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August 9, 2012
Generalizing About Generations is Generally a Bad Idea
 
What do consumers the same age really have in common?

Depending on whom you talk to, 50 is the new 30. 70 is the new 50. And no one over 25 understands the digital world we’re now in.

As advertisers and marketers, we often have no choice but to chop our target audience into easily identifiable groups. One of the most common is age group. This isn’t helped by the legions of media stories lumping “Millennials,” “Generation X,” or “Baby Boomers” together as if age was their primary common trait.
 
But like so many other groups, people of the same age are quite disparate. So do generations matter? Why do advertisers cling to age stereotypes? Are there better ways to define and reach an audience?  
 
We live in an age-obsessed culture, and advertising fuels that culture. We think that younger people tend to be more impressionable and open to new brands, while older folks are more set in their shopping ways despite having more cash. Of course, that’s a generalization, and it doesn’t necessarily hold true.
 
I’m a member of what’s known as Generation X. Some of us are billionaires (not me, unfortunately.) Some are barely scraping by (not me, thankfully.) Some are liberal, some are conservative, some are parents of multiple kids, and some are contently single. No one can paint us with the same broad brush. I look around at many people my age and see that I have sometimes very little in common with them.
 
For every age group, there’s certainly an income gap, a culture gap, and a political gap. Travel throughout America for a bit and you’ll become acutely aware of the differences.
 
So why do we generalize so much? Like everything else in advertising, our perception of age and generations are filtered through our personal biases. I recently read some twentysomething’s assessment that “no one listens to terrestrial radio” or “watches live TV” anymore. Which could be true — in her circle of friends. It’d be wrong to extrapolate that to an entire population.
 
It’s also wrong to assume that young people in advertising and marketing inherently take more risks. I think external forces, like workplaces, play a role as well. I’ve met 25- and 30-year-old marketing directors who were a combination of both amazingly naïve about marketing and surprisingly conservative about the kind of advertising they wanted. Not so much a knock on them personally; it’s a reflection of the environments their employers created.
 
I also think age plays tricks on the creative mind. The older we get, the more we see friends, relatives, and famous people you’ve admired get sick and die. And as we get more experience, we’re less surprised and learn how to react properly to adversity. But we also develop more “default” positions to retreat to, and that can stifle creativity and a willingness to experiment.
 
Times do change, and it’s true that each generation is a bit different than the ones before it. That’s because society and technology change, not human nature. Teens today can have the same insecurities and awkwardness they’ve always had; what’s changed is the ability to connect with anyone on the planet who feels the same way. People who just graduated from college often think they’ll be the ones to change the world. Today, though, they have more tools at their disposal to try it.
 
Marketers, however, stick with very simple formulas on how to manipulate consumers. The specter of fear, the lure of love, the hope of sex, the pursuit of happiness, the promise of security or freedom. It’s the same bag of tricks we’ve been using for decades.
 
The key to communicating to consumers of any age is to keep learning and dig beyond numbers. Stay curious. And imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes. In an age in which kids seem to grow up fast but many young men and women seem to put off marriage and family longer, we simply can’t point to a number or a range of numbers and understand our audience’s mindset.
 
So the next time you see “18 to 49” or “25 to 34” as the most salient point in a research report or a creative brief, ask for a more substantial insight than numbers. Then maybe you’ll be part of a campaign that’s truly for the ages.


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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 


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