NY Times mag punctures the “Myth of ’18 to 34′”:
- Eighteen to thirty-four: for decades, conventional advertising wisdom has attached the adjective ”coveted” to this slice of the viewing audience. According to an analysis by the former NBC News president Lawrence K. Grossman, advertisers pay an average of $23.54 to reach 1,000 viewers in that age bracket, versus $9.57 per 1,000 over the age of 35. And since commercial television, whatever else it may be, is fundamentally a system for delivering audiences to advertisers, network executives lose a lot of sleep trying to figure out what will hold fast the slippery attention of people in their late teens, 20’s and early 30’s. It is, as it has been for 40 years, the principle by which a great deal of our popular culture — not just TV, but music, movies, radio — comes into existence.
The odd thing is, there’s no real reason for it anymore.
….What logic suggests that, because there are proportionally fewer young people than there used to be, because they have less money than they used to and because it’s harder to separate them from that money than ever, advertisers should spend more money trying to court them? It would make as much sense to say that advertisers really ought to pay top dollar for viewers who don’t have any spending money at all.
If you ask the agencies themselves about the relevance of the target demographic, they’re likely to tell you that numbers-oriented research of any kind is so last year. Forty years after creative advertising’s Big Bang, the study of demographics is a ”science” many now scorn as outdated and crude. ”Now they call it psychographics,” Thomas Frank says. ”They hire sociologists, anthropologists — it’s very elaborate.” The methodology of today’s market research often approaches the mystical.
So who’s willing to pay the WB extra to reach today’s young adults? The ads featured on ”Gilmore Girls” themselves paint a portrait of the coveted youth audience. Apparently, they spend as if they still get an allowance. Wendy’s, Snickers, Cover Girl makeup, chocolate milk — there was hardly a product advertised on ”Gilmore Girls” that would cost a consumer more than $10. With one glaring exception: new cars. Ford and Honda advertised throughout the Tuesday-night lineup.
”These younger folks may not be big-ticket purchasers now,” says a Ford spokesperson, ”but they may one day be. Ford wants to form a relationship with these younger buyers now and grow them up into our various brands.” As for Honda, it has, according to a company representative, ”pretty much one of the youngest buying demographics of any car company out there. The Civic in particular — almost all the ads on the WB are for Civics. And we’re on MTV all the time.”
And how many of these youth-oriented Civics, sticker-priced at a minimum of $14,000, are actually sold to people under the age of 26? One in five. Not so different from the 60’s.
They’ll catch on eventually. But advertising is a vast mechanism, risk-averse and inertia-driven, and like most multibillion-dollar industries it changes course with all the agility of an oil tanker. And so, for now, the polestar of the target demographic endures. It has gone from an ecstatic confluence of societal change and economic opportunity to a fusty business institution.
Of course, it’s more than that as well. No matter how many dollars might be squandered in the process, you see in modern TV advertising what you see in, say, Greek statuary: a cultural key, a worldview whose increasing irrelevance to cold economic models only testifies to how compelling it remains for us.
In the meantime, the Fox network, eager to reassure advertisers made restless by its drop last year to second place among 18-to-34-year-olds, has just announced that this fall it will become ”bold, younger, more noisy.” The network’s new motto? ”It’s Good to Be Bad.”