Gen X Ads: `Two For Me, None For You'

An edgy crop of ads rudely pushes the envelope

What ever happened to those smiling young folks who wanted to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony and buy everybody a Coke?

They're history. In Coca-Cola's latest campaign, Gen Xers are battling one another in a race to the top of a muddy hill. The prize: a single bottle of Coke's latest carbonated beverage, Surge.

Advertisers are trying to push a new button--and not just for Coca-Cola Co. Instead of creating ads around situations most people want to identify with, some of the more successful new ads stress the world's limited resources and the need to move quickly and aggressively if you want to get yours.

Kids and young adults, who absorb an average of 20,000 TV commercials a year, are all but immune to softer appeals, advertisers say. To reach this much sought-after demographic group, pitchmen are willing to get a little rude and risk making other consumers squirm. "If you go out with the idea that you're not going to offend anybody, you probably won't make an impression," says Jamie Barrett, a creative director at Wieden & Kennedy Inc. in Portland, Ore., which recently did a campaign aimed at Gen Xers for Miller Genuine Draft beer. The tag line on the ad: "It's time to shut up and drink some beer."

GOODBYE CIVILITY. Consider the new campaign for M&M/Mars's Twix snack foods by D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles Inc. Mom may have taught you to share, but Twix's new slogan--"Two for me, none for you"--advises consumers to wolf down both chocolate wafers themselves. An M&M/Mars spokesperson describes the campaign as a "fun, tongue-in-cheek thing."

But beneath the humor is a somewhat hostile message, says Robert Goldman, a sociology professor at Portland's Lewis & Clark College and co-author of Sign Wars, a book about the cluttered landscape of advertising. Goldman worries about what the new ads say about society. "The big issue is that they seem to reflect a loss of civility," he says. "In this kind of world, jokes about personalism and materialism are funny."

Not even references to death are off limits. A new commercial launched in June for Nabisco Inc.'s Air Crisps crackers shows a young man ostensibly comforting a grieving widow. His real goal, though, is to get his hands on a nearby bowl of Air Crisps. The punch line: "[The deceased] would have wanted me to have these."

HELLO SALES. Similarly, in Infiniti commercials that began airing in May, one setting is a burial service where a man's corpse is being lowered into the grave--inside his luxury sedan. His wife sobs as one mourner leans over to another and delivers the kicker: "She really loved that car."

Tasteless? Sure. But the ads seem to be working. Infiniti sales for June were up 56% from a year ago, and a spokeswoman for Infiniti says the ads were a factor. Surge has grabbed a 1% share of the soft-drink markets where it was launched in January. That puts it on a par with caffeine-free Diet Pepsi, the No.10 soft drink, according to Beverage Digest. And June sales of Air Crisps were twice the May levels.

That's why, despite the negative message in many of the new spots, ad execs are proud of the campaigns. "If you have to scream louder or whatever, then so what?" says William Oberlander, executive creative director at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners in New York. "No one's really worrying about what it's teaching impressionable youth. Hey, I'm in the business of convincing people to buy things they don't need." By any possible means.