by Antony Funnell
Young, connected and eager to share, the Millennial demographic has become a key target for advertisers, who are keen to involve them in digital campaigns that blur the line between real-life and marketing.
However, as Antony Funnell discovers, Millennials also face issues of privacy and consent particularly when it comes to social media. Advertisers talk in terms of markets. They create them and then segment them in order to create more. They also deal in stereotypes, using clichés to define the new markets they’ve just created, and they’ve been doing it for ages.
Think of the ‘Marlboro Man’ and smoking; or the ‘modern’ housewife of the 1950s and ‘60s that were used to sell everything from kitchen appliances to television dinners.
If we look at the companies that tend to get the highest amount of Millennial engagement … those companies tend to be willing to accept more risk and more disruption moving their brand to market. – Jeff Fromm, marketing consultant
Advertisers go where they perceive there’s a receptive audience and they also go where technology allows them. In the 20th century, they moved from newspapers to magazines, to radio, cinema and television. They finished the millennium staring into the promise of the online world.
Today, the technology du jour is digital and the audience of choice are the Millennials — who are roughly defined as the demographic that follows Gen X, who came to early adulthood around the year 2000.
In the US, according to marketing consultant, Jeff Fromm, they already account for more than 21 per cent of all consumer discretionary purchases, worth more than a trillion dollars of iontophoresis machine list for hospitals and more. From runs the firm Futurecast which focuses specifically on marketing to the Millennial demographic.
‘They influence older generations on so many issues,’ says Fromm. ‘If you’re going to make a technology purchase and you’re 45-years-old, are you going to your 65-year-old parent or your 20-year-old kid? They’re the first generation to have this kind of influence on so many older generations.’
According to Fromm, two other defining features of the Millennial cohort is their love of all things new and an almost instinctive desire to share.
‘They’re two-and-a-half times more likely to be first adopters of digital, social, mobile tools and technologies,’ he says. ‘Our thesis is that the big performers will be high share-worthy, high participation brands.’
‘Participation … [is when they] “co-create” a product or service and “co-create” the marketing; and share-worthy [is defined] as being more authentic, more differentiated, more purposeful and more disruptive than your peer group.’
Crucially, says Fromm, Millennials are interested in ‘pure affirmation’. They share based on how they feel about themselves. ‘It’s not about the brand, it’s about me,’ is their attitude. Whether or not that’s actually true, of course, is beside the point.
What matters is that it’s modern advertising orthodoxy and it’s leading to what could be termed a more ‘experiential’ approach to marketing. A good example of this is the ‘Happy Beer Time’ campaign created by the Danish agency Konstellation for the giant international brewer Carlsberg.
‘Happy Beer Time’ is a campaign designed to mimic and co-opt a real-life event. Pubs are enlisted to take part in the campaign and, during an allotted time, young drinkers are able to buy discounted beer. They’re then encouraged to take photos of themselves and their friends enjoying the beer and tag and share these photos via social media. The more images they share, the longer the ‘Happy Beer Time’ campaign will run.
According to Fromm such campaigns are proving highly effective but they carry a risk because encouraging the customer to become part of the advertising process—or ‘co-create’ as he says—means giving over a level of control. For those brands that are more traditionally-minded, this can prove problematic.
‘It is going to be difficult,’ he says, ‘but if we look at the companies that tend to get the highest amount of Millennial engagement [and] tend to have the highest financial performance, those companies tend to be willing to accept more risk and more disruption moving their brand to market.’
So if you accept that experiential advertising is working and that Millennials are particularly responsive to it, on what basis are they engaging? And how accepting are they of the manipulative nature of the ‘relationship’ advertising companies claim to be developing with them, as a brand’s customer base? After all, a ‘brand’ is no more than advertising-speak for a company and most companies are profit-driven, not altruistic.
Jeff Cole, the director of the Centre for the Future at the University of Southern California, Annenberg, says contrary to the claims made by some advertising professionals, Millennials, as a whole don’t necessarily embrace the new forms of digital targeting used by advertisers. Many of them, he says, are simply resigned to the fact that that’s how things work in the digital world.
‘The problem with advertising has been engagement, which is why we’ve moved beyond paid [advertising] to what we call “owned” and “earned”. Owned are websites where people go to get information and earned is [accessed through] social media. And Millennials do accept relationships with companies on social media if they believe they are authentic, if they know what information is being collected and why — there’s a whole new slew of rules,’ Cole says.
‘But with those rules that mostly extend into social media, they will certainly tolerate and maybe even in some cases accept advertising. They certainly are sophisticated [enough] to know that that’s how you pay for content.’
However Dr Nicholas Carah, a researcher in media studies at the University of Queensland, makes a distinction between just how much social media users understand the platforms that they’re using, and the mechanisms behind them.
‘People might have an understanding that the Newsfeed [on Facebook] is tailored toward them,’ he says, ‘but if you ask them whether they understand how the Newsfeed algorithm works, not everyone can give an account of that.’
Jeff Cole believes there’s a need for greater transparency and his Centre for the Digital Future is pushing for something like an online Bills of Rights.
‘I think they’re looking for rules and I think they are looking for guidance and understanding on how it works,’ he says of the Millennial demographic.
Cole sees potential online guidelines giving consumers, including Millennials, a greater stake in the entire process.
‘When people collect information through targetability, we have what we think is a logical four-step bill. Step one is advertisers tell people what information is being collected and why. Step two is privacy statements not written by lawyers for lawyers. Step three is an opt-out or an opt-in, some way to say, “I don’t want this,” although if you don’t want it, you may have to pay for things other people get for free. And step four is that they should be compensated—if they’re sharing this incredibly valuable information they should get rewards, they should get some form of compensation.’
It’s worth remembering, however, that in countries like Australia and the United States the advertising industry is largely self-regulated. It’s hard to imagine what commercial benefit a profit-driven marketing platform like Facebook, for instance, would see in greater transparency; particularly when the very basis of the experiential approach to advertising is to blur the lines between branding opportunities and real-life events and interactions.
Bond University Associate Professor Sven Brodmerkel says there are also issues developing around young people and the growing use of algorithm-driven hyper-targeting.
‘How the regulation of advertising should work is that a particular ad should be accessible to everyone,’ says Brodmerkel, ‘It represents certain ideas, or norms, or notions, or lifestyles and people can complain about certain representations and then maybe the regulator might step in.’
‘But thinking about hyper-targeting, most of the time these messages are not available for scrutiny because they are sent to very specific hyper-targeted individuals.’
Advertisers might even use digital platforms like Whisper or Snapchat where messages disappear after a certain period of time, says Brodmerkel, in order to make the branding messages that are sent even less accessible to scrutiny.
Nicholas Carah shares his concern. In fact, he says there’s increasing evidence that platforms like Facebook are actually helping brands to ‘gate’ content, thereby making it difficult to gauge when and where inappropriate material is being used to support advertising.
‘A brand may decide, we want to target our content only at men under 23 and we want to do really macho, sexist, aggressive advertising,’ says Carah, by way of example. ‘Now we know people in the target market won’t complain about it … so we’ll make sure the content is only visible to people in the target market.’
‘There we have a brand doing something that many in the public would find harmful … but it becomes completely invisible to public scrutiny. I think this is a huge question for any kind of regulatory framework that has an element of public scrutiny involved.’