Millennial-Friendly Advertising: What Connects?

Levis go forthRecently, my 15 year old son told me he liked the Levi’s ‘Go Forth’ campaign featuring Walt Whitman’s poem ‘O Pioneers’. He went on to add that he didn’t think it made him want to ‘go forth’ and buy Levi’s jeans, a brand he considers hopelessly passé.  Nevertheless, I was surprised to hear he even liked the ads; most of the ads he likes are funny. ‘Likeability’ is one of the two most important elements of advertising effectiveness, so I consider that a ‘win’ for Levi’s, although they still have a ways to go on ‘relevance’ to reach to my son.

Bob Garfield reached the same conclusion when he reviewed the Go Forth campaign for Ad Age, “Levi’s Target Unlikely to Go Forth and Buy“.

“There is something quite special about the new Levi’s campaign from Wieden & Kennedy. It is an exquisitely wrought example of design, language, mood and spirit (indomitable spirit, to be precise). It is also visually and tonally consistent across all media platforms. And it is obviously grounded in research that discovered a romantic and idealistic tug among the target audience for the good ol’ American pioneering imperative. The flawless integration of design, strategy and theme, however, isn’t what makes the campaign so special. What makes it special is that, more likely than not — at least in the U.S. — it will generate little more than a rolling of eyes on a mass scale. Because it is too cleverly manufactured, too pompous, too precious. In short, too advertisingy.”

Reaching teens and other Millennial-age young adults through traditional advertising approaches has proven to be difficult. Not only do they have mental and physical filters to avoid seeing ads in the first place, they are highly critical of the ads they do see.

According to Dan Coates, President of the youth marketing firm YPulse, Gen Y is becoming less receptive to advertising as time goes by — even when they notice the ads, they don’t act upon them. Traditional advertising simply ‘washes over’ them. What’s even worse, when advertising invades previously ad-free online spaces, it breeds hostility.

Whether the imperviousness and hostility demonstrated by Gen Y reflects attitudes that are ‘jaded’ or ‘sophisticated’  is irrelevant: the question for marketers is how to break through? According to YPulses’ research among collegians, reported last week by Mediapost, humor, music, and straightforward simple messages are most likely to catch their attention and motivate them.

  • If you ask youth to describe their favorite advertisement, the majority of what they describe is a television ad that made them laugh. Humor means a lot to youth, and they appreciate anything that tickles their funny bone. Unfortunately, being funny isn’t easy, and we’ve frequently measured ad campaigns that tried in vain to elicit a chuckle.  
  • While humor, catchy music and practical product benefits seems straightforward enough, we were surprised to hear from youth how effective event sponsorships and pre-movie advertisements are in capturing their attention. Both of these advertising environments significantly reduce the clutter of competing messages, attaching themselves to experiences that are both meaningful and relevant to youth.  
  • Good music is the next most appealing advertising element for youth and, luckily, this is an advertising device that is much easier to deliver upon. Apple’s catchy iTunes ads set the standard for how to leverage music to generate receptivity amongst youth.
  • This generation is very practical and appreciates advertising that discards hyperbole in favor of clear and simple product information. Similar to the GI generation, which was exposed to the early television advertising of P&G, Gen Y has swapped the Swedish accent of Folger’s kindly Miss Olson with the raspy ranting of the recently departed pitchman Billy Mays.

The Gen Y  blog,, posed this question today to its readers:  ‘What does a brand have to do to connect with our generation?’ Many of the responses echo the same advice about relevance, humor and music. Many go on to add that it is important to engage them beyond the advertising with interactivity. Here are a few examples:

Emily Purdie: Regardless of the media used, the message has to be personally relevant on some level to make people stop, listen, and care. VW did a great job a few years with the “All Grown Up. Sort of.” campaign for Jetta, featuring 20-somethings who were figuring out how to balance careers and adulthood with fun and youthfulness. The car was offered up as the perfect vehicle to help us tread that line. And the TV spots had some great music, too.

 Zoe I think it depends on the brand, really. For instance, Apple has our sense of humor figured out draws us in that way…
 Scott: It has to go above in beyond in engaging us, as we are resistant to traditional marketing. Host a contest, make us laugh, anything that will get us involved. Develop a kick ass Facebook page. Make sure your brand has personality to it, and be authentic, or you’ll wonder if you are laughed at versus being laughed with. Lastly I would say that as a generation we are very distrustful of the motives of large organizations and institutions, so win us over first before pitching your wares.

Dylan I think the main problem is this idea of *making* us care, as if it was a matter of force. Persuasion is not an art of push and pull, rather, an art of attraction and eventual seduction. The most top of mind brand fitting this concept would be the Nintendo Wii.

In August, I put forth my formula for engaging Gen Y in marketing, “Engaging Millennials: How Marketers Can Break Through“:
Engaging Millennials = Enabling Discovery + Energizing Experience + Encouraging Advocacy
The basic premise behind this formula is that traditional advertising is insufficent to engage Millennials. They want to experience their brands.  As a first step toward discovery, advertising can be effective. But smart marketers like Levis are learning that the big production budget, mass approach is only a first step.