The Arbiters of Cool

Why has the consumer culture in the US become so youth-obsessed?

Why has the word “coveted” become inextricably attached to the words “18-34 year olds” among media planners and buyers? After all, it doesn’t take much more than a quick Google search to discover that older demographic segments spend much, much more.

We’ve grappled with these questions for quite some time. As a firm that conducts a lot of research among youth and on youth topics, we’ve certainly benefited from the nation’s obsession with youth.

Young people do have a lot of money to spend. Depending on whose projections you want to trust, teens spend somewhere between $150 and $200 Billion a year. That might sound like a lot, but when you look under the hood a bit you will find that the bulk of that spending power is concentrated at the upper end of that age range. Today’s teens certainly have more money to spend than their counterparts did a generation or two ago, but that spending level seems minor in comparison to what older age segments are spending.

The real answer as to why the media and marketing world is so centered on youth is INFLUENCE. Young people’s influence on the spending of adults is somewhere between 5 and 10 times their direct spending. Parents feel good when they are spending money on their children (and this type of spending is more immune to the business cycle than other types). Older people feel good when they buy products that have passed a “youth cool test.” Young consumers have become the arbiters of what is cool, and adults want to jump on board.

Most children’s first words are ‘Mama’ or ‘Daddy.’ My kid’s first words were: ‘Do I have to use my own money?’ — Erma Bombeck

Another reason you see so many ads targeted to teens and college kids is that adults “aspire backwards.” Below is a chart that runs from age 8 to 75. The question asked respondents, “regardless of your current age, if you could be any age at all, what age would you want to be?”

agegraph

The chart shows that up until about age 20, most people aspire to be older than they currently are. That is well known in youth marketing – so to attract say, a 12 year old, you put teenagers in the ads. It appears that in your 20’s and 30’s you are roughly happy with the age you are, but the moment you hit 40 you start to wish you were younger. Mid-life crisis anyone?

Finally, just as kittens become cats and puppies become dogs, young consumers become adults. Brand preferences can begin quite young, and a lifetime payoff can be substantial. By way of example, most US adults have a brand preference for Coke over Pepsi or Pepsi over Coke. Most will also drink the other brand if their preferred brand is not available. But, when faced with a choice of both, adults tend to show a brand preference that does not change over their lifetime. When is that brand preference formed? Early – likely by middle school. The lifetime value of establishing this preference early is huge, which explains why both brands continually race each other for the youth market.

So, youth are a substantial market, have an influence many times their size, and eventually become adult consumers. All the ingredients for a youth obsessed culture are in place.

I was recently reading an article that discussed how in China, the population reveres it older members. Evidently it is the law in China that you have to look after your parents in their old age, and there have been cases of elderly parents successfully suing their children for lack of support. Revering the old is not just cultural, it is mandated by the government. Our youth-obsession is a western-dominated concept, and one you don’t see in less consumer oriented areas of the word.

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