A Generation on the Front Lines of the Advertising Battle

Even people who live in a war zone must eventually become a little numb to its presence -- since it's where they live, there's no use making an issue of it. Though never faced with anything as severe as war, young people in this country "have" grown up on the front lines of all the big consumer battles (McDonald's vs. Burger King, Coke vs. Pepsi, etc.). And they've become so used to it that when the machine guns of the advertising mechanism let rip, the youth of America does not rattle under fire.Raised in a time when advertisers bought space on their cribs, and the outfield fence in little league was a succession of painted-plywood ads, members of so called Generation X have only known a world overrun with advertisements. As a result, an unsatisfactory predicament (for advertisers at least) has developed. As Gen X has grown up and gotten their hands on disposable income, they, like people in a war zone, have become desensitized to the constant shelling.Now the problem for advertisers is a strategic one: how do we break through their defenses?Phil Condron, of the local advertising firm Condron and Company Inc., said the race to reach the 18-34 demographic is so important because they represent "college age and recent grads before they become family bound." With fewer commitments, financial and personal, the people in this age bracket have more money to spend on purchases that might later in life seem irresponsible or unnecessary.But agreeing with most everyone else in advertising, Condron said it's not easy to reach that age group. Compared even to one generation ago, those in the coveted 18-34 market are much more advertising savvy. "The exposure they've had to it compared to their parents is amazing," he said.Steve Tolerico, owner of the local advertising firm ID Group, said advertisers try subtly to tell people what they should do -- what to drive, what to eat, what to drink, what to watch -- and their financial motives are clear. So to young people advertisements are just information from an untrustworthy source."They're a product of rebellion or non-acceptance of information," Tolerico said. "I think their attitude is, 'you can't tell me anything, I have to prove it to myself.'"In the past consumers did listen to commercials. Commercials were set up to inspire confidence with quotes like "nine out of 10 doctors trust ... ," and "rated number one by ... ," and "the highest consumer satisfaction." This kind of advertising lingo still sells, but not necessarily to young people. Condron said more advertisers are realizing young people want something more abstract."There was a cause and effect to commercials, now there's an image, a concept, a feeling," he said.Tolerico explained that overall advertisements can be placed in two groups, educational or emotional, and young people almost completely ignore the educational. Instead, they want to be shocked, amused, surprised or thrilled. "If you're selling throat lozenges, you're not just competing with other companies selling throat lozenges, you're competing for people's attention. You have to sell them on pain or pleasure. If it's pain it has to be educational, you have to tell them how to alleviate that pain. If it's pleasure, you have to entertain them," he said.And if you don't know how to entertain, the solution is to mimic things seen in places where young people go for entertainment; like MTV. Condron said if you look at advertisements for products aimed at young people, the influence of MTV is immediately obvious. The fast pace, tilted camera angles and hip-sounding music can be found to some degree all over television, in both the advertisements and the shows. For examples, see ads by Nissan, Nike, Microsoft and Volkswagen."MTV has become the one focus of that whole generation. If you look at the other thing that might be the same in terms of wide appeal ... ESPN -- that targets primarily males. MTV crosses gender, age, lifestyle and education," Condron said. Even if advertisements don't copy MTV in style, they still copy its philosophy. Advertisements no longer solve a problem or fill a consumer's need as much as they, like MTV, sell the consumer an image. They present the consumer with a social ideal to associate themselves with and then wrap it up in a fun and easy-to-look-at package. They're saying: if this is how you'd like to be, then start by drinking our beer. For examples, see print and television ads for Mountain Dew, any sport utility vehicle, all clothing and Coors Light. Tolerico said in the advertising business, there's an old saying that you're always trying to speak your customer's language. It's a saying that's as true today as ever. "If it's important to make your customer feel like an important business person, then that's what you try to do. And you'll see that in a car commercial," he said. The same is true, he said, for the younger demographic. "If these kids want to think they're wild and rebellious, then you don't want to do anything to contrast that."On the other hand, there are a lot of images and ideas that are forbidden. Things like marriage, kids and responsibility in general are avoided or in some cases laughed at. Condron explained that these are "sobering thoughts compared to the image you're trying to sell."Real life is at odds with the advertiser's fantasy that this particular soft drink, pants, shirt or whatever will make you invincible, care-free and the envy of every person you know. "What would conflict is responsibility," Tolerico added. "It's more of a social issue and if you want to sell something to someone you don't want to present them with obstacles."Common sense dictates what not to do, but figuring out what works is not nearly as easy. The key, according to more and more people, is to just get attention. It's a matter of getting your foot in the door and cracking that initial resistance. This again is where entertainment comes into play. The goal is to come up with an advertisement that doesn't feel like an advertisement. If it looks, sounds and acts like an advertisement, then young people will tune it out.American Express uses Jerry Seinfeld in humorous vignettes like the one where he's locked out of his house with no clothes on. Nissan uses an animated tale of sexual conquest featuring G.I. Joe, a Nissan car and Barbie (background music by Van Halen). Then there's ESPN whose advertisements for its sports highlights show, "Sportscenter", are funnier than most sitcoms on network TV. These commercials have little in common with the educational or informational role of advertisements geared to older people, they are first and foremost entertainment.Not only are these some of the most entertaining advertising campaigns, they're also some of the most successful. And other advertisers are catching on. Levis, for instance, recently introduced a campaign of six intertwined stories about good-looking hip people that conspicuously have nothing to do with blue jeans.Going back to the analogy of war. The modern strategy for breaking through a tough outer defense isn't that modern at all. It's the Trojan horse all over again. To sneak inside the barracks you have to get the enemy to let down their guard by presenting them with a new and pleasing package. Advertisers are finally coming to the conclusion that when you're dealing with people who've grown up on the front lines, you can't make an assault look like an assault or you won't get past the gates.Sidebar OneHow I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love DickA Look at the Miller Lite Ad CampaignBy Jason MilnerI'm a new person. I really am. My old motto, strange as it may sound, was: I don't get Dick. But that was the old me. Before I mellowed out. Before I was down. Before I saw the lite, the Miller Lite.The new me loves Dick. The new me is touched, even moved by Dick. The new me can't get enough Dick. The new me wants Dick in every magazine I read and in between every show I watch.Dick, of course, is the faux spokesman for Miller Lite's new ultra-cool ad campaign. His inspirational visage and soon-to-be-valuable signature personally endorse every Miller Lite ad like some spiritual leader spreading good corporate karma. When I first saw the ads I have to say, I was not impressed. O.K., I hated them with every ounce of my being. But since then, they've started to grow on me. Here are a few reasons why I've converted.First, without pulling any punches, I like Dick. Compared to most CEOs or advertising execs, Dick is a dream come true. He's the lovable poster boy for mid-90s logic; one apparently un-corporate guy with a ton of unconventional thoughts and ideas. Even his picture screams "alternative." Instead of looking like a real Madison Avenue type -- a pasty white man with a bad colon -- he looks like a cross between Beck and Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan.Dick's a wild man. Instead of pitching conservative, bland ideas -- anything edgy sanded off by countless market analyses and focus groups -- Dick's ads are all edge. They're so edgy you're not supposed to know what in hell they're about.And I "don't" have any idea what in hell they're about. But I know I like them because I'm a young man and Dick looks like someone I might know. He even looks like someone I might like. Therefore, if Miller Lite is good enough for Dick, it's good enough for me.Second, in praise of the non sequitur: Up to this point even advertisers had been constrained by the pesky old notion of linear thought. You know, the crazy idea that one thought should lead to another and another and so on. But Dick's on the scene and that sound you hear is him ringing the death knell for traditional logic. With ads such as the one featuring a picture of a smiling old man, hands buried in bread dough and a bottle of beer at his side, we seem to have officially made the jump from MTV-style hyper-cuts to the complete non sequitur.As much as it pained me at first that the big advertising firm Fallon McElligott out of Minneapolis spent months trying to come up with a campaign that speaks to young people and this, after all their research, was what they came up with, I have begun to see its advantages.Until Dick revolutionized things, I was never able to walk up to a friend and say something out of the blue like, "French toast tastes good like a cigarette should" and had that friend do anything but stare at me and say, "Go home and get some sleep." But now people seem to understand. They shake their head knowingly and even offer to buy me a beer, a lite beer.All because of Dick and his ads. No longer do two and two have to equal four. Two and two can equal whatever they want as long as you buy Miller Lite. So lighten up, Dick says so.Which brings me to my last point. Dick helps me pretend I live in a world I'm more comfortable with. He helps me relax and stop taking things too seriously. Dick helped me realize my own hatred of him and his ads was consuming me.Who wants to live in a world where the only thing an angry young man can get worked up over is an advertising campaign? Where all the grand topics have been so exhausted that the only icons left to rage against are those who sell us, the consumers, products. If this were the case, wouldn't we have hunted down the people responsible for the Energizer Bunny campaign a long time ago?Yes! But we let them live, because we have more important things to think about like, who is this Dick, why does he want me to buy beer so badly and where can I meet him to have a couple drinks? These are the important questions.Dick has shown me that I no longer care to see stuffy images of real corporate America like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Ted Turner and Joe Camel. I want to be happy. I want to be blatantly manipulated and duped.What better way than to hire a big expensive advertising firm like Fallon McElligott and then agree on a campaign where everyone pretends the multi-million dollar Miller Brewing Co. is so hip they wouldn't hire big expensive advertising firms like Fallon McElligott? Instead lets all pretend Miller is so cool they hire quirky, slacker artists to sell their beer to quirky, slacker people.So now I'm happy. Now I can imagine that things work in a way where a little guy could succeed. Where one person's off-beat voice could be heard. Hello ... Is anybody listening?


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