Marketeers, consumer brands, advertising agencies and streaming outlets are chasing Gen Z. They are trying to pin it down with holistic definitions. Giving generations names is a sociological pursuit. The names are coined after studying the changing economic, political and cultural attitudes of each generation.
From the sixties onwards, such studies started to become useful for marketers to understand young consumers. Before the birth of the term ‘Baby Boomers,’ there was already a ‘great generation’ and a ‘silent generation’, although they were never treated as markets. It was the numerous studies on Boomers in the late sixties and seventies that encouraged brands to begin moulding them into marketing strategies to attract young consumers.
As teenagers, Boomers began to assert themselves by rebelling against post-war conformity, and all kinds of rigidity and biases they saw in a system constructed by their elders. They wanted to live outside this system. They condemned economic greed, political power, war and organised religion. They looked towards enacting fabled tales of communal living – until the economy began to tank due to the 1973 international oil crisis.
By the early seventies, advertising agencies had cleverly used the insights formulated by the sociological studies of this generation. The agencies explored the cultural, social and even political outcomes of this generation to create ‘chic’ brands. The Boomer ‘rebellion’ was cleverly commodified. The youth thus became an important market. When Boomers began entering their thirties, brands started to investigate the next batch of young consumers.
Next up was what became known as Generation X. These were folk born between 1965 and 1980. In the West, they grew up in an environment of rising divorce rates, failing ideals and a new kind of conformity that was ironically facilitated by the Boomers who had entered their mid-thirties and forties in the eighties. Gen X was thus described as cynical, disaffected and sardonic. It was also highly individualistic, with no interest in collective action.
Yet, the cultural outcomes of Gen X’s disaffection were co-opted and commodified as the ‘new cool.’ A young, individualistic, and sardonic Ethan Hawke smoking Camel cigarettes in the quintessential Gen X film, Reality Bites (1994), is an example of savvy product placement in a film about a generation that apparently detested commercialism.
The next generation, the ‘Millennials,’ born between 1981 and 1994, was however perfectly fine with commercialism. In fact, Millennials remain a favourite of marketers and brands. They are largely apolitical and had the advantage of a protected childhood provided by their Boomer parents. They lived ‘in the now,’ wanted to have ‘fun’ and make a lot of money as soon as possible. They are also the first generation to fully embrace digital technology.
Millennials too unabashedly embraced identities defined by consumer brands. They are the first truly globalised generation, mainly due to the increasing use of the internet. Brands and advertising agencies seemed to want to stick with them because, as one German marketer recently wrote, “They were just so easy to sell your brands to. They became the brand.”
In 2017, there was a sudden rush to understand a new generation of consumers. Sociologists were engaged and their findings were neatly compartmentalised – and a generation of kids born between 1995 and 2010 became the next big batch of consumers. Initially, Gen Z were treated as an extension of the Millennials. This was wishful thinking.
Gen Z was then defined as the ‘woke’ generation. It is said that this generation is searching for ‘authenticity,’ even though it spends much of its time scrolling through social media sites. It was also said that Gen Z is far more political than the Millennials. Most of its politics revolve around ‘identity politics.’
So, consumer brands raced to place themselves in these settings. In 2017, Pepsi placed a good-looking white model with a Pepsi can at a mock protest rally. The TV commercial was brutally castigated, although Millennials would have it hailed as an ‘iconic’ commercial. So, brands began to pretend to be ‘subtle’ in their message, even if Hollywood and many streaming services got so excited by the loudness of the ‘culture wars’ led by Gen Z that they began to dish out not-so-subtle woke products. Most of them bombed.
What many agencies and brands fail to realise is that generations do not remain static. Things start to change when a generation begins to enter their twenties and join the workforce. New realities trigger new worldviews. For example, how can one explain the sudden switch from the ‘hair metal’ and glossy MTV fodder of the eighties to the raw, angry sardonicism of grunge, or the conscious ‘intellectuality’ of Alternative Rock in the early nineties? This happened during the period of a single generation, Gen X.
Gen X entered their teens in the early eighties. Of course, they would love MTV, Madonna, kitschy hair metal and those wonderful teen movies by John Hughes. By the late eighties, many Gen X folk had entered their twenties, were part of the workforce and were better equipped to understand their parents ‘failed’ politics and ideas of morality. So they suddenly went ‘grunge,’ ‘alternative,’ and ‘ironic.’ Brands that were riding the wave of MTV quickly switched gears and began to glamourise torn jeans, flannel shirts, messy hair and… errm… irony. It must have worked because Kurt Cobain shot himself.
If only brands, agencies and marketers had been as quick to gauge the switch happening to Gen Z. By 2025, a large number of Gen Z folks will be in their early and mid-twenties. Some already are. Their worldview is rapidly evolving. This must be investigated. Moreover, brands wanting to sell to this generation patronise it by hailing their ‘wokeism’. This approach is clearly not working. Maybe they should instead concentrate on the darker aspects of this generation: narcissism and self-righteousness? When Camel placed itself in the hand of Ethan Hawke’s cynical, sardonic, ‘slacker’ and anti-commercialism character in Reality Bites, this wasn’t perceived as a clumsy act of product placement. Camel was seen as the apt brand for that character. I know, because I was part of that generation.
I believe that if brands were to say to Gen Z “We do not understand you,” then they just might get its attention and respect. Appeal to Gen Z’s image of being ‘authentic’ and ‘complex,’ not easily profiled and tough to comprehend. It is bound to work.
Nadeem F. Paracha is Head of Ideas & Research, Adcom Leo Burnett.
He is also a published author and a weekly columnist for Dawn.