Texas A&M Law Review
Tex. A&M L. Rev.
Our trademark law uses the term “consumer” constantly, reflexively, and unconsciously to label the subject of its purpose—the purchasing public. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, trademark law has “a specialized mission: to help consumers identify goods and services they wish to purchase, as well as those they want to avoid.” As one leading commentator puts it, “trademarks are a property of consumers’ minds,” and “the consumer, we are led to believe, is the measure of all things in trademark law.”
Much criticism has been rightly levied against trademark law’s treatment of the consumer as passive, ignorant, and gullible. For instance, consumers are seen as requiring protection from any and all marketplace confusion and have no standing to sue under the Lanham Act. However, that a contributing factor to such treatment could be the linguistic bias stemming from the law’s label of the buying public as mere consumers—rather than, for instance, “citizens,” “persons,” “individuals,” or “humans”—has not, until now, been directly addressed.
This Article urges those involved in trademark and advertising law—e.g., judges, lawyers, lawmakers, and scholars—to rethink our ubiquitous use of the derogatory consumer label. To this end, the Article first explores “consumer” as a dehumanizing, anti-ecological, and nonsensical metaphor for “one that utilizes economic goods.” It then examines social psychology experiments finding that use of “consumer” has potentially deleterious effects for society given the negative stereotypes that it engenders as a social categorization. The Article claims, by extension, that the implicit linguistic bias inherent in consumer rhetoric might contribute to trademark law defining the public in a manner that is patronizing, biased, insulting, and indulgent of likelihood-of-confusion claims. The Article suggests that we either work to phase out the “consumer” label and replace it with more appropriate terminology (e.g., “citizen”), or at least pause to acknowledge the word’s potentially biasing effects.