Capturing the Millennial Demographic? by Joseph Natoli

by Joseph Natoli
Guest Writer
Dandelion Salad
March 4, 2011

“The Oscars tripped in their transition to a hipper, younger, media-mad future, attracting 12 percent fewer viewers than last year in the important 18-to-49 age bracket.” — Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, “Younger Audience Still Eludes the Oscars,” NY Times March 1, 2001

“European students live in societies where it becomes more difficult to collapse public life into largely private considerations. Students in these countries have access to a wider range of critical public spheres;
politics in many of these countries has not collapsed entirely into the spectacle of celebrity/commodity culture; left-oriented political parties still exist; and labor unions have more political and ideological clout than they do in the United States.”  — Henry A. Giroux, Left Behind? American Youth and the Global Fight for Democracy Truthout (www.truth-out.org)

So we note that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – call it the celebrity half of the spectacle of celebrity/commodity culture — wants to attract a young demographic, and, marketers of products and services – call it the commodity half – want to attract an even younger demographic, 49 being about 20 years too old. Having spent the last 15 years living with twentysomethings on extended “Eurotrips,” I immediately recognized the futility of putting James Franco and Anne Hathaway in evening clothes and hoping the show would go viral on YouTube and create a rush of tweets. And because I had once pointed out posters of Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Clark Gable and James Dean and asked for identifiers and got none from the Millennials, I knew that the appearance of a truly frightening 94 year old Kirk Douglas would not connect as any sort of recognizable homage by the Millennials.

Celebrities have a high speed life span and the history of classic Hollywood is as “back in the day” and therefore dead to them as a chunky cell phone. History has always been, along with entitlements, unions, taxes, and the word “public,” an impediment to profit-making free play. A decline in young viewers of the Oscar presentations on TV represents no more than what we already knew – the Millennials prefer to watch elsewhere than TV just as an increasing number prefer e-readers to books. You can digitalize TV but you can’t make it a self-design operation, which is what cyberspace offers. Filmmakers and novelists and journalists are, in the Millennial view, no more than content providers for cyberspace delivery. Where the royalties for such content providers may come from is an “issue” at the present moment. It may be an issue resolved by personalized content, which began with bloggers and now can be witnessed on Facebook. You and your friends provide enough material to keep you informed, entertained and connected.

Change, as they say, is inevitable (although the longish Middle Ages seemed to deny such inevitability) and many define it as a good in itself and thereby fall in line with capitalism’s need to create dissatisfaction with what one already has, purchases already made, and instill a desire for the new, for a change. The change then that is troublesome here is not a preference for the Internet rather than TV but a privatizing of thought and imagination. If what Hollywood has long given us for the money is not just escapist entertainment but an opportunity to imaginatively engage possibilities denied us in our own lives and therefore expand our social and political ties to others, then a collapse into personal content would be disastrous. Aristotle and Shelley would agree with me.

This is all “nervous making,” to use an expression the greatest comic English language novelist, Evelyn Waugh, made popular in the `20s. And I haven’t even begun to talk about real money.

How to capture the Millennial demographic? Forget about how President Obama and Congress may be in all sorts of battles right now from fear of a government closing to Tea Party austerity plans to cut the national debt on the backs of the Have Less Each Day and the flat out Have Nots Since Nothing Ever Trickled Down. As far as globalized technocapitalism is concerned political battles are defensive not money making battles. The businessman’s goal here is to keep the Feds out of the Wild West of global market free play. And this has been successfully done since the reign of Reagan. The new and enigmatic frontier to be tilled and planted in order “to grow the economy,” or, more exactly, grow the profits of shareholders, are the Millennials. This youth demographic may not have the coin of their parents and grandparents but they are easier to spin, responding as they do instinctively to a need to represent their youthful, radical, unique difference. It has not been difficult traditionally for marketers to tie this need to be unique, cool, radical “whatever” to product. Coolness has been easily commodified since the Hippies ripped their jeans and tie-dyed their t-shirts.

Lest one think that only market conservatives have a problem with the Millennials, consider the present clash between the Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, and public service union members. Stephen Colbert satirizes the clash as he interviews a union representative who is unaware that a scene of prehistoric dinosaurs plays behind him. Unions are as extinct as dinosaurs and this might very well be a Millennial view. Unions are analog, no longer needed in the age of social networking. A union now is no more than you and your selected friends. It’s hard to pass on a leftist politics from that point. Right and Left want to capture the attention of the Millennials; politics and the market want to capture their attention.

The mission is difficult and continues to be perhaps because Millennials are the product of a paradigm shift which means that what was before, say, the Analogs, is incommensurable with what the digital Millennials are now.

How commensurable was The Establishment of the `60s with the Counterculture of the `60s? Very, even though both sides testified to a radical and unbridgeable difference. Both, however, played in the public space, debated, if you want to call it that, on a public stage in which history, though not interpreted similarly, was recognized as context. Dominating issues of conflict remained societal though one presumed to have the freedom “to drop out,” and politics, though messy, dirty and antagonizing could not be dismissed by personal decree and design, at least not without a twinge. Perhaps only the East coast twinged while the West coast went for a “politics of love.” Perhaps protest then rushed to the streets because there were no cyberspace streets to rush to, just as one loved “the one you’re with,” not the one you met on eHarmony.

MTV has long recognized this different sort of chasm between Millennials and the “old” by keeping their creative management young. You can have an older demographic more heavily into IT culture, more tied to cyberspace than the Millennials, but they can’t duplicate an existence that began ab ovo in cyberspace. In other words, Analogs trail clouds of analog connections with the world. We are talking about a more difficult divide than the horse/buggy and Model T divide, than the telegraph/telephone divide, than the silent/talkie divide because we are talking about a foundational time/space divide between one form of consciousness and another. Specifically, cyberspace allows for a personally designed discourse that in turn fashions a reality of being which has perhaps scant and unknowable but certainly complex relations to a social reality.

Do marketers need to probe such a deep complexity to understand why Millennials are attracted to Reality TV? Do the members of the Motion Picture Academy need to go deep into the phenomenology of Millennial intentionality? And if you connect future global competitiveness with well educated young, does this mean that we’ll have to wait until the Millennials become education leaders in order to know how to educate Millennials?

Under the inspiration of postmodern insights – which marketers exercised before the word postmodern was ever used – marketers prefer to construct their consumer rather than run after them the way criminal behavioral profilers do in the TV show Criminal Minds. But the running after may be inevitable in the case of the Millennials because they are not so much resistant to as positioned not to recognize or identify with or seek to become what Analogs can construct. If you delete any commonly recognized framing of reality and replace it with a personal or socially limited framing, as one does with Facebook, there is no shared space within which marketers can easily spin desires. This is an uncharted frontier, more innately resistant to capitalist colonization than the analog frontiers of the past. That privatization and personalization of reality is, of course, a pure product of a continued endorsement of the illusions of individualism that serve an unbridled capitalism wary of any form of social solidarity beyond Sam Club membership. The unwelcome byproduct of this, in the scenario of profit-is-all, is the alienated – in the sense of unreachable — individualism of the Millennials.

I’m sure in the marketers’ view they’ve created a Frankenstein they don’t quite know how to handle. Social networks, such as Facebook, hold out a promise as commodity platform but what is more than a promise is their usefulness in toppling despotic regimes in the Arab world. And it’s that reality, unfolding at the present moment, which makes the commodification of the Millennials urgent now on a political as well as profit making level. I mean that cyberspace’s relationship to the Great Outdoors, that is the offline world, may be one which attaches Millennials in a societal/political way rather than detaching them.

While the market may need to capture the Millennial demographic for profit sake, the U.S. Millennials may latch onto a discourse of protest against a regime of profit, a discourse running at top speed now in cyberspace, a space that knows no borders, a discourse that has produced real actions in a real world. It may not then be the voracious appetite of capitalism which captures and consumes Millennials but Millennials who script an interconnectedness which collapses capitalism from a Brobdingnagian to a Lilliputian level which an egalitarian, sustainable economics and the limited resources of this planet Earth can afford. Hopefully, such a Lilliputian capitalism will be minus some of the despicable behaviors of Swift’s Lilliputians, though utopian scenarios of human nature and society, Analog and Digital, are, if history is to be respected, to be avoided.

Joseph Natoli is a retired college professor and author of numerous books on culture and politics. Learn more about him at www.josephnatoli.com.

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