24: Didja C That Kewl Ad?

What bewildered advertising executives need to know to pitch a wary generation

There's a midlife crisis brewing in marketing. Rules honed over decades that are supposed to make everything from cereals to credit cards irresistible to skeptical baby boomers have turned out to be a major turnoff for the newest generation of big spenders: the 50 million 13- to 23-year-olds who shell out $150 billion a year in the marketplace and are forming brand preferences that could endure for decades.

As a result, these new consumers are turning the marketing canon on its head. Take their attitude towards ads. While boomers mistrust advertising, their kids love it--if it's witty and not condescending. To them, ads can be an alternative form of entertainment. But hitting the right note is hard. Ads aimed at this group can't be too obvious, but they do have to be honest about their intent.

So what are the rules of engagement when it comes to young consumers? To find out, BusinessWeek polled successful marketers and then ran the rules past five 18-year-olds--Sarah Coperine, Dana Cyboski, James King, Thom Carvette, and Max Ugwoth--convened by youth-marketing specialist North Castle Partners, in Stamford, Conn. Here's what we found:

Rule 1: Don't talk down.

Forget the authoritative "experts" who swayed their parents; this group won't believe a word they say. Younger consumers want to feel they are drawing their own conclusions about products, brands, social issues. Many antismoking and anti-drug-abuse efforts get a thumbs-down from kids for browbeating the audience. "If you're consciously trying to make youth do something, they're going to sniff that out," warns Chris Strain, vice-president of marketing at sneaker maker Vans Inc., which operates skate parks, sponsors the Warped rock tour, and generally "hangs" with its customers, so that the brand's image can seep out on its own. "You've got to develop their long-term trust," Strain says.

I don't like it when someone tells me what to do. Those drug and sex commercials preach. What do they know? Also, I don't like it when they show a big party and say come on and fit in with this product. That's not how it works.

Rule 2: Don't try to be what you're not. Stay true to your brand DNA.

"Teenagers have a built-in BS meter," says Michael Wood, vice-president at Teenage Research Unlimited in Northbrook, Ill. "Too many people try to be cool in ways they have no business being cool in." These days, when even Ma Bell is using skateboarders in ads, it's time to find a unique image that's true to your product.

Since kids put a premium on straight talk, it helps to show utter confidence and accountability. Procter & Gamble Co. (PG ) backs up a money-back guarantee on its Old Spice High Endurance deodorant with an invitation to phone 1-800-PROVEIT. Chocolate drink maker Yoo-hoo Beverage Co. showed it's not afraid to make fun of itself by sending a garbage truck painted in the brand's signature yellow-and-blue to hand out samples.

When you say "I'm a teen"--you're not. Like, extreme sports are fine, but after a while you start to get tired of it in advertising.

Rule 3: Entertain 'em. Make it interactive, if you can. And keep the sell short.

Boomers may resent mingling ads with the surrounding "content," but the Internet generation likes finding brands in unexpected places. New York-based DVC Brand Games weaves them into free electronic games for clients like Bic, McDonald's (MCD ), and General Mills (GIS ). "The seamless integration of the brand message is not only accepted but cool," says DVC Executive Vice-President Jim Wexler. Jones Soda Co. (JSDA )invites consumers to send in artsy photos for use on the labels, while the California Milk Processor Board allows youngsters to create their own TV ads.

Beware of underestimating the intelligence of teenagers. "They want to be entertained, but they also want to be intrigued," says North Castle partner Grant MacDonald. Building a sense of discovery into your ad generates talk value among peers--important social currency. Snapple's latest ads, featuring animated beverage bottles, are full of details that viewers won't notice until the second or tenth go-round. "The aim is to make them say: `Did you notice what this bottle had around his neck?"' says Jeffrey Wolf, director of account planning at Snapple's agency, Deutsch Inc.

I like loud and not boring.... Make it like Snapple. It's like a movie you want to watch over and over. You need that in a commercial or I'll just change the channel.

Rule 4: Show that you know what they're going through, but keep it light.

It has never been easy to be a teenager, and that hasn't changed. So show them that you understand. For a commercial for Hershey Foods Corp.'s (HSY ) Ice Breakers, North Castle tied the brand's minty product benefit to a guy's stress at approaching a strange girl at a club. "I'm wearing my lucky boxers," he reassures himself. "Don't trip. Don't drool. Relax. How's my breath?"

"Blatant honesty" shows you're in sync with their concerns, says Ellis Verdi, whose agency, DeVito/Verdi, has created ads for online textbook vendor eCampus.com. "Buy all the books you'll never open from the store that never closes," exhorts one.

Being a teen is tough, but don't use it to remind me of the bad stuff. Keep it upbeat.

Rule 5: Customization and interactivity are good. But don't kid yourself into thinking that new media equals cutting edge; spamming just won't work.

This is a generation that revels in self-expression, and the most successful marketers give them plenty of opportunity. Nokia Corp. (NOK ) offers add-ons like nameplates and downloadable ringer tones. Nike Inc.'s Air Presto sneakers can be ordered online in special prints, color combinations, and a personalized ID tag. But new medium or not, spam is not interactive and gets the thumbs-down.

It's fun to make your own stuff. I customized Presto to be really cool.... No one likes e-mail ads or reads them. It's crap. It's not about interacting and it's not new.... Like, older people think AOL is cool. They don't get it.

Rule 6: Not that they'll really let you, but get to know those savvy, plastic-wielding teens. If you don't, no list of rules will help you get their attention.

They should have had us make the list. They should have first asked us.

By Gerry Khermouch

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE