Make Marketing History

The views of a marketing deviant.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

16-34 – Holy Grail or Marketing’s Falaraki?

I wrote this in September 2002 but it still seems that marketers are slow to learn the lesson. Falaraki for the uninitiated is a greek resort town that decided to cater for the 16-34 age group and had its character desecrated and hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons back then.

In a world of allegedly increasing marketing sophistication and media literacy, the continued obsession with my 16-34 demographic - almost regardless of the product involved – seems a bizarre relic of outdated thinking. A myopic view that leads to inanities such as the concern which surrounded Big Brother 3’s unprecedentedly large and involved audiences – the very USP of television advertising - when the figures revealed a trend toward older downmarket viewers. Though in reality the actual number of 16-34 viewers had increased! The fact that ITV’s recently announced production schedule included dramas aimed at an older audience “who complain they have nothing to watch” is perhaps the first sign that some joined-up thinking is occurring. Or perhaps commisioning editors are just getting older!

For this is not just an arcane question of whether a chronological demographic can be treated as a generic whole – we all know people who were born middle-aged; sad middle-aged types who refuse to grow up; and older people who are genuinely youthful in outlook, spirit and consumption patterns. Rather, it goes to the heart of the commercial sanity of TV companies seeking to capture the youth market for its advertisers when not all are marketing youth-oriented products; not all consumers of youth products are young; and at a time when the general demographic trend is against them anyway (the average age of the population will be 40 in 2008).

While it has long been accepted that it’s more realistic to talk in less generic categories – hence the move to all sorts of psychographic classifications - the rationale seemingly remains that we 16-34s are the trend setters, the most malleable and have the greatest disposable income. Catch us now and you’ve got us for life! This may have been true in the past, but today’s demographic dynamism is arguably unparalleled and poses some real questions. Do groupings like the 16-34s occupy the same social position as they did previously? Is it even sensible to think of them as behaving constantly? And do people’s habits and buying patterns change over time more or less than was the case in previous generations?

The biggest demographic trend, of course, is that of the ageing population precipitated by birth bubbles and greater life expectancy. It is beginning to have a huge impact on society in fiscal, sociological and cultural terms. Not only will this place demands on younger generations in terms of care costs and fiscal drag, it is also unleashing a generation of well-off early retirees into the economy with low expenses and secure incomes.

Intuitively, therefore, it is no longer the case that all early adopters are from the youth market and it is surely time to accept that the trendsetters are different for different ages and groups. Indeed, we already know that it is younger teenagers outside the 16-34 grouping who are the true early adopters of crazes like ring tones, but to attempt to migrate them to higher cost services is naïve (3G licence holders take note) because they don’t have the money and in any case there are strict ITC restrictions to surmount.

As for malleability, what is the media literacy debate about if not the increasing difficulty in targeting younger consumers with traditional marketing methods? They’re either gullible or they’re more sophisticated – I don’t think they can be both. And is this repeated across generations? Are older consumers more or less susceptible to TV advertising or are they just repelled by MTV style visuals?

And finally, what is happening to disposable income? As marriage, house purchase and childbirth are being increasingly delayed, different spending patterns will emerge for which there must be different marketing approaches. We now regularly read of the impact of student debts on the spending power of a large portion of twentysomethings and, given the government’s obsession with getting 50% of 18-21 year olds into university of some sort, this can only increase. Inevitably there must be a hiatus in their spending – and perhaps a psychological carryover that will effect it for years to come.

So the assumptions are not as solid as they seemed, but is that all there is to consider? I think not. If media owners slant their output towards this demographic, there must surely be a longer-term distortion of culture, media and media commerce. Some obviously discernible trends are the predominance of manufactured music which it could be argued is a contributory factor to falling CD sales; and the nothing to watch syndrome that ITV is seeking to address. Focussing on the 16-34s might actually be self-defeating because it alienates not only older audiences but also those you are seeking to attract!

As the audience figures show, we are increasingly seeking our entertainment elsewhere. The increasing prime time presence of what used to be post-pub TV in the UK and its evolution in the US into what has been dubbed cruelty TV is not perhaps the ideal way to attract the cosmopolitan mobile 16-34 year olds that you crave. Factor in the increasing questions as to the functional literacy of many educated in the 70s and 80s and the attractiveness of the grouping arguably palls even more. Just as Falaraki has become identified with all sorts of unsalubrious connotations, perhaps advertisers will begin to question whether TV is aligning their products with the right sort of consumer. Is marketing to the metaphorically pissed-up such a great idea – will we respect you in the morning?

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