It's a story as old as humanity. A once-rebellious generation of upstarts - in this case the Baby Boomers, a group that prides itself on having challenged the Establishment in its youth and changed America forever - has grown up and taken charge.
Like their parents before them, though, they have a problem: They aren't as close to the next generation as they yearn to be. They feel ignored, irrelevant.
So the Boomers want to build a bridge to their successors, the members of "Generation X," a label coined by Douglas Coupland in his book of the same name. But the motives for them to build that bridge have far less to do with the great issues of the day than was the case when their own parents were trying to understand why no one younger than 30 trusted them.
For proof, look at today's advertising. The stakes involve money, lots of it. The goal is to make and buy and sell, in lots of ways. The target is Generation X, a generation of kids bombarded with media images and hype almost from the day they were born.
"We (Boomers who are marketing to Xers) have to stop embarrassing ourselves," said Elissa Moses, senior vice president and director of strategic planning at the ad agency D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles Inc. "And we have to stop missing opportunities."
The new generation comprises a market of 46 million Americans born between 1964 and 1975 who, despite their youth and today's grim job market, have more spare change than previously assumed. It's the country's second-largest generation after the Boomers - with roughly $125 billion in discretionary income, according to Roper Marketing and Public Opinion Research.
What Boomers should blush over, according to Moses, are the many misguided marketing campaigns devised to reach Xers. That happens because Boomers, despite knowing what makes Xers different, can't seem to reach them.
"It's easy to make mistakes," said Moses. "People who have studied this generation are startled by the realization of just how difficult a world they've come of age in, from the economy, to crime, to the job market, to the onset of AIDS.
"As marketers, we tend to always assume that the best way to relate to and motivate our target is to show empathy."
***** `Bumming Out'
In this case, however, attempts at showing that marketers are "in touch" and aware of the obstacles Xers are up against have translated into ads that are too cold, too removed or too stylized.
A classic example of that was Benetton's recent magazine ad campaign showing a dying AIDS patient, a boat filled with Haitian refugees and other images of late 20th Century calamities. "It's not the kind of material that makes someone want to run out and buy a sweater," Moses said.
"Bumming out" a generation that's all too aware of the grim news at home and abroad apparently isn't the best way to win their hearts and minds, or at least their brand loyalty. So what does work?
As with anything in marketing - a combination of science, art and dumb luck - a surefire way has hardly been agreed upon. One problem is there are more perils than benefits in trying to pigeonhole a demographic group, particularly one defined solely by age.
But the fact that today's twentysomethings grew up during the rise of divorce and AIDS, the lack of political heroes and the decline in the economy - in contrast to the Boomers' relatively prosperous formative years - requires some attention, marketers say.
And the best way to do that is with some basic research, said Gregory Dickson, marketing director or U Magazine, a nationwide insert for college newspapers. But what keeps marketers from more effectively tapping into it is that "we overgeneralize," he told a recent conference in Chicago on marketing to Generation X.
Dickson and his staff have learned ways to avoid those pitfalls by, for instance, regularly visiting college campuses. …