Marketers are looking for answers in all the wrong places. They've dispatched platoons of psychographic researchers in a search for a tiny edge, that elusive difference in how today's young people might think and feel and be motivated.
The resulting advertising is all over the airwaves: Budweiser's "categories," Diet Mountain Dew's young daredevils, Neon's low-key approach, Sprite's "no image" campaign and Levi's 501 "blues" ads. Great creative stuff, but what separates these from the youthful, dynamic ads in the '70s targeting boomers? Nothing: that's the point.
Are today's young people different from Baby Boomers? Yes, but not in the ways marketers seem to think. Roper studies conducted among twentysomethings in 1977 and again in 1990 show more similarities than differences. Are to- day's young adults skeptical, cynical, shallowly motivated and materialistic? So were their predecessors!
Issues facing young adults like getting a job, marriage, having children and buying a house are constant across generations. Baby Boomers went through a period of youthful hedonism in the '70s and early '80s and experienced a tough job market in the early '70s. The situation is the same for today's young adults.
Still marketers seek and search and spend, trying to find a difference. They have to. Baby Boomers were essentially a mass market. There were so many of them that you could be wrong and still make money. You could use any medium and hit enough people to constitute a critical mass.
One way Generation X is obviously different is that there are so many fewer of them. The new generation is roughly half the size of the baby boom. Miss half of them if they're a prime market for your product and you're out of business.
So what's a poor marketer to do, to gain a competitive advantage in talking to today's young people? Surprisingly, it's obvious. Maybe so obvious that marketers searching for obscure, hidden differences have looked right past.
The difference is not buried deep in their psyches. It's right there in their hands, in the form of a mouse or a remote control.
This is the first generation with a built-in ability to maneuver on the information highway. They grew up programming VCRs, hacking computers and computer networks, playing videogames, using bank machines, thumbing a remote control around dozens of channels. They are the first generation to be exposed to a myriad of niche vehicles and they interacted with all of them at a young age.
The Baby Boomers were approachable as a mass market not only because of their numbers, but because of their mass media habits. Generation X, in contrast, represents an assortment of media-based micro-markets.
Someone once said, "You are what you read." Today's twentysomething individuals are what they read, watch, listen to, play with and work on-the most complex array of media habits of any generation in history. Differentiating among them may create a new science to parallel demographics and psychographics-mediagraphics. To paraphrase James Carville, to segment Generation X, "It's the media, stupid!"
Mr. Carrig is a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based independent marketing strategist.