What the Rise of Gen Z Means for Advertising

At first sight, the idea that all members of a single generation will share similar personalities may seem just as ridiculous as asserting that all Capricorns are sensitive, or that all inhabitants of Buenos Aires are two-faced.


Obviously, all humans are unique individuals. But we do share common qualities, and some of those are shaped by the era in which we are born. Those who grew up in the 1930s were indelibly marked by the Great Depression, and we all know the difference between a ‘child of the 60s’ and an ‘80s yuppie’. People can’t help but be influenced by the social, economic and political forces that prevail in their most formative years. And people of a certain age will be affected more profoundly by the spirit of the times than those whose personalities are already formed, or those who are too young to know what’s going on. Hence, generational differences.


You probably remember a rush of think-pieces setting out to define what Gen Y would be like, and how to sell to them. And yet already it’s time to forget everything you knew about those whingey, entitled and narcissistic Millennials, obsessed as they supposedly are with avocado toast since they are unable to get a foot on the property ladder, and start thinking about their successors – Gen Z.


What? Gen Z here already? But they’re just a bunch of kids, aren’t they?


Not really. Born between 1997 and 2015, Generation Z are the cohort currently aged between 6 and 24 years old and there are nearly 68 million of them in the U.S. alone.


And the reason that people who work in advertising need to care about them, and start understanding them, is that – like so many young people who have gone before – they will soon start setting the trends that everyone else will follow.


We all know that young people don’t have much money. The average new car buyer in the U.S., for example, is 53 years old. But of course, you won’t see that 53-year-old in a car ad. You’ll more likely see someone half their age. And this is not due to the ageism of the ad industry: it’s due to the ageism inside us all. The 53-year-old, you see, doesn’t want to drive a car that they think is driven by 53-year-olds. They want to drive a car that they think is popular with ‘the cool people’. Same goes for sportswear, alcohol products… everything. Except pharmaceuticals, naturally. If you doubt the truth of the sentiment, ask yourself which brand you would rather own – the mobile phone that is popular with 24-year-olds, or the one preferred by 50-somethings? Exactly.


So, that is why marketers (quite rationally) market their product to cool young people. And why people in the advertising industry need to get to know Gen Z, who are about to have that baton passed to them from Gen Y.


So what defines Gen Z?


The most significant influence on this cohort is that they are the first generation of true digital natives. With no memory of a world before smartphones, they have grown up hearing a multiplicity of voices, whereas previous generations (in some countries) may have relied on very few media sources, such as a state TV broadcaster. That’s why Gen Z are radically inclusive of people different to themselves (as seen in the sudden push towards acceptance of trans and non-gender-conforming people – a Pew study tallied 35% of Gen Zers saying they personally know someone who prefers to go by gender-neutral pronouns, compared with 16% of Gen Xers and 12% of Boomers). And unlike previous generations, they have grown up with numerous means of self-expression constantly to hand. Aided and abetted by Snapchat filters and face-swap apps, they pick up and put down different personalities multiple times a day before breakfast.


If Gen Z can therefore be defined by their acceptance of a wide range of different identities, and comfort in adopting more fluid, less conforming and more individualised identities themselves – a proposition backed up by a large piece of research from McKinsey – then what are the implications for advertising?


First, the depiction of a brand as a means of joining a tribe may be about to become redundant. Think of the huge success of products that seemed to define a generation: brands such as Levi’s, Abercrombie & Fitch, or Starbucks. Gen Z will still want brands, though not as a way to situate themselves in one of a limited number of available identities, but rather as pieces in a self-constructed mosaic of individuality. The knock-on effect here is around how advertising narratives will play out – it implies we’re less likely to see stories around consumers uniting with others, and more likely to see stories about consumers following their own paths.


Secondly, brands will be less likely to be used for the purpose of denoting status. In fact, this concept has already been fading for some time. It’s more associated with Gen X even than with Gen Y, and probably reached its zenith when Bret Easton Ellis shoved long lists of brands into the mouth of serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, a book in which the word ‘Armani’ is mentioned 57 times, and ‘Ralph Lauren’ over 30. Gen Y have tended to communicate status via bragging about their experiences rather than their possessions (isn’t that what Instagram was invented for?) and no doubt Gen Z will move even further away from the need to display any high-priced consumer goods to the world. The implication is that premium brands will need to start telling stories around their inherent quality, and not around what they say about the consumer, or the experiences they enable.


Thirdly, Gen Z are even keener than Gen Y for brands to be purpose-driven, with 55% of Gen Zers choosing brands that are eco-friendly and socially responsible, according to research by the National Retail Federation, and an incredible 94% believing that companies have a responsibility to make the world a better place, per a study done by 3BL media.  The implication for advertising is that we’ll see even more ads communicating companies’ environmental and social credentials. Heck, maybe we’ll even see companies actually doing more to drive social good.


Fourthly, Gen Z are even more ad savvy and ad avoidant than Gen Y, according to a large survey by Kantar Millward Brown. Already, Facebook strongly advises advertisers to create bespoke edits for brand video appearing on Facebook and Instagram – the ‘power of the thumb’ to scroll past your ad means a social video should ideally begin with the climax, rather than build up to it. If you’ve ever watched a teenager looking at their phone, you will have indeed observed that their thumb pushes ads away at a speed approaching faster-than-light, unless they are hooked instantly. And any ad that ‘looks like an ad’, on the social platforms where young people expect content to be native, will be detected and despatched in milliseconds. 

The inevitable consequence is that advertising filmmakers will have to work even harder to make their content instantly and authentically arresting. And this doesn’t just apply to online video. A 30-second TV ad will always be a 30-second TV ad, but the perception that the TV audience is ‘trapped’ and therefore forced to watch ads in a linear fashion is increasingly anachronistic, given that Gen Z are incapable of watching a TV show without cycling between at least two other screens at the same time, maybe even three or four. They may not be able to skip your ad when they’re watching TV, but they don’t need to. They can simply look away.


Finally, Gen Z’s attention span will be even lower than that of Gen Y… and bear in mind that the average Millennial has an attention span of just 8 seconds. So how much focus can we expect from the generation who favour the ephemerality of Snapchat over other social platforms (71% of Gen Z use Snapchat on a daily basis, with 51% of them using it about 11 times per day)? Tik-Tok allows ads of up to 60 seconds, but recommends “short videos of 9-15s.” The Instagram Stories format allows ads of up to 120 seconds in length, but will automatically split them into separate 15 second videos. So it may be that ads longer than 15 seconds will become increasingly rare, outside of the context of premium TV and cinema placements.


Putting all this together, it seems safe to say that marketing communications will need to get shorter, more instantly impactful, even more socially responsible, less materialistic, and more individualistic as opposed to tribal.


Now go turn that into an ad campaign.


Or more likely, a suite of 6-second YouTube bumpers…

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