Youth powers TV, but is that smart business?
If you get 'em while they're young, they'll be yours for life.
That's the assumption behind much of TV advertising, a $36 billion industry (according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus) that increasingly caters to 18- to 34-year-old males. Once a Chevy guy, always a Chevy guy, this reasoning goes.
Of course, advertisers' preoccupation with pulling in these demographically desirable "eyeballs," as the industry has dubbed viewers, plays itself out nightly on TV screens across America.
Networks offer programs they hope will appeal to young men (think bathroom humor, easy sex, gratuitous violence, and "reality game" back-stabbing). That's despite the fact that males between 18 and 34 make up only 12 percent of the population.
While both men and women ages 18 to 49 make up the second most desirable market, those over 49, or the "spillovers" as they are called, are not considered worth courting because they've made up their minds, won't try new things, and don't spend as much as the young.
So prevalent is this paradigm that most network executives find they can rarely afford to worry about nobler motives, such as public service or producing critically acclaimed shows.
"This is a business," says NBC head of entertainment Jeff Zucker. "Our bottom line is affected by one thing: our performance among adults 18 to 49. That is all we sell. That is all our competitors sell."
But how much truth, really, is there to the conventional wisdom? Much less than you'd think, say those who study demographics and advertising.
A growing number of experts are suggesting that the "get 'em while they're young" premise is an outdated assumption about both the young and the old.
First, women, not men, control 85 percent of all personal and household spending, according to recent research. And the over-49 crowd in general has more disposable income than younger people.
"Really, older people look around for things to spend it on," says Susan Easton, an Indiana University professor who has written extensively in the field of demographics.
Next, "brand loyalty" is not something that lasts a lifetime.
Indeed, women ages 40 to 50 are more likely to abandon a favorite brand than are younger women, according to a 1996 study by Information Resources. In 1997, baby boomers, then moving into their 50s, tried just as many brands of soda, beer, and candy bars as did 18- to 34-year-olds, discovered A.C. Nielsen, which tracks TV viewers' purchases just as its Nielsen cousin tracks viewing habits.
"People are not brand-loyal to the same degree that they once were," says Alan Johnson, director of media services at Mullen, an advertising and marketing communications agency based in Wenham, Mass., whose portfolio includes General Motors. "We live in different times."
Ms. Easton goes so far as to characterize the whole rationale for catering to young adults as a "myth." "It's an idea inside the heads of advertisers," she says.
Companies are willing to pay a premium to sell their products during TV shows that deliver young adult audiences, and so long as that is true, network executives and agencies who sell ad time slots "know they have to cater to this myth," she says.
If it's a myth, it's proving to be a hard one to puncture. The content of prime-time TV shows is increasingly designed to attract the attention of young guys who otherwise would be watching sports (or, worse for advertisers, not watching TV at all).
"They're far more valuable to advertisers than people who watch a lot of television and are regularly available," says Jamie Kellner, CEO of Turner Broadcasting System.
Many experts and critics argue the result is a gradual coarsening of prime time. That's not to say terrific TV programs that appeal to viewers outside this demographic are nonexistent.
Networks still offer family shows like "Seventh Heaven," "The Gilmore Girls," and this season's "Everwood" (all on The WB) and "American Dreams" (NBC). Fine dramatic series, such as "The West Wing" and "The District," still manage to straddle the line between artistry and commercial appeal.
But much content continues to be driven by conventional wisdom. "There is a young male focus on the part of programming executives," says Ted Nelson, a managing partner and director of brand planning at Mullen. "Most modern advertising executives and clients would say that it's decreasingly true, but habits die hard."
Mr. Nelson, for one, is not optimistic that much will change anytime soon. "It's a perverse element of human behavior that, the more we move into unpredictable territory, the more we cling to that which we know and we resist that which we don't. That applies to an ... executive allocating his precious media dollars," he says. "We have more data than we've ever had before; we don't have a lot more wisdom. They call it 'analysis paralysis.' "
The US obsession with youth, too, plays into advertisers' desire to associate their products with all things young. "The public in general and advertising people in particular are programmed to think that aging is a bad thing; that once you're past 40, you're over the hill and out of the game," says Robert Snyder, senior partner at advertising firm J. Walter Thompson Worldwide.
Some network executives are beginning to realize they can reach out to a broader demographic without damaging their reputation or their bottom line.
Take CBS, which has struggled in recent years to shed the label of "your grandma's network." Executives there found a better solution than simply dumping their faithful fold in favor of young Turks.
"CBS got smart," says Marc Berman, senior writer at Mediaweek.com of the Eye network. "A few years ago they tried to change their image, and it didn't work. Now they have mixed it up a little with [reality shows] 'Big Brother' and 'Survivor,' but they have not abandoned '48 Hours,' '60 Minutes,' 'Touched by an Angel,' or 'The District.' " All are shows with an older audience. Advertisers buy ad time based on specific strategies, explains Nelson.
"But the way those strategies play out can lead to misperceptions" about who people really are and how they act, he says. He and others agree that viewers over 50 who make up 27 percent of the population should be more valuable to marketers.
"Someone turns 55 every 7.5 seconds, and they are not bringing brand loyalty with them," Nelson says. "What they are bringing is the greatest purchasing power in the history of mankind."
When Andy Sisinger turned 18 last year, he got a Mach3 replaceable razor in the mail.
"That was a cool thing for them to do," he says. The young guitar player says he's been using it ever since. But not because he's particularly loyal to Gillette.
"I'm not a brand person." The truth is more mundane, he says, "I'm just lazy. If somebody gave me another razor and it worked just as well, I'd use that one."
He watches about an hour of TV a day, mostly local news, but some network, he says, adding that there is no satellite or cable in his apartment.
Mr. Sisinger rarely buys products on the basis of what he sees, in either the shows or the ads. He shops mostly to buy stuff that he needs, he says.
When Friday rolls around, and he gets his paycheck, he'll shop by category, not by brand. "I just identify the stuff I need in my head by the type of thing it is, and I look for the best price."
He's a pretty simple guy, he says, which is just as well. Living in the small town of Chillicothe in southern Ohio, pretty much limits his choices. There are not many malls to choose from, he says.
Sisinger works as an audio engineer while he attends a trade school in the same profession. He used to play lead guitar in a band with three other buddies, but he's currently working on establishing his studio engineering skills.
The Ohio native says there are only a few items that he buys by name. His girlfriend once gave him Hugo Boss aftershave, so he buys that when he shops for cologne. And his mom brought home Right Guard Xtreme Sport deodorant for him, so he always goes for that brand when he shops.
Otherwise, he says, he's easily influenced by his friends. "If there's a vibe out there about something being trendy or fun, I'll probably give it a try," he says. He started drinking Sobe brand drinks because he likes the lizard on the bottle, but also because his roommate, Nate, recommended it.
Sisinger says he also saw the ad campaign and liked it. "The presentation was kind of witty and cool, so I thought I'd give it a try." When it comes to the larger purchases in life, such as a car, Sisinger says he'd be more likely to buy by brand. But even then, not because of an ad campaign as much as a personal connection. "I'll probably just end up getting a car like the one my parents drive because I like it," he says.
As for the assumption that many advertisers make, that he will start forming brand attachments, especially as he gets into his 40s, Sisinger says he hopes not. "I would like to think that throughout my life, I'd try new things.... I might weed out the bad stuff and stick with the good. I hope I'll go on trying new things just like I do now."
It's dinner time in Los Angeles. For 59-year-old Laurie Burton, that means a trip to the local gourmet grocery, the nearby Gelson's.
"I shop every day," she says. "We don't like to plan ahead much."
When she does take a wagon down the aisles, there are only two things she buys strictly by label.
"Olive oil and toilet paper," Mrs. Burton says with a laugh. She got hooked on Bertolli's oil in 1965 by her former mother-in-law, who was Italian, and swore by the label that now never leaves Burton's kitchen.
As for Charmin, well, she asks, "how can you think of buying anything else....?" Her voice trails off.
But that's it for brands. The communications consultant says she and her husband have been auditioning a new popcorn in their lives, but are not attached to Healthy Choice, yet.
"We've created this passion for popcorn instead of desserts with lots of sugar," she says of the after-dinner treat she and her husband consume. "But," she adds, "if a new one had no butter on it and it tasted right, I'd try something new. I'm not wedded to this brand."
Laurie watches two to three hours of television a night and plans to try out most of the new shows. Even if something doesn't click the first time, she'll try again. "It took me three times to really get 'West Wing,' " she says of one of her regular programs.
But when the ads come on, she hits the mute button or flips to another station. She says she would never shop on the basis of what she saw on TV. "I'm pretty independent," she says. "I've never been a price shopper, or clipped coupons. I have philosophical concerns like the environment. I might look at something completely different if it answers my concerns."
Money is not one of those concerns. "I'll pay more for things that answer my philosophical concerns or tastes," Burton says.
As for whether she's worth advertisers spending time and money on, Laurie is both feisty and philosophical. "I would say to these guys: I'm alive and kicking. I feel and think like I'm 21. My father, who just turned 94, said to me last week, 'I still feel like I'm in my 20s.' " She says that they are still drawn to products and ideas that appeal to young people, but that "[we're] just filled with more depth and understanding."
Thomas Jansen describes himself as a calm person, but he bristles at the notion that he's so set in his ways that he's not worth paying attention to. "I'm still working, I'm still buying things," he says. "I haven't made up my mind about anything at all."
Since they own only one car, on this particular morning his wife dropped him off at his regular job, working as a service technician at the Royal Palm TV and Stereo Shop in Vero Beach, Fla. The 63-year-old says he spent a semester in college, but found that his technical skills were more useful. He fixes people's VCRs and radios during the day, and brings home "around $30,000 a year."
Most evenings, he watches TV for a few hours, mostly local news, but some of the British comedies on cable and PBS specials. Commercials don't bother him enough to change the channel, but he will mute them, particularly the ones he thinks are geared toward the younger crowd.
"Like the new Mitsubishi or GM ads," Mr. Jansen says. "They're so loud, they're really awful."
He never watches any of the "reality shows." Even though he is careful to note brands in each commercial, he says he has never bought anything on the basis of ads, especially not a big ticket item like a car. "I own a Ford now. I used to own a Chrysler, and I'll probably buy a Japanese car, next."
Jansen's wife makes the smaller decisions, such as which groceries to buy, but Thomas heads into the grocery with her and reads the labels as they walk the aisles. His wife usually leaves him behind, because he says he drives her a little batty reading everything. But, he says, his philosophy is the same, whether it's a can of soup or a car. "I go for value, not a name."