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The Millennial Male Is Not Who You Think He Is

It’s the best time in the world to be a millennial man, to hear baby boomers tell it—let your parents or your girlfriend pay the rent, maybe start a useless tech company, watch marketers trip over themselves trying to reach you. But talk to guys in this highly desirable demo yourself and you might discover a disenfranchised group with little disposable income, a love of niche culture and an upbeat outlook that belies the economic hand they’ve been dealt (two-seven offsuit). They’re not opposed to advertising, but they also love being obscure—it’s the first generation that would starve trying to order a pizza (or deciding where to order a pizza from). Not your dream clientele? Well, get used to them—they’re the biggest generation in history, and if you can’t reach them, somebody else will.

First, a few statistics on U.S. millennials, or Gen Y, or Those Damned Kids, depending on who you ask: Collectively, they carry $1 trillion in student loans. Only 62 percent of them have jobs, and only half of those work full-time. Median net worth among people under 35 has decreased by more than a third since 2005. Barely one-quarter of the men have bachelors’ degrees, despite all that college debt (many didn’t finish). More than one-third live at home with their parents—double the number from the previous generation.

Jonathan, a bartender, is 28. He lives in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina—not with his parents but with several roommates—and works at a wine shop since being laid off from his bartending gig, which he loved, earlier this year.

“I do not have cable,” says Jonathan. “Never have, actually. We have Netflix, we have Hulu, and we have an Apple TV that combines those.” What does he use them for? “I like long-format television shows—Mad Men, House of Cards, Boardwalk Empire.” But how does he get Boardwalk Empire without cable? (Do you have to ask?) “Uhh, it’s pirated,” he says, embarrassed. “I’m so stupid about technology now, so unless it’s recording equipment I don’t know how to use it. I just get my roommate to download it for me.” The rest, he emphasizes, is “mostly rented. I’m pretty fiercely loyal to my local video shop as well. I rent The Newsroom from them, rent the other HBO shows and stuff.”

Jonathan and many like him do not generally mind being marketed to, contrary to popular belief. It’s not a question of principle—it just sometimes seems unnecessary. “I use Netflix basically for TV shows and stuff like that, so I don’t have to look at commercials and it’s not edited,” says Steve, an itinerant DJ who’s been on what he calls “an eight-month freedom journey across the country.” Neither he nor Jonathan has health insurance. One of the men interviewed here uses food stamps. Another works for a company in a big city that pays him half the industry average for his job.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. One guy has an Ivy League education, another works for an entertainment conglomerate, a few have studied under top professionals in their fields. They’ve just had a hard time finding good jobs. The reality is, these anti-millennials are coming of age during a historic moment when the gap between productivity and real hourly compensation has never been wider, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Put plainly, those who can find jobs are doing more work—a lot more work—for far less money.

All pride themselves on being outliers, on having really nerdy, wonky interests that they know everything about—but which don’t really have that much in common with the gen pop. “I platinumed Warhawk,” says Steve proudly, “which is the No. 1 hardest game on the Sony [PS3] to platinum.” (It’s hard, incidentally, to “platinum” any game—that is, to get every last one of the cleverly named virtual trophies for performing a stunt.)

There’s a perception among advertisers that millennials are “digital to the core,” as one exec puts it. That’s not actually the whole story—they’re also thrifty to the core. They have to be. Steve, 31, has a hard time paying the bills and only watches cable when he’s at a friend’s house. He does love the movies, though. “I like anything with a main character that has to go through some sort of awakening process,” he says. How many films does he see in the theater? “I’d say at least 10 a month.” Like everyone else interviewed, he loves his DVD collection.

“Cord-cutters” and “cord-nevers” may be the bane of the cable industry, but interviewees said that problem simply boils down to math. For a household of four people, says MediaVest evp, research director David Shiffman, a full telecom package is much too expensive. “You have cable, plus phone, plus two mobile devices—maybe a tablet. That’s probably $450 a month,” Shiffman estimates. Indeed, the average cost of a cable bill is nearly double what it was in 1996. “They don’t have that money when they’re making $30,000 a year and have all this student debt.”

“Cable is just far, far too expensive, especially for the quality of programming,” concurs Max, who just turned 29 and is getting his MBA at night. “We’d be paying a ton of money a month. I looked it up once. It was, like, unfathomable.”

Price indexes, too, have skyrocketed. So the question becomes not simply “How do we reach young men who don’t have cable?” but also “How important to marketers are consumers without much discretionary income?”

For example, these guys don’t want a new car. At all. “They go, ‘I’ll have to spend $500 a month?’” says Shiffman. (Last year, the average monthly car payment was $550.) “It’s something that a lot of marketers are trying to wrap their heads around.” He clearly has a point. “A $500-a-month car payment?” gasps Max. “That’s terrible. I’d pay, like, $285, and that’s high.” He pauses. “I don’t like seeing luxury cars advertised,” he says, thoughtfully. “I don’t know if that’s because I’m poor.”

But for marketers, not seeing un-millennials as a growth opportunity is risky, in that eventually they’re apt to turn the corner. If you don’t market to them, someone else will. Says Shiffman: “You can’t ignore them. They’re helping shape and define a lot that’s going on. But you have to know that it’s a long-term growth proposition. They may not be volume drivers.”

Max says he’s fine with cultivating brand loyalty. “I love ads,” he says. “I love marketing campaigns. I love to see what kind of demographic I’m supposed to be in.” Social media callouts piss him off—the whole “hit us up on Twitter” thing sounds like it’s asking for a favor to him (which, of course, it is).

Meaning the question remains how to market to this group. Viacom evp, integrated marketing Dario Spina thinks he has the answer. “Comedy as a genre seems to be No. 1, above and beyond everything else in terms of what millennial males relate to, share and go to first,” he explains. “Funny is the new rock ’n’ roll.”

Ivan, a 27-year-old freelance copy editor and guitarist from Queens, remains quite serious about his rock ’n’ roll, but he does like the funny stuff (“Who would say they don’t love comedy?”), and he’s highly engaged with media in general. Ivan is nostalgic for shows that came out before he was old enough to appreciate them. “With Breaking Bad and Mad Men [again, on Netflix], it’s just exposition between cliffhangers, and part of the enjoyment is sort of being a little disappointed by them and talking about their shortcomings,” he says. “The Sopranos and early seasons of The Simpsons, they’re just masterpieces.”

Un-millennials have no illusions about what brands represent: companies that want their money. That’s fine if you’re providing a service, but increasingly the means of delivering ads—networks, ISPs, cable providers—all seem like annoying intermediaries who block or restrict users’ access to the things they actually want. If un-millennial men can be said to have a single economic value beyond ethical concerns, it’s the purity of a given transaction: How many middlemen am I greasing with this purchase? How much money is going to people who actively make my life (or someone else’s life) worse?

It’s one reason Indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns resonate so strongly with these guys. What separates you from the herd is not which gatekeepers you went to college with (or, more likely, which gatekeepers’ kids), but how good you are. And it gives the consumer an opportunity to directly reward the artist. Ivan managed to raise enough dough from friends and fans for his band Sweet Fix to professionally record its first album.

If that suggests that millennials themselves are the best marketers to millennials, you won’t get any argument from Lance Fensterman, head of ReedPOP, which holds conventions like this week’s New York Comic Con and several other anime and UFC events around the country. Niche marketing, Fensterman says, is his thing. When asked how one markets broadly to millennial men, he replies: “We don’t do broad. … You’re talking about a passion, not a demographic. Parents of children under the age of 5 is a demographic; guys who like watching [UFC fighter] Anderson Silva beat the shit out of someone, that’s a passion.” And yes, there’s overlap between the two.

It is possible to tap that kind of passion, especially for artists. “I paid for the production and posting of this video with my own money,” proclaimed comic Louis C.K. when he posted his set Live at the Beacon Theater on his site. “I would like to be able to post more material to the fans in this way, which makes it cheaper for the buyer and more pleasant for me.”

Ivan says he’s fine with ads if the value proposition is similar to the one C.K. makes. “I am basically on board for advertising if it makes things like FM radio and television possible and free,” he says. “That is a trade I am happy to make.”

(C.K.’s production pulled in $500,000, incidentally. By paying the requested $5 and entering an email address in exchange for the download, fans could also opt to get future communications from C.K.—or not, by clicking on the option “No, leave me alone forever, you fat idiot.”)

A couple of those interviewed admit to occasional pirating, but all are embarrassed by it, and Steve and Ivan have harsh words for pirates, who, they say, helped destroy an industry they’re trying to make it in. “Everybody talks about the shitty contracts record companies used to give to bands,” Ivan says. “Having a shitty contract is now an unattainable goal for me and many musicians that I know.”

Meanwhile, Shiffman points to the optimism of his generation of lost bros. “They’re smarter, they’re more informed,” he says. “They’re looking for brands that really understand what they’re passionately connected to, and it’s about a value component.”

“They’ve got some challenges, but they’re very optimistic—and you know, kudos to them,” Shiffman says. “I’m a Gen Xer. I would have been bitter.”

 

Sam Thielman, Adweek. October 6, 2013

Copyright © 2013 Adweek. All rights reserved.