Generational stereotyping: catnip, clickbait … a crock
The 50th anniversary of
Woodstock Woodshtick has come and gone – the endgame of five long decades of punditry and pontification over a messy 1969 mudfest in upstate New York that, supposedly, defines the Baby Boom generation.
Like most shiny marketing and mass-media objects, the Woodstock rock festival was more important for catnip and clickbait than for the event itself. Great music from iconic performers? Sure. Shocking nudity, drugs and rain-drenched debauchery? You bet.
The Boomer metaphor? No way!
Fast forward and those counterculture young rebels, who, BTW, left acres of trash – and other debris too offensive to list – in their wake at Yasgur’s Farm, were back in the headlines as greedy yuppies promoting fast foods and SUVs around the globe.
Fast forward again and editorials, columnists and bloggers schizophrenically bemoan “aging” – make that OLD – Boomers either as wealthy and forcing the price of housing beyond the reach of their Millennial kids or as pathetic, penniless and headed for senior living on a shoestring.
Catnip, eyeballs and clickbait: it’s just generational stereotyping. Like Woodshtick.
Half of Boomers over 18 were already married (at a median age of 21 for women, 23 for men), and half a million more were serving in the jungles of Southeast Asia with more to worry about than whether Hendrix or Santana was the greatest guitar player on the planet.
Whatever else they may be, Boomers are not one-size-fits-all.
The generational name game
Back in 1969, the Baby Boomers weren’t even named as such. The first recorded use of the term was in a 1970 Washington Post article, codifying something economists had been observing for a while – the massive surge in births after WW2.
When millions of lonely GIs came home to millions of lonely sweethearts, they had more than home cooking on their mind. So much so that the US Census Bureau decided to monitor the resulting birth boom in order to assess its impact on America’s roaring postwar economy.
Graphed as a bulge in the fertility rate curve, these new arrivals were dubbed The Pig in the Python by demographers – who says statisticians don’t have a sense of humor? So Baby Boomer was definitely catchier, more PC, when the Census Bureau adopted the name and set the birth year range at 1946-1964.
As always, the private sector was way ahead of the government in spotting – and monetizing – trends.
From the early 1960s, “youth” was already a hot target for marketers, movies, the music industry and the media. The notion of a counterculture generation gap was well-established when Woodstock came along to wrap things up in a grubby hippie stash bag.
So what if 95% of Baby Boomers never came any closer to a hippie than at the movies, on TV or in a magazine? A nifty new name and a groovy meme was all that was needed to freeze them in time, take the idea of socio-cultural generations viral and send gurus scrambling to name, rename, discover, rediscover and profit from defining the generations that would follow the Boomers.
It’s still a work in progress, or a train wreck in slow motion, take your pick.
And Adland is falling over itself to shove “aging” Millennials aside now that they are ditching lofts, Lyft and lattes for suburbia, SUVs and Similac. Gen Z may be broke, but it’s way cool.
The penalty for misunderstanding Boomers
Brands that mistake rosy nostalgia, mellowed by time, for how Boomers’ inner minds work today are headed for trouble.
Even back in the Swingin’ Sixties, hippies, free love and the drug culture were not held in high esteem. Guilty pleasures, perhaps, but also associated with social disruption and division: a 1968 Harris Poll reported almost three-quarters (72%) felt hippies and protesters were at least partly the cause of law and order breakdown.
And in 1971, three-quarters (75%) told Harris that hippies were harmful in some way, mostly to themselves (53%) but as many saw them as a threat to society (22%) as not harmful to anyone (22%).
The problem for brands that rely on stereotypes in the 50+ space is that few in their marketing teams or at their ad agencies actually live there. The average age of creative department staff is 28; only 5-10% of all agency employees are over 50.
No wonder AARP’s mature marketing agency, infuent50, found 83% of Boomers feel advertisers make mistakes when trying to appeal to their age group. As for reasons, Boomer / neXt Senior Creative Adviser, Chuck Nyren, nailed it in his book Advertising to Baby Boomers
Ad agencies seem to have no idea what “The Sixties” meant to any of us.
Liberal, cultural progressives took the decade very seriously. They don’t enjoy seeing it trivialized, commercialized, reduced to hawking products and services. Conservative Baby Boomers never bought into The Sixties’ culture and ethos. Using it thematically to reach them insults and angers them.
Then there is a chunk of Boomers who were never particularly affected by it all, shied away from it, had quieter values. Another huge chunk were too young for Sixties Culture to really resonate with them.
None of this would matter except for an inconvenient little fact: the 120 million Americans over 50 represent the world’s 3rd largest economy after the US itself and China.
To prosper there, brands need experts who inhabit that world themselves, steeped in its socio-culturing imprinting, fluent in its subtle silent language and smart enough to give Woodstock a cameo role, not make it the star, in the Boomer story.