Why Advertising Has to Show Us the Bigger Picture

I block pop-ups, I mute ads on Youtube, and if going out will cost me more than five dollars, then you’ll be sure to find me at home. When you see me on my phone, I’m not checking Twitter, I’m checking my bank account. It hasn’t changed all day, and in fact, the balance is looking pretty good—but I’ll still fret over my four-dollar salad. Why am I so cheap? Simple: I’m a millennial; it’s what we’re good at, it’s all we know.

With our tattoos and “liberal” ideas, any passerby might call us “risk-takers”—and we’ve been called the “entitled generation” more than once, I know—but when it comes to finances and consumerism, my generation is more conservative than our grandparents [1].

I see it in action as I watch my friend—twenty-three and at the prime of her life—glaring at the television. “I don’t need a new couch,” she says. We watch ads on Hulu, regretting that we couldn’t find something better on Netflix—that paradise of almost ad-less entertainment. “I don’t need a couch because it’s a couch. It better do something more than just be a couch.”

It’s a capitalist society, but we’re jaded now to shiny things. Great Depression 101 has been drilled into our consciousness for two decades, and we fear debt. The 2008 crash wasn’t so long ago, and student loans are a shadow even when the sun is gone—saving is the name of the game now. We better have a good reason for buying that couch; “I want it” isn’t enough anymore.

As a millennial who has worked in both marketing and now branding, I have found myself in the interesting position of having to trick my most difficult client: me. Too often, I find that companies attempt to appeal to “youth” by placing the word “new” on a billboard as though this and young are somehow interchangeable. Cell phones and memes, OMG and technology seem to be the only go-to, but what is often forgotten are the implications: new things don’t appeal to us just because they’re “trendy” but because they can change the world.

The technology you’re pitching, the “new big thing,” is what inspired our global citizenship, and now, as we follow international revolutions and befriend students across the world with a click of a button, we’re mapping impact: how does my life interact with humanity on a global scale? Of every choice, of every product, we’re asking “what for?” and “because why?”, “What is the impact?.” When it comes to branding your company, it doesn’t have to be clever—we tend to see through the gimmicks anyway—but it has to be genuine. It has to make us believe that there is something bigger to this couch than just a couch, that this couch has a history and a future.

We might not be big spenders, but we do have big dreams. Not too long ago, Tom’s convinced thousands upon thousands of teenagers and early adults to spend too much on under-made shoes because they promised to give a free pair to a child in a third world country. They were popular, they were cute, and they made you feel good. They were also unreasonably expensive, but that was okay; the product made kids feel they had a purpose. It answered the question “what for?.” Even the name made us feel connected—like we were buying from a friend, a person and not a corporation. In some small way, we were connected to a greater world, a global consciousness.

I’m a consumer by nature. Window-shopping is my go-to de-stresser, and I have an unhealthy obsession with books. But even as my shelves overflow and my bank account dwindles, I’m sure to buy only from the companies who make me feel that my purchases are worth something. I buy from local bookstores to support small business, I choose my groceries based of which companies have made greater contributions to the world, I pick the products whose brands and advertisements I genuinely liked, the ones that made me feel like the world was bound for a better place.

I’ll spend, but I have to know what it’s worth.

[1] https://www.ubs.com/us/en/wealth/news/wealth-management-americas-news.html/en/2014/01/27/ubs-investor-watch-report-reveals-millennials.html