Snackable Research And The Misunderstood Millennial

The work I do requires a lot of consumer research. And like any other profession, advertising tends to focus its gaze squarely on the millennial demo. They’re the most tech-savvy, the trendsetters. They may not spend a lot of money, but they’ll tweet about your product ad nauseam to the generations who will. Getting the elusive 18–34 year-old in on your brand conversation is just the thing to do. Which might be why more often than not, the client briefs I touch tend to pinpoint millennials as an audience of interest.

The trouble begins when you start digging for relevant info on the internet. ACTIVITY TIME: Google search the words “millennial media consumption.” Now try “millennial online shopping habits.” What your greeted with is page after page of what I lovingly refer to as snackable research; bite-sized data crunches in visually-stimulating infographics. Or maybe Top Ten listicles of the hot millennial trends you, the eager marketer, are totally missing out on. The dirty truth is two-fold:

  1. Millennials, and the internet, are growing side by side. Which ages our research on both exponentially.
  2. Snackable research is not just lazy: It’s dangerously defining a generation it seeks to understand.

First, I’ll attack the notion of secondary online millennial research on its very value alone. Research, as a medium, has one glaring flaw: It takes time. Months of hypothesizing, recruitment, reporting, and publicizing. By the time you’re reading about it, it’s already old news. Compound this with the nature of the tech-forward, ever-evolving Gen Y and your “millennial trend research” is now merely a tidy artifact of what was. Not only that, but it’s being broadcast to countless other marketers across cyberspace to pluck up and propagate. Hardly insightful, wholly unsustainable.

In approaching the second truth, I’d like to point out an Adweek article from their Millennials Week coverage. Title: From their favorite digital devices, to Lena Dunham, here’s what we learned. What follows is a slick man-on-the-street set to quirky synth beats. B-roll of a half naked man dancing in a public park. More b-roll of two women walking past one another, face down in their mobile devices. Before the interview even begins, we’re bombarded with visual cues of naivety. Narcissism. The interviews, which are distilled down into a sudo-quant infographic below the video, play out in predictable fashion. Young men and women are asked questions ranging from “What kind of phone do you have?” to “Is it pronounced ‘gif’ or ‘jif’?” to — I’m not shitting you — “Lena Dunham: Yes or No?”

While this is a more flagrant example, arguably unrepresentative of the swath of online millennial research, what it does demonstrate is a deafness in our study and analysis of an entire generation of people. By only including millennials in on certain conversations, publication researchers have effectively pigeonholed this group of consumers to particular clichéd stereotypes of themselves. They’re tech-savvy. They’re trendsetters. They watch Girls.

Circulated is this caricature of millennials as young, dumb, and digital. Advertisers see them as loudspeakers. Marketers see them as easy pickins. Even millennials themselves have begun parroting perceptions of greed and absorption. That’s the easy takeaway. The reality is a lot more complex. Millennials, as it turns out, “stand out in their willingness to ascribe negative stereotypes to their own generation.” Yet the majority of 18–34 year-olds don’t consider themselves representative of the “millennial generation” they technically belong to.

There’s a disconnect between how we perceive millennials, and how they perceive themselves. Whether that is aspirational or illustrative is up for debate. What is not up for debate is the media’s willingness to cash in on these dumbed-down perceptions. In doing so, we are losing sight of the bigger picture, and quite possibly damning a generation to shame and self-loathing in the process.

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