The Evolution of Youth Marketing

Youth marketing is sometimes described as an “industry.” It has its own consultants, specialized agencies, and researchers. In my own lifetime I’ve seen marketing to kids move from something to be feared to something that is expected.

It can be somewhat disturbing to attend youth marketing conferences and hear militaristic terms used to describe children. Youth have become “targets,” a segment to be “captured,” and a demographic to be “penetrated.” I’ll never forget being at a youth conference where a presenter came dressed in full camouflaged military regalia and carried a fake shotgun. His theme was that if you want to capture the youth market, it is necessary to “hunt” them in their native habitat. More disturbing than the talk was the 200 or so youth marketers in the audience that didn’t seem disturbed by his characterization of children.

It is interesting to think about how we have gotten to this point as marketers. Viewing youth marketing through a historical and generational lens can yield some insight. So, let’s travel in time together and look at the evolution of youth marketing.

If we go way back, to when the Silent Generation (born 1925–1942) were children, we see that these were the offspring of some very difficult times. They were children of the Depression and war years, and were characterized as desiring conformity and security. At this time the marketing world itself was just getting established, and marketers were struggling to promote their wares at a time of economic uncertainty and war rationing. There was no “mass” way to reach consumers, as movies/news reels, local newspapers, and magazines were the key media of the day. Youth marketing at this time simply didn’t exist. Marketers were treading careful waters with adults.

The Boomer Generation (born 1943–1960) brought forth a huge increase in the number of children in the US, as well as America’s prominence in the world economy. These were Dr. Spock babies – raised by permissive parents, who became quite rebellious and self-centered later. This marked the advent of the TV age, and with limited channels and programming, marketers could reach a mass of consumers at the same time. For youth marketers, we typically call this the “children are to be seen and not heard” era. This time period witnessed the birth of the brand management system. Many marketing techniques in use today were created and refined at this time. But, there was such unfettered growth in adult markets that children were largely an afterthought for marketers.

This changed as Xers (birth years 1961–1981) came of age. Xers were born at tough time to be a kid. Divorce rates skyrocketed, parents focused on their own achievements, and the term “latch-key child” took hold.  Xers have been fiercely independent ever since, as they had to learn to do many things on their own. Just as marketers had a new way to reach kids directly (Saturday morning TV, and later kid cable channels), many brands began to mature, and marketers started hunting for growth.  One place they found was children. But, at this time, we remained in a parent-centric world, so marketing to children was really done by proxy – by marketing to Mom. Marketers discovered the youth market at this time, but addressed this market largely via their mothers.

Then came the Millennials (birth years 1982–2004). This is a sizeable generation (the Echo Boom) that has been watched and studied since they were born. They are characterized by over-protective parents, being reared largely in boom economic times, and as being risk-averse, team oriented, and in constant need of affirmation. Far from the “children are to be seen and not heard” era, this period marked a transition where youth became a central focus of society. Digital media came on the scene, allowing more targeted marketing approaches. So, how did marketers address them? Marketers quickly saw opportunity in youth markets and started applying sophisticated marketing techniques to them. For most of this era, marketers made what we consider to be a monumental mistake:  they concentrated on youth largely to the exclusion of parents. There was a sense among marketers at this time that if you try to market to both parents and kids at the same time you will fail at both. Marketers (who often hailed from Gen X themselves) often felt children were as independent as they were, and despite the sophisticated tools at their disposal, had a difficult time understanding the partnerships that were developing between children and their parents.

Which brings us to today’s kid generation, the Homeland Generation (birth years 2005 onward). These are kids growing up not just in an era of protectiveness via their parents, but also via society and the government. Political leaders often couch their policies in how well they will keep our children safe. Our culture is concerned that our children truly might not be better off than we were. Homelanders are also very much a “home centered” generation, as they don’t need to leave home (because of technology) to be entertained or to socialize, and they don’t wander much towards unstructured activities.  So, what are marketers learning now?  Largely, they are learning that youth marketing isn’t a matter of applying previous techniques to kids. Decision making processes are much more complex. For instance, think about the decision to buy a new video gaming system for the household.  Who makes that decision?  Mom?  Dad?  The Child?  Who pays for it? Who makes the actual transaction?  Who uses it once it is bought?

The decision process isn’t so clear cut because what you are really marketing to these days is a collaborative decision making unit and not an individual.  There is a marketing firm in our industry who says that youth marketers need to realize that their consumer has two heads, four arms, and four legs. We have seen many marketers who desperately want to be “kid-centric” stumble because they don’t truly understand the role of parents and just how collaborative households have become.

Historians typically resist writing about anything that has happened in the past 20 years because it is truly hard to understand larger trends without the benefit of a long-term perspective. The same is true about youth marketing today. Someday we’ll be able to look back and document what happened, but for now our best path is to look to broader, generational trends, and realize there is something happening here and we don’t know what it is.

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