So I’m looking at my socks. Because of the freezing weather, they’re explorer socks. Holeproof explorer socks. They don’t strictly say they are, nor is there any form of logo or visible branding. They’re just plain black socks. So why do I automatically know the brand of my otherwise uninteresting socks? More to the point, why do I care?
It’s because of advertising. It’s because whether we know it of not, advertising is everywhere, entrenching the names of brands and products into our heads. Whether we like it or not, it shapes what we buy and what we represent. It shapes what we find fun and gross, beautiful and boring. As young people, we are the most impressionable audience, so I wanted to know how that advertising works to makes us buy what we do, whether it is the newest edition of Nike AirMax’s or the latest Marc Jacobs perfume.
I wanted to know what first runs through the heads of advertising execs when they’re greeted with a new account with a target audience of young people. I asked Dan Gregory, CEO of advertising agency The Impossible Institute and panellist for ABC’s The Gruen Transfer about the prerequisites or ‘golden rules’ of marketing to anyone between thirteen and twenty. He said, “Personally, I would hate to have a brief where the target audience was defined as: “Young People”. It’s too broad and you run the risk of blandness in your strategy. The greater the specificity, the more powerful your offering. I guess what this all boils down to is, ‘Start with the who, then get to the what’”. Jane Caro, freelance copywriter, social commentator and another panellist for The Gruen Transfer told me also warned me against over-generalising the audience. She said, “People that try to apply prerequisites are stupid. They tend to treat young people as stupid by trying to be trendy, when the people behind the ad are a bunch of 40-year old guys with combovers.”
Another thought was celebrity endorsement. We can pretend we’re not that vain, but celebrity endorsement can be subtle, and it hooks us in with its ‘cool’ factor. Kylie Jenner backs it? So do we, and in flocks. Gregory says, “celebrities can be key markers in where we sit and who or what we feel aligned to”, and in the world of advertising, we all want to feel special and involved, often on a subconscious level. That’s possibly why we sprint to Cotton On after seeing insert-famous-person-here wearing insert-clothing-item-here. (Not going to lie, I bought some Revlon products after seeing Emma Stone’s first beautiful campaign for the brand).
But even though they suck us in with their inherent star power, agencies are often reluctant to use celebrities in marketing, even to target youth. Caro is deeply critical of the use of famous people, saying, “Celebrity endorsement is only used for two reasons: lazy marketing because they can’t think of anything else, or because the CEO of the brand wants to meet the celebrity. They also run the risk of having the brand lost in the persona of the celebrity”. Furthermore, famous people can end up as a liability more than they are an asset, as their much-publicised behaviour deteriorates (Tiger Woods anyone?! He lost contracts with both Gillette and Nike and left both companies going to damage control).
So in my search for marketing techniques, I discounted the value of celebrity endorsements. Although valuable, the risks can outweigh the benefits, for both the client and the agency. What next? Peer pressure. I figured, perhaps naively, that because teenagers are stereotypically considered to act in herds (how many times have you heard young people being called ‘sheep’?), we let other people dictate what we want to buy. A staggering 78% of people trust personal recommendations for products, so it’s little wonder we buy a lot of the same thing. In grade ten, there seemed to be no one who didn’t own a pair of Vans, and now in year twelve, every girl loves their Kardashian Kollection handbag. Caro said, “Peer pressure is exactly what advertising aims to trigger [and] an example of a brand that has done that marvellously well is Apple.” It seems logical enough; see someone with an iPhone, think it’s cool, and buy it ourselves. Gregory offers a more psychological explanation for this, telling me, “To some extent we all define ourselves by the tribes we belong too – human beings are social animals after all. Human behaviour, despite all of our technological advancement, are still very much motivated by our survival brain – in other words, self-interest, risk mitigation and a bias towards simplicity and ease. What this means is, we don’t necessarily make logical, or even very moral, decisions. We look to define ourselves in a way that doesn’t expose us to social risk, and if there is a short cut to get there (like an acceptable look or shared interest), then we’re likely to take it.” I know that I’m certainly not immune to that kind of tribal instinct. I constantly see people at school wearing outfits or items of clothing that look really great on them, but that I otherwise wouldn’t like.
But what they’re advertising is often secondary to where they’re advertising. As social media natives, we use Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat and YouTube almost daily, with people between fifteen and nineteen spending an average of three hours a day on the aforementioned sites. Cue social media marketing. As we spend less time watching TV and more time on Netflix, brands are working to examine where they place their product for either mass marketing or niche marketing.
“Advertisers are in a hot sweat. They don’t know how to communicate. In meetings, 250,000 sales of a product was a huge success. Now it’s 250.” Caro told me passionately, conveying a sense of cynicism of agencies grappling to market effectively in the digital age. “There is widespread confusion between the platform and the content. Companies are prioritising the former to the detriment of the latter, and the content is always more important. Always.” Dan Gregory weighed in on the benefits of using social media to advertise, saying, “I think one of the critical things that social media offers up that other mediums like newspapers or television couldn’t is that it allows us to get to know our customers, not just to talk AT THEM.” From a personal perspective, it ultimately gives the consumer the power to choose to which advertising they are exposed. I follow Victoria’s Secret on Instagram to see all their latest products but that doesn’t mean I’m burdened with viewing other things on my feed I don’t care about. This way, companies can know that their follows already love their products, so it becomes less of a game of making their brand known, and more of a task of persuasion.
So in a capitalist world where advertising is poetry and exposure is currency, it seems impossible that we can’t be influenced by these messages of consumerism. But the more we know about the tricks of the trade, the smarter we can be next time we see a full-page spread or a compelling billboard. If there is one thing I learned, however, it’s that we can push advertising into unchartered territory by being diverse, sceptical and establishing our own unique tastes. If social media is one way to do that, let’s keeping pushing the boundaries. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll beat them at their own game.
This piece was written for a youth audience, and was published as part of The Advocate’s 2015 Ignite Youth Publication. The full publication can be found here: http://www.theadvocate.com.au/story/3194762/ignite-2015/