Media habits belie boomers’ reformist reputation

Rob Young is a founding partner and senior vice-president, planning and research at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell, one of Canada's largest media management operations. I'd like to credit the National Post for providing me with last month's most...

Rob Young is a founding partner and senior vice-president, planning and research at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell, one of Canada’s largest media management operations.

I’d like to credit the National Post for providing me with last month’s most satisfying newspaper reading experience. The Aug. 26 issue featured an interview with photojournalist Daniel Kramer, who recalled his experiences with Bob Dylan in the mid-’60s.

Among the photographs shown was an arresting shot of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, looking very beautiful and very twentysomething, standing either side of a poster in the Newark Airport. The poster read ‘Protest Against The Rising Tide of Conformity.’

In retrospect, I marvel at how miserably the ‘protest’ failed. Despite their reputation for challenging authority, the fact is that most people of the ‘Me’ generation have lead remarkably conformist lives. How do we know this? Because it’s possible to gauge a generation’s lifestyle by looking at their media usage patterns.

Dylan and Baez were born in 1941. Now they’re 58 years old, which places them just beyond the upper fringes of today’s baby-boomer segment. When captured in Kramer’s 1964 photograph, lending their support in the fight against conformity, they were 23 years old.

To say Dylan and Baez led non-conformist lives would give the term ‘understatement’ new meaning, but the generation they represented – which can roughly be defined as the older half of today’s baby boomer generation – spent their young lives searching for, rather than protesting against, conformity and comparability.

In stark contrast, today’s older teens and early 20-year-olds are perhaps the most non-conformist age segment to walk the face of the earth. These two vastly different segments have had dramatic effects on our advertising and media industries. The speed of change we all must try to cope with today has been caused to a significant degree by our attempts to rewrite our rules of media engagement as we incorporate teens and young adults into our older, standard, target group definitions.

Let’s play ‘media anthropologist’ for a moment to prove this point. If you dig through the layers of baby boomer media usage, you find extremely high levels of mass media consumption practised consistently throughout their lives.

They consumed 20-plus hours of TV weekly when they were young and they continue to exhibit this usage pattern. They consume 20-plus hours of radio weekly today, just as they did when they were in their 20s. They read newspapers and magazines with the same intensity today as they did when they were in college.

Simultaneous reception of mass media from a single transmission, one can rightly assume, results in a conformist lifestyle. With this in mind, the Dylan/Baez generation must be the most conformist ever – more so than the World War generations that preceded them, and more so than the ‘X’ and ‘Y’ generations which have succeeded them.

Today’s generations Y (four to 19 years of age) and X (20 to 34 years of age) have, albeit subconsciously, battled against the rising tides of conformity with a vengeance.

A few issues back, (‘Beware the control freaks of Generation Y’, June 21, 1999) I suggested that marketers are having a tough time making the connection with Generations X and Y. That’s because their target segments are non-conformist. This group is in control of media rather than being controlled by it. They are light users of traditional mass media and enthusiastic users of new media.

Weekly radio and TV tuning levels have fallen, little by little, year by year, as baby boomers have trickled out of their teens and early 20s. There are few magazine titles that appeal to young people, if we are to believe syndicated readership studies. Most of those that do are unmeasured and must be unearthed and evaluated with fingers crossed. Similarly, very few daily newspapers attract young readers.

Clearly, marketers need to adopt new ways of reaching the XY segments. Back in June, I suggested eight rules of engagement and I’d like to elaborate.

1) Be careful. Generations X and Y are highly splintered within their ranks. The subsections might be called ‘scenes’ or ‘music preferences’, and they don’t necessarily mix. The style of message and the selection of media chosen for a particular campaign might be appropriate to one narrow subsection but not another.

2) Show respect. This particular target group controls their media and therefore whether the ad message within a medium will be seen or not. Lack of respect by virtue of message or media selection will produce instant ad avoidance.

3) Ask for permission. A strategic partnership between the advertiser and the favoured media vehicle can act as a ‘letter of introduction’.

4) Think contract. XY value their own individual media menus. One-on-one marketing, loyalty programs and direct response are all techniques worthy of serious consideration for this segment of consumers.

5) Compromise. Move away from the notion of a single medium. Consider multi-media executions. More and different ways of reaching the target group seems to be the preferred approach. Design a media map that follows the target audience through their day, then identify the media contact points or exposure opportunities that arise, and weave these media into the plan.

6) Shun force. Lower your weekly weight levels. Increase the number of weeks.

7) Make lots of little contacts. Optimize weekly reach.

8) Don’t hard sell. Minimize weekly frequency.

As marketers, we have been playing in deep waters. The boomers in our standard target group definitions are plentiful and efficiently reached by mass media vehicles, thanks to their remarkably conformist viewing, reading and listening habits.

But the tide of conformity is quickly ebbing and the boomers are being elbowed out of our target group definitions by new, younger and more expensive media non-conformists.

Marketers and media planners who fail to recognize the changing media landscape and fail to launch new rules of engagement will find themselves standing knee deep in a muddy tidal basin wondering: ‘Where have all the boomers gone?’

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