it as consumer????

Sidney felt a wave of anxiety. He might not be part of the B&B team for long. He clicked on Tim’s e-mail, which was also brief.

Hmmmm. Interesting question. Will run by Marco. Thx T

Wanda must have been reading the same e-mail at the same moment because she suddenly was in his e-mail queue:

Let’s see what Ruiz says. In future, discuss outreach to Tim before moving forward.

Marco Ruiz was Gringos’ director of public relations. He worked in the company’s Tallahassee, Florida headquarters. He had hired B&B a few years earlier and was a big fan of Tim’s, so Sidney had been told.

The phone on Sidney’s desk rang an hour later. “Sidney. This is Jerry Asmus. Don’t think we’ve met, yet,” a deep voice said. “Listen, you stuck your dick in a light socket, my friend. Need you at a meeting in the twentieth-floor war room.”

Sidney wasn’t sure what to expect. Was he going to be fired before the end of his first week on the job?

The “war room” was actually a small conference room amidst spacious offices where B&B’s most senior executives resided. Sidney entered and saw Wanda, Tim and a man he didn’t recognize huddled around a phone on the conference room table. Wanda held a finger to her lips as Tim spoke.


“Marco, I know it’s out of left field, but I do think it’s an important point to consider. If we humanize the customer, we begin to differentiate ourselves from the competition,” Tim declared.

A disembodied voice coming out of the speaker replied, “I see what you’re saying, but we’ve always referred to the customer as a consumer in all our communications. Old habits die hard, y’know!”

Tim looked at the unknown man and shrugged. Sidney eyed him. He was in his late forties, gray hair coifed fashionably. He was distinguished looking, with penetrating blue eyes and a strong chin.

“Marco, Jerry Asmus, here. How about we give it a try on this press release and see if the media react to it…see if we get any calls about using ‘people’ instead of ‘consumer’? Might be an interesting experiment. If nobody picks up on it, we go back to ‘consumer’.” Jerry Asmus looked at the other three with a knowing smirk as if he’d just discovered the solution to a vexing calculus problem.

“That might work,” Ruiz replied. “Tell you what. Let me speak to Brad and see what he thinks. I’ll call you back, Wanda, in an hour or so.”

Wanda perked up, “Awesome, Marco! Thanks for your time and,” she gave Sidney a sour look, “sorry to bother you.”

“No problem,” Ruiz replied before ringing off.

“Hi there, Sidney!” said Asmus, standing and holding out his hand. Sidney shook it and remained standing as Jerry sat.

“Sidney, meet Jerry Asmus,” said Tim with a smile. “Jerry’s our EVP of client service. He’s responsible for all of B&B’s accounts.”

“Nice to meet you Mr. Asmus,” Sidney said with a nod.

“Sit down,” Jerry replied with a rueful grin. “I’m not the pope!”

“Sometimes you think you are,” Wanda laughed.

Jerry grinned then said to Sidney, “You got on the radar pretty fast Sidney boy. Call ‘em people, not consumers. Wow!”

Sidney gave a shrug and said, “It seemed to make sense, Mr. Asmus.”

“Blinding flash of the obvious, huh?!”

“Alright Sidney, we need to get going,” Wanda declared in a put-on sing-song voice. “Million of things to do!”

It was nearly six when Sidney slid his lap top in his backpack. He turned out the light and stepped into the hall just as Wanda came around the corner.

“Sidney, good, glad I caught you!” she said breathlessly. “We’re meeting at Newark in the morning. We’ve got an eight o’clock flight to Tallahassee. Brad wants to meet with us about the release.”


“Brad Duke,” Wanda explained. “He’s the vice president of brand management at Gringos. That’s a good thing. He’s the guy who decides where the PR money gets spent. We impress him with our brilliance and he gives us more dough-re-mi!”

They arrived in Tallahassee a little at eleven thirty. Marco had sent a car to pick up Sidney, Wanda and Tim. They arrived at Gringos headquarters forty minutes later. It was a massive white and glass structure stuck in the back of a big office park near the interstate highway.

A short, Hispanic-looking fellow in khaki pants and a blue Oxford cloth short bearing the Gringos logo over the breast pocket greeted them as they entered the lobby. Sidney was introduced to Marco Ruiz, who led them down long corridors to a sterile looking conference room in which sandwiches, drinks and snacks had been arranged on a side table.

“I know y’all want to get back tonight so I thought we’d skip going out for lunch and just grab a sandwich and work while we eat,” Marco said with a smile. “That OK?”

They filled plates, sat down and exchanged pleasantries while they ate. Marco’s bald head was framed by a rim of short black hair. He wore a trim goatee and square glasses with black frames.

After they finished eating, Wanda gave Marco a rundown on the big kickoff event in Central Park planned two weeks hence for Gringos Habanero Flavored Cheese Balls. The idea was to create a spectacle and hope the news media showed up to cover it. If that happened, Gringos Habanero Flavored Cheese Balls would appear on TV and radio newscasts, in newspapers and magazines, and go viral on the Internet.

“So at noon, we unveil the giant Gringos Habanero Flavored Cheese Ball,” Wanda said excitedly. “It’s thirty freakin’ feet high! Then the Chico Chupacabra character runs up and hits it with a flamethrower!”

“Great cheese balls of fire!” Marco barked.

“Here’s the Chico Chupacabra costume,” Wanda added, sliding a photo across to Marco. He chuckled and handed the picture to Sidney. The head was enormous with long pointy ears, an even pointier snout that featured sharp little teeth bent back in a leer. Chico wore a huge sombrero and a colorful serape. The skin appeared to be gray and hairless with huge clawed paws at the end of its arms and legs. If Sidney hadn’t known better, he might be looking at a nightmarish Mexican rat.

“That costume’s not polyester, right?” Marco asked. “Don’t want Chico catching fire!”

At that moment, the conference room door swung open and in swept an emaciated woman who might be anywhere from thirty to fifty years old. Her black hair has piled shapelessly on her head. Her lean face lacked make-up and was all angles, cheeks this way, chin that way. She wore a non-descript dress out of which stuck spindly arms and legs. She carried an iPhone and plopped down in a chair, crossing her legs and ankles.

“Missy Schmitt, meet Sidney Gellings, our new AE,” Marco said by way of introduction.

“Hey,” Missy said as she glanced up from texting on her device.

“Pleasure to meet you,” Sidney replied with a glance at Wanda, who raised her eyebrow and made a little face at him.

“We were just talking about the big kickoff for cheese balls in New York,” Marco said to Missy. He looked at Sidney. “Missy’s the brand manager for cheese balls.”

Sidney had no clue what a brand manager was so he smiled and nodded again Missy’s way.

“Uh huh,” Missy replied as she furiously texted away.

“Should be quite an event!” Marco continued. “We’re gonna set a thirty-foot-high cheese ball on fire!”


Marco gave the B&B threesome an apologetic look and then asked a few more questions about the event before the door opened and Brad Duke entered. He looked like the tight end he’d once been at Florida State, lean, broad, blond and handsome. Missy immediately put the phone on the table and bolted from her seat.

“Big guy!” she cried cheerfully. “Where ya been, anyhow?!”

Missy gave Brad a sisterly peck on the cheek as he looked at the others and smiled.

“Hey, sorry I’m late,” Brad said. “Flew in late last night from Vegas. I was at the Snack Food Association convention all weekend. How you guys doin’?”

Marco made the introductions as Brad piled some celery and carrots on a plate. He looked at his watch and then at the group as he sat and said, “OK, I only have fifteen minutes or so, Marco.”

Marco nodded but it was Missy who spoke. “Brad, listen, this press release is good an’ all, but we can’t start calling consumers people. You just don’t do that in marketing, right?”

Brad looked at Marco for the answer and Marco looked at Tim, the senior B&B person at the table. “I think there’s something to be said for thinking about our loyal customers as human beings and referring to them as such in our marketing materials,” Time explained. “The word consumer is kind of cold, impersonal and, if you think about it, vaguely insulting.”

“Insulting!” cried Missy. “Whatayatalkinabout?! They’re consumers, right! They buy shit and it eat or drink it, right? We call ‘em consumers. Jeez. Why are we even here?”

Brad’s brow wrinkled and Missy shut up.

“So you’re saying that in this press release we use the words ‘person’ or ‘people’ rather than the word ‘consumer’?” Brad asked.

Tim nodded, “Yeah, Brad, I think it makes Gringos a little different.”

Brad looked at Sidney and smiled. “This was your idea?”

“Yes, sir,” Sidney said.

Brad chomped down on a carrot stick and eyed the rest of the group. “It’s a big decision. We’re breaking away from tradition here. It’s been ‘consumer’ since I was in business school but I’ve always been a rule breaker, right Missy?”

Missy had a thin smile on her even thinner lips.

“Tell you what,” Brad declared. “I’m gonna talk to Stan about this. I want to get it right if we’re gonna pull the trigger.”

Sidney had no idea who Stan was, but the others looked terribly impressed when Brad mentioned his name. Brad stood, looked at the guests and said, “Thanks for comin’. We’ll get back to you shortly.”

Missy was right behind Brad when he left the room. Marco gave them another apologetic look and added a shrug this time. “Missy,” he said. “What are you gonna do?”

Tim and Wanda smiled understandingly but Sidney asked, “Who’s Stan?”

Marco laughed. “Stan McKay, founder and CEO of Gringos Brands!”

“Wow, all the way to the top, huh?”

“Unfortunately,” Marco sighed. “You’d think people wouldn’t be so afraid of change around here. Well, I guess it’s not the change they worry about. It’s the second guessing that comes from upstairs when you try to do something original or different. Even when it works, there are always a bunch of senior guys who condemn the idea because it wasn’t the way they did things a hundred years ago.”

They discussed the kick-off event a little more and then Marco led them back to the lobby to wait for the car to the airport. They had a four o’clock return flight to Newark. When they reached the atrium, the receptionist called Marco. “Mr. Ruiz? Mr. Duke would like to speak with you.”

Marco picked up a phone on the desk and pushed a button. “Brad? Yeah, they’re still here. Gellings? Yeah sure, right away.”

Marco gestured to Sidney. “Mr. McKay wants to meet you, Sid,” he said. Tim and Wanda looked at each other unable to mask their surprise and worry. Marco caught the look. “It’s OK,” he said with a reassuring smile. “Sid will be fine.”

The executive suite was on the sixth floor. The elevator doors opened to reveal muted wood paneling, fine art on the walls, and plush carpet covering the floor. A Mozart piano concerto played quietly over the sound system. They passed an antique table on which was displayed fresh cut orchids and made a right, passing by the offices of Gringos’ COO, CMO, CIO, and CFO, until they reached the CEO’s lair. A handsome woman in her fifties guarded the door. She eyeballed Marco and Sidney and gestured to a loveseat. “Mr. McKay will see you shortly,” she said quietly and without much warmth.

Presently, the door opened and Brad Duke appeared. He was smiling and inside the office they heard a voice boom, “…so the altar boy says, ‘Fifty cents and a cup of hot cocoa’!” Brad tilted his head back and roared laughter. “Beautiful Stan! I gotta remember that one,” he finally said. Marco and Sid rose from the loveseat just as Stan McKay strolled out of his office, hands stuffed in his trouser pockets, not a care in the world. “Hey fellas!” he crowed, “come on in!”

Brad patted Sid on the shoulder as he walked by with Marco. “He just wants to hear it from you,” he explained to Sid.

Sidney walked into the biggest private office he’d ever seen. There was an outer meeting room set up like an English lord’s library complete with a wet bar with the office proper behind a heavy oak door. It was tricked out in all kinds of Remington cowboy and Indian sculptures and paintings. There was a big saddle on display, more books, and a huge teak desk.

“Nice, huh?” asked Stan as he gestured about. “Hard to believe I was once a route guy for Charles Chips!”

“Very impressive, sir,” said Sidney.

“Sit down over here, Sid,” Stan said with a kind smile. “Marco, join us.”

The two did as directed and waited for Stan to get comfortable in a leather club chair. He was perhaps sixty-five, lean and short. He reminded Sid a little of Ross Perot. He had a crew cut, a deep tan and perfectly white teeth. On the coffee table were arrayed the various products manufactured and sold by Gringos.

This here’s an interesting conundrum, Sid,” the CEO began. “See, we stack it high and we sell it as cheap as we can. We hand out coupons and other come-ons. We advertise the fuck out of every product. We do PR like setting fuckin’ cheese balls on fire…” he looked quickly at Marco and said, “We really doin’ that?”

Marco nodded, “Yes Mr. McKay. In a couple weeks!”

“Good! Great! Just don’t burn Central Park down or I’ll have to buy the goddamned thing!” laughed McKay. “Anyway, Sid, as I was sayin’, the consumers that load up on the shit we sell are just mouths to be stuffed with snacks and soda as far as I’ve always been concerned. But you see it different. Why’s that?”

Sidney cleared his throat. “Well, Mr. McKay,” he began nervously, “That young man who walks in and buys a Big Snatch full of Gringos Habanero Flavored Cheese Balls…”

“Nice profit on that Big Snatch, by the way!” interrupted McKay. “Not too sure about the name though.”

“Right, sir, well, anyway, the kid buying the snack, well he has a life. He might be a student, or a soldier, or a guy like me, just getting started in a career. I guess I mean to say that he’s a person. If we just think of him as a machine that devours our products, well that doesn’t make him much more than a…than a chupacabra.”

McKay gave him a strange look. “What the fuck’s a chupacabra?”

Marco cut in, “Uh, Mr. McKay, a chupacabra is that mythical Mexican animal we decided to use as the cheese ball icon.”

“The rat thing?!” McKay cried. “I told Brad I wasn’t too keen on that damn animal or whatever the hell it is. Shit! I guess it’s too late to change?”

“I’m afraid so Mr. McKay,” Marco said. “But, sir, the chupacabra tested very well with the target consumers…I mean people,” he added with a nudge of Sidney’s arm. “Young people thought it was pretty damn funny that we chose something so, well, unappealing.”

“OK,” McKay replied doubtfully. “Y’all the experts, I reckon. But lookie here,” he said to Sid, pointing at the products on the table, “we make Kookie Kola, Kookie Light, Spigot  Energy Drink, and Briny Seaside Sarsaparilla. We also got the regular cheese balls plus Elvis’s Bacon Peanut Blasters and the complete line of Roosters’ Chicken Wing Chips…that’s my favorite.” He grabbed the box and broke it open offering Sidney one. “Can’t get these up in New York yet.”

Sidney popped the chip in his mouth. “Just like a Buffalo chicken wing, right?” McKay asked with a wide grin of anticipation.

To Sid, the snack tasted like a chicken wing the way a beef jerky tastes like Chateaubriand but he nodded enthusiastically anyway and said, “My favorite now, too, Mr. McKay.”

“Anyway, we make all these snacks and drinks and what not and I really don’t care what we call the – folks – that buy ‘em. So you think callin’ ‘em people or persons makes it warmer and fuzzier, have at it, my friend!”

Marco rose and so did Sid. “Thanks, Mr. McKay,” he said as the CEO walked over to wet bar and came back with a Kookie Light and a Spigot.

“My pleasure!” McKay replied. “Here Marco, take the K.L., I know that’s your favorite. And for Christ’s sake, shoot B&B some more business! I like their ideas! Here, Sid, try the Spigot…it’s kiwi-pineapple with about a pound of sugar in it. You drink that and you’ll be like a crack addict. When that sugar high is gone, you’ll be beggin’ for another!”

They shook hands with McKay and left.

In the cab ride to the airport, Wanda looked over at Sid. “So what went on up there?” she asked.

“Interesting man,” Sid smiled. “He said we can call consumers people in the press release. He also told Marco to give B&B more business because he likes our ideas.”

Tim grinned and slapped Sid’s shoulder. “Well done!”

“Awesome!” cried Wanda.

The day of the Gringos Habanero Flavored Cheese Balls kick-off event arrived. Sid got to the office early to prepare. Wanda met Sid in the coffee room and told him she had a special assignment for him. She sent Sid to the conference room and told him she’d meet him there in a minute.

Sid walked in and found a delivery guy taking the Chico Chupacabra costume out of various cardboard boxes. It was even more repulsive than the picture he’d seen on the Internet. If it didn’t make people physically ill it would surely scare the shit out of them, he thought to himself as he looked at Chico’s evil leer.

“Hey!” said Wanda entering the conference room. “Oh, wow. It’s awesome! Better than I expected!”

Sid gave her a weak smile. “If you say so, Wanda.”

“I say so!” she laughed. “You’ll look great in it!”

Sid stood frozen. “Me?!”

“You, mister,” she replied pointing at the costume. “Now suit up.”

Kevin Foley