16 June 2014
Millennials Aren't Lost, But Maybe Advertisers Are
Published 16 June 2014
To keep the attention of a media savvy generation, advertisers need to stop trying to guess at and catch up to trends and reassert their role in shaping culture.
This week, the internet's collective funny bone was set off by an advertisement about, of all things, menstrual cycles.
The ad tells the story of an almost-teen who is so eager to get her period that she fakes it, and a mother who responds to her daughter lying to her by throwing a "First Moon Party" - a mortifying parade of themed piñatas and overly-excited relatives.
In the end, it's an ad for HelloFlo's Period Starter Kit - "the gift before the gift." The two-minute mini film works because it is subtly touching - about a daughter desperate to be more mature and a mother who wants her to just appreciate being young - and completely over-the-top hilarious at the same time. When compared with the sanitized, barely-know-what-they're-trying-to-advertise-they're-so-worried-about-offending tampon ads on mainstream TV today, it's clear that this is an ad of a different color.
The video is soaring. Since being released on Tuesday it has racked up more than 6 million views, helped HelloFlo nab thousands of new YouTube subscribers, and generated hundreds of laudatory articles from marketing, cultural, and general news publications - exactly the sort of measurable ROI brands and agencies lust after.
But it has done something much more important. In an advertising world that has told women for decades that what goes on "down there" should be spoken about in hushed tones and euphemisms, HelloFlo has proudly staked a claim as a brand that celebrates and cherishes the experience of becoming and being a woman, culturally-mediated squeamishness be damned.
Cannes & A Generation Lost To Advertisers?
The 2014 edition of the Cannes Festival of Creativity is coming to a close as this week ends.
In a thought piece published this week, John Gapper, lead business columnist for the Financial Times, wrote that at times the gathering of top creative ad execs felt like an exercise in collective confusion (or perhaps even...delusion?).
"Seven years after the launch of the iPhone," he wrote, "advertisers still treat it as a newfangled invention yet to prove its worth."
The central problem, he notes, is that as audiences - and particularly the Millennials, that great boogeyman of a generation - fragment across multiple channels and spend their media attention in differently places, the advertising industry has not come up with a new equivalent of the :30 second television spot. It has not come up with a creative gold standard that can routinely capture attention and win affiliation to a brand.
Gapper's not wrong to note that adworld has been slow if not sluggish to react to the reality of the digital age. Nor is he wrong in his assertion that the fragmentation of media has left a creative gap in the advertising portfolio.
But it is wrong to suggest the Millennial generation is somehow "lost," with attention uncapturable by advertisers.
What we are is harder to impress.
Direct Response & Brand Marketing: Uneasy Bedfellows
Advertising has always had two distinct sides: direct response advertising that focuses entirely on "conversion" - getting the right offer to the right target audience at the right time - and brand marketing that is about building awareness and positive sentiment around a brand, but which doesn't necessarily convert to an immediate sale. These two approaches have not always made the most copacetic bedfellows.
The opportunities wrought by the internet have been an undeniable boon for direct response advertising. The data left by customers across the internet is like a heat trail for interested advertisers. Never has it been so easy to find a highly-qualified lead in the actual moment when they're the most receptive to the offer a brand wants to make.
A massive and growing industry of advertising technology, from realtime bidding to retargeting and beyond, has grown up to help companies leverage this data.
When it comes to brand marketing, however, companies have mostly been struggling to grok the new relationships between brands and their customers that social media demands.
In his editorial, Gapper notes that Millennials are "as likely to be tweeting angrily about a brand as noticing its ads in the content stream." What he doesn't mention is that they only feel entitled to do so because social media has closed the gap between them and the brands that impact their lives. This new closeness can lead as much to a greater willingness to absorb a brand into one's identity and sense of self as to public displays of antagonism.
Social media soothsayer Gary Vaynerchuk has discussed the challenge corporations have had in adapting to the new era of engagement, noting in this clip "What's the ROI of your mother," that the real power in investing in social media isn't measurable clicks but the immeasurable change in sentiment that occurs when people feel like the brands they buy from are actual, honest to god humans rather than sales-driven automatons.
Still, if the internet has allowed advertisers to evolve more effective direct responses advertising and the foundations of new relationships with customers, what hasn't emerged yet is this generation's answer to the epically cool Super Bowl ad - that single piece of Mad Men-style cool-making that makes draws drop and wallets open.
Advertisers have been so caught up in trying to react to trends: in figuring out how to employ the newest targeting technology; in making sure they're paying proper attention to their social media audience; in creating real-time social media warrooms to make insta-reaction social media ads during important events because Oreo did that "Dunk in the Dark" thing that one time when the lights went out at the Superbowl and everyone said it was really cool.
They've been so caught up that they forgot that the roots of the American advertising industry aren't just about taking and reacting to culture, but shaping it.
Great Advertising Shapes Culture
When Samsung bought the first million copies of Jay-Z's most recent album for users of their new Galaxy S, they were embracing a fundamental truth:
Advertising is entertainment, and entertainment is culture.
Looking back over time, the most iconic advertisements of the old mediums were iconic not for any reason that had to do with television, but because they tapped into a vein of who we were as a people - or, more often, who we wanted to be.
Apple's famous 1984 ad tapped a desire to harness the power of technology without becoming slaves to it.
The McDonald's ads featuring Bird and Jordan bouncing impossible shots off of walls and backboards were telling the story of an America that loves fierce, friendly competition, and the idea that there are simply no limits to what we can achieve.
These ads were culture.
By paying for Jay Z's album, Samsung was affiliating themselves with one of the most important progenitors of culture in the modern era (not to mention taking advantage of a growing consumer disinterest in paying up front for the media they enjoy).
HelloFlo's approach with "First Moon Party" isn't to just affiliate with an arbiter of culture, but to create an artifact of it. In their case, its a culture that embraces the experience of being a woman as actually, genuinely fun.
Another recent viral advertising sensation is "Dear Kitten," produced by Buzzfeed on behalf of Friskies. The story of one cat welcoming a new kitten to the household isn't a cynical ploy by bean-counters who noticed that cat videos get lots of views - it's a quietly touching elegy to the notion that pets are part of our families.
The common thread in these approaches isn't a single medium or approach. For example, even though they're both ~2-3 minute YouTube videos, the Dear Kitten from Buzzfeed is technically a "native ad," produced by the publisher on whose platform it would appear, while Hello Flo's spot was produced by an agency, which somehow makes it more traditional?
What they have in common is that they are advertising as an exercise in sharing something important about today's human experience.
In the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper argues that people are all looking to be told they're okay. In today's world, which can be such a confusing mix of talking to everyone but being connected to no one, people are looking to feel a part of an experience that transcends themselves.
The creative, brand building side of advertising is about finding new ways to resonate. If anything, the internet offers a open platform for that creativity than ever before. There is no longer a 30 second limit on telling stories.
How can advertisers use the new mediums to tell stories about what's important, or confusing, or profound, or beautiful, or too-often-unremembered-and-unacknowledged, or fascinating, or awe-inspiring about people's experience today?
Do that, and not only will the Millennials pay attention; they'll tell everyone all about it.