Trendsetting Generation X types used to be all over. Clad in flannel shirts or bound for Lollapalooza, we saw them everywhere from Seattle grunge-rock haunts to Paris runways to the cover of Newsweek. Today, this generation born between 1965 and 1976 is forming families and entering its peak-earning years. But when it comes to television, Gen X is practically off the radar. With a few notable exceptions, such as Trading Spaces and Sex and the City, today's thirtysomethings rank as TV's accidental demo for programmers and a virtual black hole for advertisers trying to reach them with marketing messages. Fear has set in.
The median age of network television viewers is well above even the top end of the 25- to 39-year-old age group, and it's not much better with cable, says Jon Mandel, president of media buying agency Mediacom.
Another raft of network and cable TV series came down pilot pipeline this spring, and Hollywood and Madison Avenue's bets appeared again to be oddly placed. The age group that has forever powered consumer spending the young adult in his or her prime family-, household-formation and peak-earning years was missing in action amid focus on the two flanking generations, Boomers and Generation Y. One can understand the TV industry's hesitance to risk alienating the juggernaut Boomer group that has been the goose that laid the golden egg for the better part of three decades. What's more, Gen Y represents an about-to-be mega-sized population that's expected to reinvigorate the economy for decades to come.
But, where does that leave X, marketing and media segmentation's perennial second-class citizenry? More important, if the smaller population cohort of Xers and their earnings, family and household formation behaviors are expected to galvanize spending along the lines that Boomers did during their late 20s into and through their 30s, then where will TV fit in as a spending catalyst? In November 1990, when the 18-to-35 age cohort was dominated by Boomers the average prime-time network show received a 6.8 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. As of November 2003, when Generation X dominated the same age group, the average prime-time network show received a rating of only 2.4.
THE AGING OF TV
As kids in the early '60s, Baby Boomers got hooked on television shows like The Andy Griffith Show and Gunsmoke, and are still much more addicted to the tube than Gen Xers. This trend can easily be seen as the Baby Boom moved into its 40s and 50s and Generation X moves through its 30s; the average age of television viewers over the past 12 years has moved into the 40-to-44 age range.
In 1990, when Boomers were age 26 to 44, that segment accounted for 49 percent of consumer spending, with expenditures of around $31,830 per household. By 2000, when Boomers were 36 to 54, their per capita spending increased 30 percent to $45,631 per household.
By 2000, when Gen X dominated the 25- to 44-year-old group, that category generated only 44 percent of consumer spending. Nevertheless, that 44 percent constituted nearly $2 trillion in 2000 and per capita expenditures should rise as Gen X moves into its 40s, just as it did for Baby Boomers as they made the same transition. That's a potentially large prize for advertisers that can capture Gen X loyalty today.
Top TV advertisers insist that they want to reach 25- to 39-year-olds, but often lump them in with a much broader audience, targeting anyone between the ages of 18 and 54 with the same message and through the same medium. That demographic includes all of Generation X as well as parts of the older Baby Boom and the younger, under-25 Generation Y. More problematic, some say, is that Boomer sensibilities continue to dominate much of that mainstream programming.
Boomers dominance may have seemed less oppressive when marketers looked at Gen X as trendsetters. But the Gen Y cohort now has taken over as Merchants of Cool. Even MTV, once synonymous with Gen X, holds little appeal for its original audience. Rather than growing up with that audience, MTV has endeavored successfully so far to remain forever young.
Gen Xers are starting to leave their MTV programming behind, says Lee Doyle, managing partner with Mediaedge:cia Worldwide. They will show up for big events like the video awards, but they don't relate much to the regular programming any more.
Favoring the youngest adults is nothing new, Doyle says, and is a strategy that his agency uses in selecting media for ads for AT&T Wireless, such as those featuring flash-cut editing of a young man trying on everything from spiky hair to a suit. We talk a lot about the younger demographic, Generation Y, because they're the early adopters, says Doyle. They're an early indicator of what will have mass appeal. By portraying a slightly younger group, you can often drag Generation X in because they don't want to be left behind.
Gen Y also may get more attention because advertisers believe it's still forming brand loyalties. MasterCard has an ad offering an internship to make a music video that targets 18- to 25-year-olds, driven by the notion that the first credit card a young person carries is the one he or she will use forever. Yet for products associated with a slightly older stage of life, such as furniture, diapers or minivans, brand loyalties come later at the exact point where many Xers now find themselves. Manufacturers of those products may indeed want to reach Xers. The challenge for them is figuring out how.
Identifying what Gen Xers want can be difficult simply because the group has received so much less attention in recent years. We haven't spent as much time understanding where they are in this stage of life, says Doyle. They spent more time with the microscope on them when they were in their 20s. The reality is that we knew them then, but there has not been a lot of interest in how they have changed.
Many say the slacker moniker placed on this generation when it came of age during the economic downturn of the early '90s no longer applies. Gen Xers were some of the biggest beneficiaries of the '90s tech boom that brought them fast promotions and salary increases. When they got out of college there were no jobs, says Debbie Solomon, media research director for Mindshare North America. But now they're employed and they're in the group pushing for enormous salaries.
Xers also have been the beneficiaries of the low interest rates that have prevailed since the mid-'90s, making home-ownership a viable option for them at an earlier age than for the Boomers, who experienced double-digit interest rates at the same life stage. Compared to the Boomers, Generation Xers are accepting their own maturity and family life more easily, says Doyle.
TLC's quirky Trading Spaces celebrates Gen X domesticity as it puts two couples in competition with each other to redecorate one another's homes. The popularity of Trading Spaces has spawned several TLC imitators, including While You Were Out, that are also popular with Generation X. Our Life Unscripted platform appeals very directly to this group, says Joan Harrison, TLC's vice president of programming and development. It's real and immediate in a way that scripted series can't be.
The TLC fare and other reality shows popular with Gen Xers such as The Apprentice may appeal to the group's independence. Unlike Gen Y, which is often characterized as a generation of group joiners, Gen Xers, often raised as latchkey kids, have always been more self-reliant. Despite their success, Xers may continue to have a hard or cynical edge particularly in comparison to Gen Y, which many view as overprotected. There's more angst in Generation X music, says Rob Cherof, management director for BBDO Worldwide, which handles Cingular Wireless. Generation Y is more syrupy from their movies to their music.
Generation X's distrust of hype, which spawned initiatives such as Sprite's Obey your thirst campaign, continues to be important in marketing to them. Cingular has several pricing plans, including Nights and Weekends and Family Plan that target young adults and young families, and in ads for these plans, the company takes care to explain the plans in straightforward language without hyperbole or hidden surprises.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in targeting Generation X is that it is so diverse. There is no show or medium that reaches a majority of them, says Mandel. They're more fragmented in their media choices. You may have 26-year-olds that don't watch until 10 p.m., and 36-year-olds that only watch until 10 and they're online after that.
There are a lot of shows that are not targeted to the 25-to-39 age group that are delivering them along with their other viewers, says Vaughn Ericson, national broadcast director for Bernstein-Rein Advertising, which handles Wal-Mart. ER is one of the top rated shows with that group just on sheer volume. American Idol, popular with a wide range of demographic groups, also draws large numbers of Xers along. When you get to WB and UPN, you find smaller ratings, but more focused impressions, says Ericson.
Advertisers are left to select a potpourri of shows and networks to reach Xers and sometimes to throw in radio and online advertising. MasterCard includes the group in a campaign targeting 25- to 54-year-olds, as well as another aimed at 18- to 34-year-olds. The latter features young adults in coffee shops or a musician smashing the guitar he has purchased, says Betty Pat McCoy, vice president and national broadcast director for GSD&M, MasterCard's media buying agency. To reach the 18-to-34 audience McCoy looks to shows as diverse as UPN's America's Next Top Model, NBC's Friends and Will and Grace, and WB's Everwood. The viewership is slightly different for 25- to 39-year-olds, says McCoy. For that, I would go heavier on Warner Brothers and Fox. CSI does well with both demographics.
McCoy feels that Generation Y may get more attention because it's easier to target and sees Generation X being underserved by programmers because of Boomer dominance. There are plenty of talented young writers who go in and pitch their ideas to a middle-aged white man who has lived in L.A. his entire life and he says no, says McCoy.
One potential ABC show that appears to target Gen X still untitled stars Jennifer Love Hewitt, who first achieved fame in the mid-'90s as a teenager on Party of Five. In the new show, she plays a single mother who unwillingly becomes an on-camera reporter.
Unusual family settings highlight several series under consideration, notes Ericson. These include one in which an older sister raises a sibling and another in which a wife dies, leaving her husband to raise the kids. Such fare may have more appeal for Gen Xers who were raised in less traditional families than the Boomers.
TLC is planning additional reality fare targeting 25- to 39-year-olds and slightly younger viewers but will not add more home improvement shows, says Harrison. VH-1, the older sibling network of MTV that targets 18- to 49-year-olds, will continue to emphasize the 25- to 34-year-old portion of that audience but has changed its focus in recent months, according to Betsey Frank, executive vice president of research and planning for MTV Networks. We're more popular culture-oriented, she says, pointing to the success of the network's I Love the '80s series as an example of that new focus.
Fox and the WB also are working on projects that will appeal to Generation X, says McCoy, who recently previewed their offerings. Fox has two police dramas with young casts Hollywood Division and Ricochet that she describes as gritty but also kind of sexy. Also from Fox is American Dad, an animated series that, according to McCoy, looks really funny. From the WB, she was impressed by Bobby and Jack, which has as its focus a family headed by a single mom that McCoy says is much more like the families that we see today.
The media executive also sees an opportunity for reaching Generation X that has not yet been exploited. I've been predicting that this group will move back to the family sitcom, says McCoy, pointing out that Boomers embraced that genre when they were at the same stage in life. It might work if program producers count on less sit and add more com.