ADVERTISING'S MIRROR IS CRACKED; GENERATION X SEES AD WORLD'S PROJECTED IMAGE, AND ISN'T BUYING IT

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Despite the ubiquity of the flannel-shirted, cynical, slacker image, Generation Xers feel they are anything but the way they've been depicted in most advertising aimed at them.

"Xers are incredibly complex individuals, and the ads falling flat are those that are condescending, that say `We know you, you happy-go-lucky slacker'," says Jane Pinzler, an Xer and VP-director of youth marketing at Boston-based Houston, Effler, Herstek, Favat.

Industry executives say there are far fewer ads that work creatively than those that don't.

Topping the short list of Gen X campaigns that observers believe appeal to their target audience: "Truths," from Schieffelin & Somerset Co.'s Dewar's scotch; "Hi," from Chrysler Corp.'s Neon; AT&T's "You Will" campaign; and the recent MCI spots featuring David Spade.

Advertising that's overtly MTV-ish, with lots of in-your-face quick cuts and flannel-shirted young people "doesn't reflect who this generation is, nor does it reach Gen X," asserts Alex Abrams, author of "Late Bloomers: Coming of Age in Today's America-The Right Place at the Wrong Time." "There's a significant number of older advertising people trying to do advertising for a generation they don't understand."

"There is no formula in creating advertising for Generation X," says John F. Shea, MTV's senior VP-ad trade marketing. "For many companies, that's a difficult concept to understand."

"This is a market that watches MTV, that reads magazines like Wired, that lives on online services, and we really don't know who they are," notes Bob Guccione Jr., publisher of Spin.

What they are is a generation of the most savvy consumers to hit the marketplace.

Unlike the baby boomers, "Gen Xers are not hostile toward advertising; they know advertising is to sell a product, and their attitude is `Tell me more about your product, give me information, reasons, why should I buy it'," says Kevin Kolbe, senior account planner at Mullen Advertising, Wenham, Mass.

Observers say creative has so often missed the target because certain assumptions that apply to boomers and older generations don't work with Generation X.

"It's easier for the media and advertisers to glom onto one fragment of this generation and proclaim that's who they are, but that's not reflective of the entire generation," says Myra Stark, director of creative reserach and consumer insights, Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York.

Saatchi has renamed Generation X the "Bellwether Generation," a generation that portends an underlying change in consumer attitudes.

"There is no one issue that this entire generation can agree upon," says Ms. Stark. The implication for marketers, she says, is that advertisers have to accept that no one campaign or execution will reach everyone 18 to 29.

What does appear to work are ads that include humor, music, irony, irreverence and unexpected visuals and graphics. That includes ads like the ongoing print campaign for Dewar's scotch, from Leo Burnett Co., Chicago, that speak to the realities of twentysomethings' experiences.

"We touch upon topics that are very close to [Generation Xers'] day-to-day lives, but do so in a humorous way," says Jamie Prusak, product group director at Schieffelin & Somerset.

There's evidence the campaign is starting to attract new drinkers, although Ms. Prusak says it's too early still to know whether the "Truths" campaign will boost Dewar's sales.

It's not too late-yet-to abandon the stereotype and reach out to this age group.

"Advertisers have to stop trying so hard to be hip," says Ms. Pinzler. "They don't have to buy attitude. Gen X already knows who they are."

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