Issue 12.08 - August 2004
The Lost Boys
How the 18-34 male is reinventing advertising.Online gaming all night: Cool. Hour after hour downloading MP3s and porn: No problem. Thirty seconds so you can try to sell me something? Outta here. How the 18-34 male is reinventing advertising.
By Frank Rose
"I feel manipulated and angry," says Lee, a 33-year-old musician. "Having these things forced down my throat all the time - especially with network television, it's loud, it's brash."
"Now that I have TiVo, I realize how much of TV is actually commercials," says Nick, a 25-year-old marine biologist. "I can watch two shows in almost the time it took me to watch one. Then if I see a commercial I like, I'll go back to it."
"I don't think they hate ads," concludes the session's moderator, Jane Buckingham, who heads CAA's Youth Intelligence unit. "They hate bad ads. If it's a cool ad, they're going to watch it."
Take the Quiznos Spongmonkeys. Created by Joel Veitch, a London-based Web and TV producer who specializes in hilariously asinine Flash animations, the Spongmonkeys are almost certainly the first cartoon rodents to be enlisted in a fast-food campaign. The spots - which show one of the razor-toothed, demented-looking furballs strumming a guitar while the other screeches a paean to Quiznos ("We love the subs! 'Cuz they are good to us.") - became an instant sensation when they debuted in February. Viewers either loved them or thought they were the most revolting thing they'd seen since, well, since the last batch from Quiznos, one of which showed a guy in a business suit sucking a wolf's teat.
The lessons for Madison Avenue are clear. If you want to capture this demographic's attention, be prepared to entertain and don't be afraid to polarize the audience. "The days of putting some stupid message up and forcing everyone to see it - that's so over," says Alex Bogusky, executive creative director of Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami. Crispin Porter is the agency behind Burger King's ballyhooed "Subservient Chicken" campaign, which showed a man in a chicken suit performing embarrassing tasks at the behest of Abercrombie & Fitch types; a companion Web site lets you type in your own commands and watch the chicken respond. "With this generation," says Bogusky, "it's, I know you're marketing something to me, and you know I know, so if you want me to try a new chicken sandwich, that's cool - just give me some crazy chicken to boss around."
Strictly speaking, of course, this isn't a generation at all. The 18-to-34 demo actually straddles the tail end of Generation X and the leading edge of what demographers are calling the Millennials. "The younger group is a lot more positive," says Bogusky. "They're not so angst-ridden, not quite as ironic and cynical. They wanna have fun." There's also more of them - some 70 million, compared with 76 million baby boomers and the 41 million in Gen X. Millennials tend to be less suspicious than their predecessors, but they're still too smart for most marketers. "The hardest job is surprising them," Bogusky adds. "Usually they know what you're going to do before you do it."
Both groups share a hunger for "authenticity." If the ad message doesn't jibe with the brand's image, forget it. And say good-bye to the hard sell as well. The Subservient Chicken campaign was trashed in Ad Age for failing to push the product, but that was the point. "There's a huge lure to obscurity," explains David Art Wales of the New York consulting firm Ministry of Culture. "That's one of the keys - giving people something to discover, which is the antithesis of the way most advertising works."
When it comes to media, men 18 to 34 like things fresh, unpredictable, and uncensored. They're more than twice as likely as other adults to have TiVo or some other DVR. Reality TV is a guilty pleasure, but sitcoms, formulaic and tired, aren't even tempting. When they do watch TV, guys usually prefer cable channels - Comedy Central, ESPN, HBO, MTV. On the Web, they tend to cluster at porn, gaming, and sports sites. And just because they're online doesn't mean they aren't watching TV and listening to their iPods, too. One of the guys in the focus group even had a mirror on top of his computer screen so he could watch TV without turning around.
"This younger generation has a filter mechanism," observes Jim Lentz, group VP of marketing at Toyota Motor Sales USA. Lentz has his own focus group at home: two sons, ages 17 and 21. "They can be doing their homework, listening to music, watching TV, on the PC, and on the phone, all at the same time. It drives my wife crazy. You assume they're just screwing around - but they're not." This ability to focus is governed by a complex neural network called the reticular activating system, which filters sensory input to keep the brain from being overwhelmed. When you grow up in an always-on world this system may adjust to cope. "They have a total ability to block out anything they don't want to get through," Lentz marvels. "From an advertising standpoint, that's what makes this animal so scary."
Of course, some media are more immersive than others. As young males drift away from the tube, advertisers are trying to focus on entertainment that grabs their attention and holds it. Tops on that list is videogames. A decade ago, games were considered so geeky that Electronic Arts had to pay real-world companies to reproduce their logos in its sports titles. Now, with Nielsen reporting that young men are spending more time than ever with their TV sets tuned to the game console, big brands like Honda and McDonald's are paying EA to get in on the action.
"We're eating the networks' lunch!" crows Jeff Brown, EA's vice president of corporate communications, mentally computing the bite EA might someday take out of the television ad market. "Now, this doesn't happen for 6, 12, 18 months - but when television executives take full measure of how their advertising dollars are moving to videogames, you should prepare yourself for a lot of news stories about how bad videogames are for kids. In fact, I would recommend that Morley Safer get started right now on how videogames are warping the minds of young people. Perhaps" - he grins wickedly at the thought - "they should run it right after all the gore on CSI."
Even as advertisers experiment with virtual entertainment, they're trying the opposite tack: delivering messages in the real world, with no electronic intermediary at all. At showings of The Matrix Revolutions last fall, Nissan stuck actors in movie theaters and, when an Altima spot came on, had them stand up and deliver lines from it, like car junkies at a poetry slam. To promote a new line of phonecams, Sony Ericsson hired actors to pose as tourists and ask people to photograph them with the phones. The catch-all term for such campaigns is "experiential," because the point is to create an experience memorable enough to break through the filter mechanism and generate buzz - something far more likely to register with media-saturated guys than advertising.
Intellectual cover for this sort of thing is provided by books like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and Seth Godin's Unleashing the Ideavirus: Get the right people talking about something and sooner or later it'll take off. The concept is vintage '90s; what's new is the notion that anybody would put a budget behind it. "When people used to say, 'We'd like to do guerrilla marketing,' that translated to, 'We don't have any money,'" quips Andrew Gledhill, president of the LA-based ad agency Ground Zero. "When they said, 'We'd like to do something viral,' that meant, 'We really, really don't have any money.'" No more: Ground Zero recently won a $10 million viral-marketing account from Toyota.
Partly because the Net is one place where you can find a lot of young males, Internet advertising has staged an equally remarkable comeback. IGN/Gamespy, a gaming site that claims a bigger concentration of men 18 to 34 than any other Web destination, is even thinking of mimicking television by holding its own "upfront" - the spring ritual at which the networks sell airtime for the coming fall season. At the same time, the Internet's ability to pinpoint a narrow slice of the population is calling into question the whole idea of broad demographic categories. Instead, marketers are realizing they can slice and dice the demo and go for the "bull's-eye target" - like newly married men in their twenties who've just bought their first home.
By the time today's young man hits middle age, predicts Starcom's Rishad Tobaccowala, the distinction between television, videogames, and the Internet will have all but melted away. All content will be more or less interactive, all screens will be IP-enabled, and everything we view on them - ads, entertainment, in the home, on the go - will be served up individually, according to who we are and what we're doing. Of course, we won't spend all our time in front of screens - just most of it. "There will be physical events that can never be digitized, like Nascar races or people meeting in bars," he says, and this will put a premium on experiential advertising and experiences in general. "But increasingly we will be able to make our alternate worlds more and more real."
For now, though, digital entertainment is still at its inception, and advertisers have to learn a whole new game. Men 18 to 34 are the gift that will show them the way.
Turning the Page
The Nielsen ratings empire scrambles to get wired.
When Nielsen Media Research approached librarian Mike Waugh in May to participate in its television ratings survey, he thought the company would install an elaborate bugging device in his TV set. Turns out, there was nothing so Orwellian about the process. All he had to do was make entries in a log book. "You'd think they would have come up with something new," says Waugh, whose family was a Nielsen home 20 years ago. "It was the same paper diary I filled out when I was 10."
Not much has changed at Nielsen since the 1950s, when it developed the log book method for measuring TV viewership. Tens of thousands of pages pour into its Florida data center each week from its sample of more than 100,000 households. The diary notes are crunched and counted, the results sent to the networks and advertising agencies every Tuesday. Sounds so retro, but as the single data provider to the $20.4 billion broadcast TV advertising market, Nielsen hasn't needed to upgrade.
Until now. A trove of new data - extracted from digital video recorders like TiVo and cable and satellite set-top boxes - makes Nielsen's numbers look hopelessly incomplete. Sure, Nielsen can tell you that 20 million people watched CSI. But TiVo can report how many recorded the show and watched it later, how many fast-forwarded through or muted the commercials, even how many clicked away at 9:59 pm to watch ER instead of CBS's Without a Trace. TiVo can do all of this on the fly, from either a sample of 10,000 homes or its entire client base of 1.6 million.
That may sound like a lot of TiVo boxes, but with 100 million television households in the US, TiVo is still niche. Even if the company grows at a robust rate, it can't break into the ratings business without some help. It needs Nielsen's reach, client contracts, and brand clout.
And Nielsen needs TiVo's granular data. In February, the two companies inked a deal. Beginning this fall, Nielsen will sell reports that quantify the time-shifting habits of the DVR generation. The reports will rank shows by the number and type of people who watched or recorded them and will include by-the-minute breakdowns of viewing habits. Using TiVo numbers, says Scott Brown, the Nielsen senior VP who brokered the partnership, "you get an idea of how best to address programming in the future." And how best to sell soap.
The Nielsen-TiVo package will, for the first time, provide clients data on "commercial retention" - who's watching the ads, who's skipping them, which spots work, which ones don't.
The TiVo deal comes nearly two decades after Nielsen first introduced digital technologies of its own. In 1987, the company began using People Meters, electronic modules that attach to a TV and monitor whether it's on or off, what channel it's tuned to, and which family member is watching. One big draw: The meters offered overnight national ratings, allowing Nielsen to gradually phase out its antiquated handwritten diaries.
But Nielsen's clients - the major networks - didn't see the appeal. They claimed the meters were unreliable and, even after Nielsen tweaked the technology, showed little interest. Why? The meters promised more precise viewership information - and with that, networks and ad agencies ran the risk of learning exactly how much their audiences were dwindling. "What I'd call a 'group of vested interests' has a stake in seeing things remain the same," says Tim Hanlon, senior VP at Starcom MediaVest Group, a media planning company. If Nielsen adjusts its numbers down, networks have to reimburse advertisers. One slight shift in 1990 cost the three major networks $300 million, says David Poltrack, a CBS executive vice president.
Since 1987, Nielsen has installed just 5,100 People Meters. But now the company is determined to speed ahead. Though the networks are still resisting the new measuring techniques, most see the changes as inevitable. And Nielsen just can't afford to wait any longer. There's a growing market, especially among cable networks and ad agencies, for the new-and-improved numbers, and Nielsen knows it won't be long before some major firm brandishing DVR-fueled data (Comcast? Time Warner Cable?) jumps into the research business. Hence Nielsen's new pledge: 12,000 People Meters in 10 major cities by 2006.
Meanwhile, Nielsen is looking to new technologies. With Arbitron, it's developing a wearable pagerlike device that will monitor TV viewing inside and outside the home. With Activision, it's trying to create a similar gadget to track product placement in videogames. But even as it plans the future, Nielsen can't let go of those paper logs. - Beth Pinsker
Contributing editor Frank Rose (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote about Chinese mobile phones in Wired 12.04.