Generation X: Why Advertising and Marketing needs the X-Factor

It’s Saturday morning. I’m in Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn. A shopping strip in a suburb for people who’d really like to live in Toorak but don’t want to look pushy.

I’m parking my scratched old Landrover Disco. I note that I’m in a line of 4WD’s. Rangies, Honda CRV’s, Pagero’s, Ford Explorers (do they let Ford’s into Hawthorn – you’d think they’d stop them at the gate…) and the line is peppered with Subaru’s. Grey, Black. So superior to the taller 4WD’s.  So sure they are more environmentally conscious, more intelligent. Parked by grumpy skinny women with nasty pointy haircuts who would like to be teachers but can’t be bothered to work when their husbands make $500,000 a year as mercenary merchant bankers.

I notice a bum protruding from a late model Rangy. It looks strangely familiar. I watch the bottom lean in to grab the first kid, too forcefully, swings the kid around, the kid tries to jump in front of the on-coming Tram, the bum spins it around, tosses it towards the curb, while it leans in for the next one. Two later the bum has its brood on the footpath – all pulling in different directions. Yelling at him they want this or that. He’s trying to get his hair together (an important issue for him). You can tell he’d be quite happy right now if they did launch themselves under a bus. Frazzled. A dad lost at sea. Doing something he never does. Wasting time on his kids.

I recognize the bum. He’s also balding, his pants are baggy. His chin has several levels to it – a cascading blob of porridge. This really gives me pleasure. Time has not been kind. But is it ever?

Twenty years ago he was a slim, clean-cut fellow student. One of those people whom all the teachers liked, but nobody really knew. One of those people who had perfect teeth, perfect hair and ironed pants. One of the kinds of students you suspected were having it off with a lecturer to get good marks because there was nothing going on in their heads.

Having a conversation with him was like waving your arm around a warm room. It sort of felt right but there was no substance. You’d get to the end of the little chat (and it was always a little chat) and you couldn’t remember what it was about. A vacuum of intelligence. One of those people who exhausts you of energy because they don’t contribute. They spout clichés and go though life like they are watching a three dimensional movie.

He was in all ways predictable. Always in black. Saved him from having to think ‘What goes with what’? Now he’s in vomit. And nothing is going with anything. Now he’s struggling to make it through an hour on a Saturday morning without bashing one of his kids to death.

I may not like this particular individual, had you guessed? (I doubt anyone doing Marketing at Monash in the early 80’s did) But besides being an ass masquerading as a pillar of suburban society, what is he? I’m sorry to say, he’s your average thirty-something. Statistically, he’s right on the money. Average age, average number of kids, possibly broken marriage, over-worked etc.

For the average thirty-something, life is a tumbling mess of things you have to do, children to track, bills to pay, spouses to appease, bosses to satisfy and slowing yourself down as you slam into the hard wall of reality. And like most his age, he’s scared, out of his depth and floundering like a fly with one wing stuck on a piece of blue-tac.

And as the average Australian, sort of a Homer Simpson with an Aussie twang, without the sense of humor, he’s possibly the most important person in your life, if you’re a marketer.

He’s the heartland. Bigger than any other. More spending power (when interest rates are lowish).  More stressed. More pained. Worked to the bone. Paying off houses, kids, probably in his case, any minute, ex-spouses.

You, the average reader, sitting there, happy in your office, back to your less intelligent comrades. Sneaking a look at Marketing Magazine. You’re most probably also in your mid-30’s. You’re probably of average height (say 5 cms less than you tell people) average weight (say 10 ks over where you’d like to be) average income (no, if you’re in marketing you’re probably earning 30K more than those suckers) average looks (but at least you’ve got a personality – versus the accountants across the hall who could use theirs to chill beer, if they drank)

You’re thinking hey, we’re discussing Generation X. I know all about it. This article is not about Generation X, although given they are born from 1961 to 1981 there’s a good argument it should be, but I’ve had a look at the Generation X psychological profiles and I believe we’d be stupid to use those documented head-sets to work our local 30-40 year olds. Given I’ve done hundreds of focus groups with this age group (not statistically accurate, but sure beats stuff from the other side of the globe) I reckon I can safely say we’re very different.

Australians are not Generation Xers.

When you go through the factors that supposedly make up the Generation X psyche, you get someone who’s pissed off at everything – being born with the responsibility of carrying their parents (baby boomers are getting to retirement age – who’ll pay for it?), an environment falling apart, no power to do anything and no earning power. Someone who’s materialistic and fearful – concerned about hanging onto every cent they can and grumpy about marketers who are trying to get their money. So conservative they think sex itself is a sin. Over analyzed (it’s all my Mom’s fault’), over fed (yes, I’ll have fries with that) and over brainwashed by our Rupert and his Fox Network. And who are hugely cynical about business, so much so that they take on gigs like ‘McJobs’ where there is no future because what’s the point of trying to make one for yourself?

These characteristics are not Australian, they are harping, boring, spoilt middle-class American characteristics. In Australia, no-one who takes on a McJob, does it because they think it’s cool. They do it because they need the money and it’s a stepping stone.

We’re different because we haven’t had a recession for many years. We haven’t got mad bible-bashers running most of our government departments. We haven’t got the inner city gang violence….need I go on?

I’m worried many important firms in Australia are making commercially sensitive decisions based on US research of this generation because their US bosses see themselves in the research. More often than not, it simply does not hold water here.

Marketers are definitely not Generation Xers

To be a marketer and have any chance of success, you need to have drive, an ability to talk other people into doing something and a good understanding of the general human being and their likely motivations. None of these characteristics seem to be part of the Generation X person, as defined by Douglas Coupland, author of the term. (See box) As marketers, we have to shake off negativity and get on with our lives and our careers. Sure, there are hurdles. But to be a marketer you have to be an action person. You have to get up every morning and say, ‘I’m going to do this today’. And do it. You have to want and need to succeed. And frankly, to stay a marketer, the most exciting of all professions on this planet, you have to regularly be a winner or you just won’t be here long.

So don’t take the Generation X stuff to heart. It’s not you and it’s not really your target market. It’s a few of us, sometimes, that’s all. Back to Australia and today.

Life style changes – The biological clock

If you haven’t had kids in your twenties, and many of us do, the thirties is the age when you start to hear your biological clock ticking.

Why does this matter? The urgent drive to procreate puts huge pressure on decision-making. Do I buy a house or do we need the money for a kid? Do we need a house for a kid? Do we get a bigger car, for the kids I’m about to have, or do we drive around in a small one saving money on fuel so we can afford a kid? It goes on and on.

The need to nest, having had a kid or two, to find safe long-term accommodation while your baby grows from a gurgling wriggling smell-making blob to a foot-ball kicking window-breaking unmanageable maniac, is also a key pressure.

For that matter, this decade of human development is one of constant pressures.

Pressure from all sides

30-40 year olds have to perform. They are no longer the junior apprentice at the firm. They are supposed to be one of the main engines. They are also expected to be a key bread-winner at home. To be a Mum or Dad – available to pick up the kids from school if they are sick, take them to sport, do the shopping, clean the house etc. etc.

The government looks at these individuals and thinks, probably quite rightly, that they are so under the pump that they can just keep taxing them and fining them for parking in the wrong place (cause they didn’t have time to find a parking place further away and knew they couldn’t keep the kids on the foot-path for 500 m without one of them ending up under a bus.) So like the evil bastards they are, they tax the buggery out of 30-40 year olds, because they don’t have a moment to fight back.

I’m amazed the average 30-40 year old gets the time to do any shopping at all. Which is one of the key reasons retail in this country doesn’t do better. How the hell can you shop when you work 50-60 hours a week? No wonder Chaddy and the like do so well when they run 24 hour shopping events – parents can get there at 11 pm.  Just finished work, kids are in bed….

Bargains

Falling sex drive mixed with huge levels of responsibility combine to make this target segment one of the best for ‘deals’. Family sized boxes. Two for the price of one. Don’t pay anything for 2 years. This is the age of the true Aussie bargain shopper, grabbing at anything that will stretch his/her dollar further.

The glass ceiling

The thirties is also a time for wanting rapid rises in the work-place. Once you’ve had kids, or your spouse has talked you into getting a bigger home, the question inevitably arises – how do we pay for this? Which means this age-group push for career advancement, they push for money and they are prepared to work long hours to get them. But they are often very frustrated, as more senior staff get positions of power (what do you do, promote all the 30 somethings and hold back the more experienced 40 somethings?). There is a strong sense of anger at lack of advancement in this age group.

Spending power and focus

If you’re in cars, supermarkets, hvpg, fast foods, cleaning products, home wares, furniture, banks, fashion, schools, hardware, anyone in B2B. This age group is critical to you.

The target decade

Most companies focus on this age group. That’s because a lot of marketers with a budget are this age, so they naturally feel an affinity with this age group, plus most companies know it’s about ‘average’ for Australia, so they figure if they fire at this lot, they’ll pick up most of the rest. Funnily enough, it means this age group is way over-targeted. Saturated with marketing communications.

Aiming younger to hit perception of self

Most professional marketers actually feature people a bit younger than the key target because they know that mid-thirties see themselves as mid-twenties in looks. I sometimes think I look in my mid thirties. Which is a real joke.

Sex and its use

A waning sex drive does not mean an extinct one. One of my mates says “if you stop looking at the opposite sex it’s a sure sign you’re dead”. Sex sells with this age group, because it’s something they can remember with true affection.

Media

The absolute mainstream of ad campaigns. TV, even radio at the right times. Out-door’s good – you never know when they’ll be driving to and from work. Anything works given the ability of your media buyer to secure a good deal.

But I’d be very careful about selection of shows if you choose TV, and creative in general – this age-group is very sensitive to the attitude and values of shows. And they don’t forgive dumb creative. They are more Simpsons, less the Price is Right.

Given their working hours, bugger all of them are watching TV before 7 pm. But you could catch them at say 6-7 am. The kids are up, there’s only comics on, Mum hasn’t much choice, good time to try a banking ad?

Hot Buttons

30-40 year olds need big red hot buttons to get through to them. Bargain deals, strong emotional pulls. With teenagers you can be subtle and cute. With older age groups you can be clever or long-winded. With 30-40 years olds, use a base-ball bat.

Your team and impact

If you’re a decision maker in marketing, it’s you and your team who these people are normally like. So if you don’t have a decent research budget, look at yourselves… What do you look at in media? What ads work for you? But please don’t over-analyze. Go for the one that worked for your team first off. Even if it is slightly off-brief.

Better to have impact with this target market than to try to get high frequency. They are so time-strapped you’ll need to spend a fortune in media to build up repetition if you’re too subtle.

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