Generation X proves elusive target

As members of Generation X take on more influence as consumers, PR pros look for ways to reach an age group skeptical of traditional marketing efforts.

As members of Generation X take on more influence as consumers, PR pros look for ways to reach an age group skeptical of traditional marketing efforts.

Turn on the news these days, and you won't have to wait long for a story about the concerns of baby boomers as they prepare for retirement, or the obligatory coverage of youth culture.

But largely forgotten - although no less influential - is Generation X, which perplexed the media and marketers as youth and continue to be a difficult group to target as adults and prime consumers.

While it's difficult to come up with the exact age range for Generation X, it's safe to assume that if you're too old for American Idol (the cut off for entering the competition is currently 28), but too young to remember TV before the remote control, you probably belong.

It's also a demographic filled with surface contradictions, most notably that a group dubbed the "Slacker Generation" by the press in the late 1980s eventually became the main drivers of the 60-hour work week.

Gen Xers have always defined themselves by how different they are from baby boomers. But Leonard Steinhorn, an American University communications professor and author of upcoming book The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, says, "There's very little difference in attitudes between boomers, Gen Xers, and the new generation. The dividing line in terms of attitudes is between boomers and their parents. Boomers on down have pretty much the same attitudes."

Interaction with media

But if the attitudes of Gen Xers aren't that dissimilar from other demographics, there's no doubt that the way they interact with media is very different.

"Generation X was the first group we saw where media consumption habits took a dramatic shift, and you started to have significant fragmentation," says Rick French, president of Raleigh, NC-based French West Vaughan, whose clients include Wrangler, Ford, and Pfizer. "So you couldn't count on reaching this group with traditional channels that worked for previous generations."

"This is a generation that gets their news in five- or 10-minute blocks on CNN," adds Tim Nekritz, associate director of public affairs at the State University of New York's Oswego campus, who has also done research on the stereotyping of Generation X by marketers and the media. "They've always been on the go, and now that they're having kids, it's even more so."

For marketers and PR professionals, this means having to find new access points to reach the current 30-somethings. "That's why blogging and podcasting are going to be very important," says Aaron Kwittken, CEO of Euro RSCG Magnet, "as well as using word-of-mouth and making sure these consumers are part of the dialogue."

Tara May, a former executive with Ogilvy PR who currently works with the marketing strategy firm Reach Advisors, says major media outlets are also being forced to adjust. "There's a reason why Gen Xers are one of the lowest consumers of mainstream media," she says. "A generation of cynics, Gen Xers opt for The Onion and [The Daily Show with Jon Stewart] instead of the nightly news, and that means that PR folks are going to have to get savvy about reaching this audience segment - not only with the outlets they target, but the pitches they use."

Rachel Weingarten, president of Brooklyn, NY-based GTK Marketing Group, says the Gen X reputation for cynicism toward many things, including the media, is well earned. "Our generation might have been on the cusp of making it big with the 'dot-bomb' era, but then we also lost it in a flash - along with much of our innocence," she says, adding that one of the things that does work with Generation X is nostalgia-themed content such as VH1's I Love the 80s.

Is outreach worth it?

Given their smaller size relative to the baby boomers before them and the echo boomers after them - as well as their somewhat skeptical attitudes toward both traditional marketing and the media - some might wonder whether targeting Generation X is worth the effort.

But Kwittken says, "Smart companies, such as American Eagle Outfitters, Absolut, and Heineken, which are all brands that we work with, realize that in 10 years these are the people who are going to be running the show. They're already incredibly influential because they're far more willing to try new things."

There's also an argument to be made that Generation X deserves a lot of credit as the consumer base that helped drive the success of new media outlets, ranging from cable TV and talk programming to blogs, satellite radio, and the internet.

Pitching...Generation X

  • TV and newspapers are still an effective way of reaching Gen X, but they're not the main channels of influence anymore, so look to pitch alternative content sources, such as blogs and podcasts

  • Generation X has a reputation for skepticism, so make sure you provide third-party affirmation for product claims, especially from well-recognized sources that they trust

  • Everyone wants to position their brands as younger, but point out to clients that Gen Xers are well worth the effort, not only because they're major consumers today, but also because they'll gradually be inheriting the earth in the next decade

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