Youth powers TV, but is that smart business?
If you get 'em while they're young, they'll be yours for life.Skip to next paragraph
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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A growing number of experts are suggesting that the "get 'em while they're young" premise is an outdated assumption about both the young and the old.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."