Marketing concepts of young consumers: Generations X, Y, and Z

Empirical research, therefore, consistently points to the diversity of young people’s media experiences. And issues such as gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic inequality are clearly a major influence on youngsters’ relationships with media and communication. Nevertheless, notions of a new, relatively homogeneous, generation of ‘media-savvy’ youngsters have been widespread. Such themes have been especially pronounced in the world of marketing, where successive cohorts of youth — dubbed, sequentially, ‘Generation X’, ‘Generation Y’ and ‘Generation Z’ — have been configured as a new group of young consumers, made exceptionally elusive through their high degree of media literacy. The premise has a long history. Indeed, since the 1950s teenage spending has been presented as a singularly tough market, difficult both to analyse and tap into (see Chapter 2). During the 1990s, however, the elusiveness of youth’s spending power became an increasingly central theme in marketing discourse.

The term ‘Generation X’ was taken from Canadian author Douglas Coupland’s (1991) novel chronicling the lives of quirky and anomic youngsters.13 During the 1990s it was adopted by the US marketing industry to denote what was seen as a rising cohort of young consumers whose ‘media-savvy’ and cynical outlook contrasted with the idealism and relative naivety of earlier Baby Boomers. Karen Ritchie (1995: 11), for example, warned advertisers they would ‘have to learn new methods to cope with the changing markets’. ‘Media, marketing, and advertising were simpler sciences when Boomers were young’, Ritchie counselled (1995: 64), while the new ‘Xers’ were distinguished by ‘a healthy scepticism about advertising and a love/hate relationship with the media’ (1995: 87). Outside the US, the theme also caught on. In Britain, for instance, commentators also spoke of a new ‘Generation X’, characterised by a suspicion of advertising and the media. Illustrative was David Cannon’s depiction of a generation of young people who were ‘highly individualistic’ and had ‘sophisticated knowledge of consumer products’ (Cannon, 1994: 2). Having grown up in an age of uncertainty and rapid developments in media technology, Cannon explained, Generation X had become wary, fiercely independent and were ‘highly aware and critical of appearances’ (1994: 10).

By the end of the 1990s the original Generation X-ers were well on their way to adulthood. Taking their place, however, were a new cohort seen by marketers as even more media literate and advertising-wary. They were sometimes dubbed ‘millennials’ (the term taken from Strauss and Howe’s work), but Business Week also christened them ‘Generation Y’ — partly because they succeeded ‘Generation X’, and partly because they had, it was argued, a propensity to question everything (Newbourne and Kerwin, 1999). Indeed, while lucrative, the Generation Y / millennial market was deemed uniquely challenging as a consequence of youngsters’ media expertise and mistrust of traditional, ‘hardsell’ advertising strategies. As Thomas Pardee put it in a 2010 article for Advertising Age, ‘Millennials are ... perhaps the most analytical and media-sawy consumers ever’ (Pardee, 2010).

The view became virtually a credo in the marketing industry. And a new wave of specialist research agencies proliferated, all touting their abilities to help businesses penetrate what they presented as a uniquely fickle consumer market. Writing in New Yorker in 1997, Malcolm Gladwell coined the term ‘coolhunters’ to describe the growing legion of consultants who specialised in keeping their finger on the pulse of the youth market, using a mixture of quantitative surveys, qualitative interviews, and clued-up intuition to link-up big business with young people’s attitudes and tastes. And, into the twenty-first century, the ranks of ‘coolhunting’ professionals proliferated, accompanied by a mountain of marketing manuals purporting to be incisive guides to the youth market’s mindset. For those interested in tapping into millennials’ spending power, for example, the welter of ‘how to’ guides included Johnson (2006), Yarrow and O’Donnel (2009), Livingston (2010), Wells (2011) and Benjamin et al. (2011). And, while much of this material originated in the US, its themes were reproduced in market research that appeared across Europe (Ferrer, 2018), Africa (Liquid Telecom, 2018) and Asia (Brandative, 2016).

The marketing industry’s analyses of ‘millennial’ consumers often sounded impressively clued-up. Invariably, however, there was little substance behind the promotional spiel. Much of it amounted to unsubstantiated blather from market analysts with a vested interest in depicting the youth market as treacherous commercial waters. Indeed, as David Buckingham notes, the way categories such as ‘Generation X’ and ‘Generation Y’ were chronologically defined could vary enormously between different marketing experts, and sometimes it seemed distinctly arbitrary (Buckingham, 2014: 209). Moreover, many of the market ‘guides’ offered little in the way of hard data. As Buckingham observes:

... rather than providing unprecedented or novel insights, these books provide copious amounts of sweeping generalizations, much of it repetitive, self-confirming and banal. Most of the evidence provided is anecdotal, taken from journalistic sources, or simply unsupported - perhaps most clearly in the case of Livingston (2010), whose primary point of reference (and source of authority) is his own experiences and preferences as a selfdeclared member of‘Generation Y’.

(Buckingham, 2014: 209)

Moreover, as Buckingham argues, marketing discourse does not provide a neutral account of ‘reality’. Instead, it has an ‘illocutionary force’ that can ‘actively conjure into being the market of which it speaks’ (Buckingham, 2014: 203). In these terms, advertisers and marketers do not simply describe the youth market, they play an active role in its creation by popularising specific ideas about young consumers’ attitudes and tastes. In the 1950s, for example, advertising experts such as Eugene Gilbert and Mark Abrams did not detachedly chronicle the budding teenage market, but gave it form and substance through their pronouncements (see Chapter 2). Marketers’ subsequent claims about the proclivities of Generation X and Generation Y did much the same. And, as Generation Y reached adulthood, they were succeeded by ‘Generation Z’. Born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Generation Z were yet another cohort of youth configured by the marketing industry as even more media-sawy and capricious than their predecessors.

The tradition, moreover, was set to continue. Originally popularised in the book The ABC of XYZ: Understanding the Global Generations by Australian authors Mark McCrindle and Emily Wolfinger (2010), the term ‘Generation Alpha’ was increasingly coined by marketers to denote a new age cohort born between 2011 and 2025. And — in a conspicuous echo of the rhetoric that surrounded millenials and digital natives - market researcher McCrindle predicted that this emerging generation would be ‘the most technology-supplied generation ever, and globally the wealthiest generation ever’ (cited in Williams, 2015).

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