Everything you need to know about Gen Z

Vice Media cracks culture codes for brands looking to make an impression among an incredibly nuanced demo.

Screen Shot 2022-02-11 at 12.16.29 PMBy Will Novosedlik

It was Marshall McLuhan who said, “The future of the future is the present.” What he meant was that predicting the future is a mug’s game, and what passes as prediction is merely a reflection of our inability to imagine anything but a variation of what we are experiencing right now.

The Vice Media Group’s Guide to Culture report is no exception. While Vice claims to be able to “predict where culture is going next,” the jury is still out on the accuracy of of its prophecies. However, given its audience and the nature of its content, Vice is as plugged into the zeitgeist as any media brand can be, so it’s all-things-culture report is worth consideration.

The guide is broken down into ten topics, called “Culture Codes.” For example, Culture Code #1 “Prototype the Future” opens with a question: “What does culture look like when it’s no longer linear, but rather defined by a radical new framework of openness and exploration?”. It then illustrates the theme with examples, and finishes with speculation on what media and brands should do to appeal to Gen Zers. It follows this format across ten themes.

That first Culture Code (or theme) talks about how there is a shift from self-expression to self-exploration, wherein Gen Zers are experimenting with “new modes of living” – like the guy who bought a camper van for travel but then decided to just make it his permanent residence. Now he is a “Van Life Consultant.” Vice suggests brands “tap into the [Gen Zers] need for exploration, innovation, experimentation and growth.”

Culture Code #2 talks about the shift from aspiration to acceptance, as illustrated by the movement around “body neutrality,” in which young people are no longer interested in aspiring to an unattainable ideal of physical perfection, but are just happy to live inside their own skin. Brands are exhorted to “help Gen Zers discover who they are, not how they can appear more perfect.” If this sounds like old news, it is. Dove has been doing it for years. A TV campaign for the brand’s body wash, clearly aimed at Gen Zers with its packaging shaped like all types of curvy women, fits right in with what Vice is talking about.

Another theme, “Radical Intimacy” (#4) builds on that “body neutrality” movement. It talks about how vulnerability has become an asset and offers up several examples of celebrities opening up about their inner struggles with things like body image, anxiety and depression. Think Britney Spears’ conservatorship drama. Vice tells brands that candor, transparency, truth and vulnerability will trump corporate speak and images of perfection.

One of the most interesting Culture Codes for brands to consider is #7: “Local Seeds.” It asks what the world would look like when local culture and global culture converge. It talks about a “rural renaissance” in which people are leaving the big city behind for small town living. Think of cable TV renovation shows like Hometown. It also talks about the rise of “K-dramas” like Squid Game and Silent Sea, produced in their native languages and dubbed/subtitled for global audiences. It views this as an erosion of global monoculture, in defiance of the last 40 years of globalization. It exhorts media to be less homogeneous, and brands to “tap into richer cultural narratives drawn from local communities.”

Culture Code #8 is called “Design for Disfluency” and it addresses the issue of challenging cultural norms to capture attention. Its prime example is the math tutor who posts his calculus lessons on Pornhub. There is no sex, no naked people, just a guy in a hoodie and chinos standing in front of a blackboard talking about math. His lessons routinely get over one million views. Then there’s the guy who turned his apartment into a fish farm. He sits there, surrounded by dozens of aquariums teeming with exotic fish, and takes WFH to a whole new level. The lesson for brands? Build narratives for Gen Z that shock the system rather than just soothe the senses.

In line with that is Code #9: “Surreal Escapes.” To cope with the prospect of a darker and scarier future, folks are looking for ever more fantastic and otherworldly diversions. Video games are the obvious demonstration of this but there is also a rising interest in things like tarot, astrology, altered states and mental transportation. Hashtags like #shiftingrealities have taken over TikTok, inviting people to enter an intense, hyperreal state of “lucid dreaming.” Think Hieronymus Bosch meets Fortnite.

The last Culture Code in the guide addresses the very important issue of polarization. On the one hand, we have the theme of “vulnerability as strength,” and on the other, we have the rise of extremely toxic masculinity with groups like the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters, egged on by hypermasculine personalities like Joe Rogan and Alex Jones. We see some American school boards wanting to ban or burn books that address subjects like Critical Race theory or sexuality, and librarians who are fighting against censorship. What should brands do? Embrace nuance, allow for diversity, and recognize the complex and eclectic lives that young people are living today, says Vice.

The VMG’s guide demonstrates the media company’s powers of observation corroborated by insights from a plethora of sources, including its own artists, creators, editors and producers; its ongoing dialogue with audiences around the world, through channels such as VICE Voices, Mad Chatter, reader polls, and UGC; and through its audience engagement tracking, content analytics, campaign analytics, search terms and reader comments. As a grand exercise in pattern recognition, it’s not without merit. While it doesn’t predict the future, it does provide a useful snapshot of where popular Gen Z culture is right now.