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Illustration by Jeremy Russell

Are You a Target?

Gen X invents Gen Y

By Annalee Newitz

EVERYBODY LIKES TOM GREEN-- at least, those of us who are blessed with MTV and get to watch his sociopathic antics on the Tom Green Show. He's the ultimate blank-eyed, sarcastic Gen-Xer, tormenting his parents by doing things like planting an obscene sculpture on their lawn and then filming their (non-sarcastic) rage when they discover it.

Tom is also the new spokesweirdo for BigWords.com, a young dotcom selling textbooks online to the recently labeled "Gen Y" target market. Michelle, who happens to be one of those rare truly groovy PR people, sent me a pack of stuff from BigWords recently, including a whitepaper sponsored by BigWords called "Commerce and Branding to the Gen Y College Demographic." Reading it, I suddenly realized that this was the result of Gen X taking over the world of advertising. Once the "untargetable market," Gen X has gone dotcom and decided to sell stuff to a possibly imaginary demographic with what this whitepaper calls "sexy images," and "on-line, off-line, on-campus and grassroots marketing elements."

I think my favorite part of the whitepaper--aside from the pictures of dubious-looking college students with big shoes (apparently most people in Gen Y are skinny white hipsters)--was the cover letter. In it, a BigWords PR flak describes their "grassroots" campaign to seduce the 18- to 24-year-old college demographic into buying their textbooks at BigWords.com.

Did I say seduce? Possibly another term would be in order. Apparently, BigWords did their grassroots advertising using "orange jumpsuit-clad SWAT teams" and (inexplicably) by "dropping 20,000 super balls for a Y2K Ball Drop Beta Test."

What does it all mean? SWAT teams and Y2K Ball Drop Beta Tests on campus? Sounds like the 1960s, except this time around the pigs are entertaining us and trying to get us to buy things.

All this confusing iconography is about getting Gen Y hooked on online brands--specifically the BigWords brand, but also other ones being dreamt up right now by companies who might learn from the BigWords example. As if it wasn't bad enough knowing that Yahoo and whoever else are tracking your purchases and cookies and clicks to find out which banner ads to throw at you, now these smartass Gen X advertiser types are trying to quantify you, to measure you, to figure out your "lifestyle" so that they can make their commodities more enticing.

Don't get me wrong. Unlike some people, I don't think advertising is evil. I enjoy the seductive allure of The Gap and Urban Outfitters--the aroma of fresh cloth and candles, the soft stacks of sweaters and gleaming racks of perfumed lotions. Like most people raised in the United States, I like to buy things. And yeah, I buy things online too. What self-respecting geek could live without the wonders of Kozmo.com?

But it's disturbing to know that there are marketers out there inventing identities for us based our preference for going online several times a day. I am not, as Tom Frank might say ironically, the sum of my commodities.

And so this whitepaper full of schematics and prototypes for the alleged Gen Y demographic gave me pause. One always wants to find out more about "those young people," but not like this. Not sprawled and wriggling on the pin of capitalism.

Ironically, I can't really even describe my feelings without referring to yet another commercialized incarnation of Gen Y. The brilliant TV ads for Doughnet.com have been haunting my imagination. An aggressive, green-faced teen representing some Gen-Yer's unconscious desire to buy things walks beside our hero, exclaiming loudly, "Hey, let's buy that mask! I want some chocolate! Buy your girlfriend a really nice outfit!" Our hero plods onward down the street, constantly badgered by this green guy, who is finally bludgeoned to death by a logo that says Doughnet.com--apparently some website which converts money into online tokens for teens and college students to spend on the Internet.

Sometimes it just feels like there's no way out. Solve your problems with money by getting a different kind of money. Invent a new generation by giving them things to buy. And don't forget to keep surfing the web.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who, in a pinch, always chooses freedom over money.

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From the March 2-8, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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