The mind boggles over lockstop youth worship

'Of course, there is a demographic of genuine stick-in-the-mud types, who have decided what they're after and are resistant to all arguments to the contrary.

‘Of course, there is a demographic of genuine stick-in-the-mud types, who have decided what they’re after and are resistant to all arguments to the contrary.

They’re the ones who work in advertising.’ – James Surowiecki, The New Yorker

I wrote a couple of columns, a few issues back, about the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and how advertisers go nuts over the young male demographic, whom they believe to be drooling all over that sacred issue.

I expressed the Viewpoint that these advertisers are slightly less than perceptive, and I now have the satisfaction to report that somebody agrees with me.

A recent issue of The New Yorker, where many of the great historic print campaigns made their debuts (Volkswagen, Chivas Regal, Eagle Shirts…oh, never mind, in those days they printed it on papyrus), chides the advertising business for its strange and incomprehensible youth worship. In their words, ‘To an advertiser, a 25-year-old clerk is apparently worth three times as much as the 50-year-old vice-president he works for.’

The supposed reason for this ‘Madison Avenue gloss on Hollywood’s cult of youth’ is brand loyalty. (By the way, I also love the way ‘brand’ has suddenly become a cult word, as if Henry Ford and the Lever Brothers had never thought of it. But I digress.)

Brand loyalty, says a former head of ABC, is incredibly durable. ‘Everyone agrees: brand preferences get established at an early age.’

What turns the customer on in his 20s will turn him on forever; no further thought or emotion required. Sure, makes sense. By that standard, I, based on the power brands of my 20s, should now be driving (or aspiring to drive) a Cadillac, buying tons of stuff at Simpsons, curing my headaches with Bufferin, and drinking Red Cap forever. I don’ t think so.

So the logic of us brilliant advertising people goes like this:

Buy the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue because young males are madly attached to it. (Dubious.)

Worship those young people because brand loyalty lasts forever. (Sure.)

Pay extra big bucks to reach those young people, because … well, let me quote The New Yorker again. ‘The standard answer is that there are fewer young people out there, and that they are harder to reach…. [T]his logic makes no sense economically (by this logic, advertisers ought to pay top dollar to reach sheepherders in Uzbekistan).’

The mind boggles.

We adfolk perpetuate our own myths, says The New Yorker, and I humbly agree with them. What’s worse, our industry is marching in a tighter lockstep than ever before. We have conglomerated ourselves into a dopey situation where there are about four major advertising agencies in the whole world, and four humongous media departments buying everything.

This creates a situation much like the Canadian banking system (the mind re-boggles). In other words, you have about six guys making all the decisions, and if you have a bright idea and take it to one mega-bank or mega-media-department, you can save your breath, your shoe leather, and your tolerance for ‘No!’ by forgetting all the others.

To summarize: We make our decisions with ‘a kind of ritualistic, inertial quality’ (David Poltrack, a CBS exec VP). Then we make sure the decisions don’t change, by making our buying systems bigger and bigger. Then we wonder why clients wonder about us.

For homework, please turn to your history books under ‘Fall of the Roman Empire.’

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at