There was an interesting article in a recent edition of USA Today. The feature outlined the difficulties facing the advertising community in effectively reaching the new demographic where everybody loves to hate: Generation X.

Putting aside any ill feelings one has for the typical dreck Madison Avenue shoves down our throats, the fact is that radio, like every other business entity in this country, has suddenly come to the realization that (1) many of the 47 million 17-28-year-olds have credit cards and most importantly, (2) they know how to use them. Make no mistake about it: with a spending power of $125 billion, Generation X is the “in” demo cell of the day. So it makes perfect business sense for programmers to curry the “X Factor’s” interest and favor.

The USA Today piece claims that attracting the baby busters is anything but easy, as Madison Avenue is quickly finding out. “There’s no question we ain’t got it right yet,” one ad man admits in the story. “It’s the same mistake advertisers made when they first discovered working women, portraying everyone in a business suit and carrying a briefcase. All of a sudden, Generation X is speaking obnoxiously and wearing a baseball cap turned sideways. Thinking they’re all the same is a deadly mistake.”

What becomes a Generation X’er the most? To reiterate what others have noted in the past, they are a contradictory species. Just as many are unemployed as are on a career track. Some are optimistic; others cynical. Unlike the baby boomers, the X-clan doesn’t believe that they’ll get their share of the American dream. For every B-buster full of rebellion, another one has angst in his/her pants. (The preceding pun courtesy of the Mael room.) Worst of all, generally they hate being stereotyped.

Adds another ad man, “It’s incredibly difficult to get under their radar. They’ve been so saturated with ads that they almost tune out everything. The know they’re being sold to and most want nothing to do with it.” From that, the writer concludes, “It’s no wonder one of X’ers’ favorite musical groups is the Spin Doctors.”

No, we don’t know what that means, either…except to convince us that the USA Today writer knows not of what he reports.

A prime example of advertising missing the boat is the Subaru Impreza TV spot, one that was produced specifically X-rated for the psychographic. The commercial has a hyper, 20-something dweeb favorably comparing the new Impreza to Punk Rock. Just like the way Punk Rock woke up the music scene, he postulates, the Impreza is waking up the doldrums of the car scene. Uh huh. Reportedly, sales of the car are 50% below target.

So the Generation X’ers didn’t like the commercial…who the hell did? Outside of the fact that no one in their right mind would buy dental floss from that guy, let alone a $10,000 car, the whole message is blatantly false. Now we realize that the phrase “truth in advertising” carries as much significance as “military intelligence” and “we’re considering if for next week,” but Impreza Geek would have a more convincing line if he said it was God’s favorite car.

Fact: Punk Rock wasn’t greeted as a refreshing change of pace when it first hit back in the late ’70s. Except for a small, vocal minority, the music business in general and radio in particular hated Punk Rock. The EBS spots got more rotations than all the pre-’80s Punk Rock songs put together. It wasn’t until Nirvana hit that Mainstream radio realized it was safe for Top 40…and only by calling it “Grunge Rock.”

Nevertheless, as a public service, The Network Forty has a few hints in dealing with Generation X, since over half of our staff is that age. But regard these with a few thousand grains of salt. Only half of the half agree that these hints are accurate. The other half…the apathetic and arbitrary ones…either didn’t cared or denied everything. So, some of the do’s could be don’ts to half your listeners…or vice versa.

Liners: The key to remember is that you can’t impress a Gen X’er with boasts of “more music” and “less talk.” Do: “Coming up, one of my favorite new cuts…” But you have to mean it. Don’t: Next up, another 10-in-a-row.” By and large, this audience is interested in specifics, not vague generalities.

Slogan: Above all, an effective GX slogan must exhibit the proper attitude…highly suspicious and very anti-cutesy. GX doesn’t mind being dissed if it’s done with a certain amount of class. Do: “WGNX, The Sound of One Ear Listening.” Don’t: “WGNX, Eat Shit and Die.” A bit too much.

Air Personalities: This is the easiest to figure. As Impreza Putz vividly illustrated, you can’t be the hyper, uptempo, weasel heard on many stations after dark. On the other hand, the cut-but-teasing, naughty-but-nice, won’t-you-be-my-neighbor mid-day jock won’t fly either. Above all, the talent must be into the music. They have to be knowledgeable. The audience will quickly know if they aren’t and will tune them out. However, if they connect, they’ll be there constantly. Do: “I’ve got free tickets to see Pearl Jam and I’ll sell them to the 3rd caller.” Don’t: “I have free tickets to see Pearl Jam and I hear she sings real good.”

Mix Shows: In this case, it’s not how the songs are mixed, it’s how they’re edited that counts. Some great music will alienate the GX listener, so some major revisions are in order. Do: Re-edit the Who’s “My Generation” so Roger Daltrey sings, “I hope you die before I get old.” Don’t: Play anything that’s a House or Dance Mix, unless you’ve learned the art of scratching CDs.

Contesting: A GX listener would rather masturbate with a cheese grater than participate in a “53rd caller wins tickets” ploy. Also remember, this generation can read and write. They will participate heavily in “write in” contests as long as you ask them their opinion, not just their name on a postcard or fax. A savvy promo whiz has to consider their individualistic, distrustful nature in staging events. Do it for a cause, not just to win a prize. Helpful hint: Anything related to ecology will work big. Do: a promotion where the winners get to have their favorite trees planted at their house or in front of their apartment. Don’t: Boast that all the drummers who play on the records you broadcast use drumsticks made from trees that died a natural death.

That’s just a few ideas that may or may not work. This generation makes us think. Interestingly enough, they are ever-changing and they will not fall for the same old same old. Innovation, thought and genuine care will produce a bonanza. What’s out today may very well be in tomorrow, so don’t throw anything away. Tomorrow, you may well ue it for the landfills of their minds.

“Bell-bottom blues, you made me cry…”

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