January 27, 2011

Culture Lag

For years I have been writing about the foolishness of marketers who squander their budgets marketing to young people.

They make a lousy primary target for most marketers. Yet they are the default (and sometimes unspoken) target for everything from cars to banks, even though they provide substantially less opportunity than other target groups (for stats on this, see The Amazing Blindness of Marketers.)

I have blamed this phenomenon on a number of things -- the callowness of media buyers; the dread that cmo's have of being thought of as anything but ultra-hip; the idiocy of calculating "lifetime value"; and the legends and rituals of marketers and ad agencies.

Recently I thought of a name for this phenomenon. Sometimes just giving something a name clarifies what it is. I call it Culture Lag.

Culture Lag works like this. Once in a while there occurs a unique cultural phenomenon. This phenomenon has a profound effect on society. When this phenomenon is over, the echo of it resounds for years (sometimes decades) even though the phenomenon no longer has power. This "echo" is Culture Lag.

When advertising came of age in the 1960's -- with the advent of universal television ownership -- there was, coincidentally, an enormous demographic phenomenon coming of age known as the Baby Boom. The Baby Boom was an unprecedented societal phenomenon with a huge bubble of population passing through the snake.

In 1964, the first of these Baby Boomers turned 18. These people provided marketers with an astounding and unprecedented marketing opportunity.

Intelligent marketers understood this and took advantage of it.

In the process, they got used to the idea that young people were an essential target. They forgot that the basis of their targeting was not that the people were young, but that there were zillions of them and they were a unique consuming force.

The social phenomenon called the Baby Boom required a new way of thinking. Forty years later, this is now an old way of thinking.

Economics and demographics tell us that young people are no longer a terribly attractive target for most marketers. Over 75% of the wealth of the country is in the hands of people over 50. And yet our advertising and marketing strategies today, if anything, are more focused on youth and youth culture.

Marketers have gotten used to a cultural phenomenon that is far weaker than it once was. Until they wake up, they will remain mired in Culture Lag.

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