Marketing to Millennials? Weird isn’t All that Weird (Until it is.)
Just look at those 20 to 30 year old, lazy, entitled, self-obsessed, purpose-driven, passionate, struggling, creative ignoramuses who are really good and really bad with money, can’t live without their phones (but also tend to unplug), ironically love Guy Fieri, and unironically hate Applebee’s. And although they’re killing everything, they represent our best hope for the future.
The latest insight about millennials? Some people think they’re… WEIRD. Like, disturbingly weird, grotesquely weird, the weird kind of weird—the kind of weird that makes you go, “Woah, what?” or, “Wait, what’s going on?” or, “Wow, that’s really weird.”
Here’s how one millennial describes it:
“I am not a nihilist, but a mood of grim, jolly absurdism comes over me often, as it seems to come over many of my peers. To visit millennial comedy, advertising and memes is to spend time in a dream world where ideas twist and suddenly vanish; where loops of self-referential quips warp and distort with each iteration, tweaked by another user embellishing on someone else’s joke, until nothing coherent is left; where beloved children’s character Winnie the Pooh is depicted in a fan-made comic strip as a 9/11 truther, and grown men in a parody ad dance to shrill synth beats while eating Totino’s pizza rolls out of a tiny pink backpack. In this weird world of the surreal and bizarre, horror mingles with humor, and young people have space to play with emotions that seem more and more to proceed from ordinary life—the creeping suspicion that the world just doesn’t make sense.”
If you read The Washington Post—or spent some time on social media last month—you may recognize that passage. It’s from “Why is millennial humor so weird?”, an article by Elizabeth Bruenig for the Post’s Outlook section. In just over 1600 words, Bruenig takes on the prodigious task of explaining the many absurdist jokes and memes that permeate the internet and pop culture like an unstoppable fungus devouring meaning from the inside-out.
Millennialism, she writes, has infiltrated the world of advertising, evidenced by commercials such as Skittles’ “Bleachers” spot.
Like the “Skittles pox” dotting the teens’ skin, absurdity and dadaism have spread amongst the work of brands seeking to appeal to a younger audience. Bruenig’s not the first to notice, of course; others have pointed at campaigns created by agencies like Wieden + Kennedy, BBDO, and Droga5 for clients like Old Spice, GE, and JailBlimp—I mean, MailChimp.
This isn’t some niche community or short-lived industry trend. Consider those firms and clients: we’re talking about campaigns with multimillion-dollar budgets, celebrity casts, and global reach. It seems that in the current marketing landscape, weird is normal.
So, doesn’t that make it no longer weird?
History indicates that surreal comedy, like all forms of comedy, changes and takes on different meanings with time. The weirdness of the impossibly absurd, eerie, or bizarre starts to fade after the initial shock. It happened to the Budweiser Frogs, Burger King’s Burger King mascot, Doge, the Spongmonkeys… The list goes on. Millennials or no millennials, weirdness doesn’t stay weird—or stay in one place.
Still, the Washington Post piece distinguishes this kind of weirdness as “tangibly dark,” and rife with “feelings of worry, failure and dread.” Bruenig hypothesizes, as commentators about supposedly millennial-centric phenomena often do, that the grim edge to millennial humor stems from the pervasive and historic problems facing the demographic: debt, job scarcity, loneliness, and so on. It’s the same question we’ve all been asking for years: Why are millennials so different? Anyone who has dared ask why young people aren’t buying homes, diamonds, or golf club memberships should already know the answer: baby boomers grew up in an entirely different world.
“When the narratives they were told growing up—college matters, hard work pays off, the good guys win—turned out to be bullshit, the best way to find humor in such foundational failures was to embrace the illogical head-on. As such, an undercurrent of anxiety and resentment courses through these jokes; there’s something comforting, after all, about recognizing nonsense as others strive to search for meaning. For millennials, to acknowledge nothing means anything is really the first step toward meaning.”
That may be cold comfort for marketers. How does a brand capitalize on meaninglessness? It’s no wonder 51% of millennials say they don’t prefer branded products over generic counterparts. But that’s a blog post for another day.
For now, let’s remind ourselves that in an age of dramatic headlines, bold proclamations, and bleak outlooks on society, opinions are just opinions, no one speaks for everyone, and people don’t always know what they want—let alone what appeals to others.
I’ll leave you with two excerpts from the comment section. Here’s one of the nearly 300 comments left on the Washington Post article:And here’s a comment posted beneath the Skittles “Bleachers” ad on YouTube:
Hmm. It’s almost like some non-millennials relate to the millennial sensibility, while some members of the intended audience don’t.
So weird, right?
FUN FACT: In a former advertising life, GB’s ECD, Andy Askren, helped launch the Skittles tagline “Taste the Rainbow” with campaigns that were very unusual for the category–no kids, no jingles, not even any dialog! That was nearly 20 years ago, making it one of the longest running campaigns in advertising.