Advertising to Boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Ys.
Literature Review.

Two phases

Two research methodologies were employed to investigate these questions. One was conventional, the other is somewhat atypical.

Six art directors were approached and personally interviewed for the study. Five were from major ad agencies in the Chicago area, a sixth was from a major ad agency in Fort Lauderdale. Most of the art directors were recruited from Chicago agencies due to the great number of first-tier ad agencies to recruit from, and the convenience of its being within driving distance from the University, making it more accessible.

Interviews were chosen for this part of the study because they allow for greater in-depth questioning of the subject. The interviews were conducted “in the field,” that is, in the ADs’ offices—with the exception of one, conducted in his home in Miami—to allow for the subject’s convenience and the fact that we would be discussing their creative process, and being in their office would allow them to remain close to the topic, the work (Creswell, 2003).

Phase one: online focus groups

The more unconventional phase of the research took place before the interviews. Based on a suggestion from the committee chair, source material with which to conduct and inform the interviews was gathered by focus-grouping seven sets of representatives of each generation: three sessions of Gen Y participants, two of Gen Xers, and two of Boomers. What makes this unconventional is that these focus groups were conducted in chat rooms via the World Wide Web.

This is a somewhat controversial method of conducting focus groups, with strengths and certainly some weaknesses. As this is a relatively new twist on a well-established methodology, opinions come down on both sides of the issue of its viability and validity as a genuine research method. Thomas Greenbaum is one of the method’s most adamant opponents. He takes issue with the very application of the term “focus group” to an online variant of the method: “If organizations want to provide qualitative research services using the Internet, there is no reason why this cannot become a part of the research arsenal. But this type of research must not be called focus groups because on-line chat sessions lack some of the most important elements of focus group research.” (Greenbaum, 1997). In another even more critical piece, he recites a litany of shortcomings he has with the method including the perceived authority (or lack thereof) of the moderator, absence of face-to-face reaction to comments, absence of non-verbal communication, inability to verify basic facts about the participants (such as age, gender, etc.), and lack of client “back-room” participation (Greenbaum, 2000). He concludes by categorically rejecting the method altogether except possibly as a very preliminary, dry-run substitute for an actual focus group which would follow later.

Not all researchers experienced with the method agree, however. While most concede that real-time/real-world (RT/RW) focus groups do have certain advantages over online ones, conducting focus groups online opens up possibilities for interaction and efficiency not possible with a RT/RW methodology. Online qualitative studies have been conducted to evaluate advertising, test and critique live and in-development Web sites, test and evaluate consumer products and to investigate customer and employee satisfaction along with a myriad of other research pursuits (Sweet, 2001).

There are two kinds of focus groups possible when the computer and the Internet are introduced as the participation vehicle: asynchronous and synchronous. While RT/RW focus groups necessarily involve all participants to be in the same room together at the same time, an asynchronous group mediated by computer requires neither. One study investigating the participants’ experience with online focus groups conducted an asynchronous focus group which lasted two and a half months (Rezabek, 2000). Another study employed asynchronous focus groups lasting four months (Burton & Goldsmith, 2002); still another lasted eight weeks (Kenny, 2004). The extended timeframe allows for more consideration between responses, allowing for deeper probing of the conversation topic. Asynchronous focus groups can be conducted either via email or on an online message board.

Synchronous focus groups are more akin to RT/RW groups in that they involve direct real-time communication among participants in a shared “space”—in this case, a shared cyberspace: a chat room. Participants agree to “meet” at a particular Web site at a prearranged time for a specified duration. Once in the room, a moderator (the researcher) asks the group questions, solicits answers and encourages conversation. The participants converse as though they were in the same room, but with several key benefits: none can interrupt another/cut another speaker off in mid-sentence, which leads to longer and richer conversation (Schneider, Kerwin, Frechtling & Vivari, 2002). Participants are (usually) in their homes and therefore comfortable, with access to their own refreshments and lavatory facilities. Also, the chat room “equalizes” everyone, making each “voice” consistent in volume and tone, and makes such distractions as “social posturing” much more difficult. This has the effect of allowing everyone to express their opinions freely and candidly (Burton & Goldsmith, 2002 ; Kenny, 2004).

The strengths of online focus groups are not insignificant. In addition to allowing for a geographically diverse gathering of people, studies found that the computer affords a certain degree of anonymity among participants, which encourages greater, more honest, even provocative contribution to discussion (Burton & Goldsmith, 2002; Kenny, 2004; Montoya-Weiss, Massey & Clapper, 1998). Chat room sessions are logged so they do not need to be transcribed; this potentially saves money (if one would have hired transcribers otherwise) but definitely saves a great deal of time (Kenny, 2004; Montoya-Weiss et al, 1998; Burton & Goldsmith, 2002).

The focus groups were conducted in an online, Web-based chat environment. The chat sessions were held at in a specialized application called ParaChat®. Using a Web site as the medium allows for compatibility with both Macintosh and Windows-platform systems. This was to make it as easy as possible for subjects to participate, since absenteeism is a known problem in conducting online focus groups (Schneider et al, 2002) and this certainly was an issue in the sessions conducted for this project,

Seven synchronous online focus groups were conducted, two for Gen Xers, two for Baby Boomers and three for Gen Ys, between 4 and 12 participants in each. Doubling up each generation was intended to see whether certain comments and themes were consistent within that generation. (A third group was necessary to run for Gen Ys in order to bring the number of participating Gen Ys in line with the other generations.) Sampling for these groups was done with the assistance of MU professors instructing online graduate-level courses for the university, friends, professional colleagues and co-workers. Using MU online graduate students addresses the identity validation issue to the best extent possible, as online students will already have been vetted by the graduate school. This was a precaution taken against students who might attempt to misrepresent themselves in order to collect additional compensation for participating.

Participants were distributed into cohorts according to their date of birth: those born between 1946–1965 were grouped as Boomers, those born between 1966–1985 were grouped as Generation X, and those born between 1986–2005 were grouped as Generation Y (Markert, 2004). The online focus groups lasted between 1-2 hours, depending on how productive the conversation was and how enthusiastic the group was (once participants are engaged in the discussion, the experience can be enjoyable and even “addictive” (Kenny, 2005)).

One criticism raised by some of online focus groups is that of technological proficiency being a necessary characteristic of participants (Schneider et al, 2002). In this study, however, this is considered a benefit. Subjects in this study were expected to be conversant on issues of technology and media use, and those who are comfortable with computers, the Internet and online chat rooms should be able to discuss such matters constructively.

Questions asked of the participants include:

How do you feel in general about advertising?

What kind of ads appeal to you?

In which media do you pay more attention to advertising?

What kind of ads annoy or otherwise bother you?

Do ads help you make purchase decisions?

With these topics explored, a series of (print) advertisements were shown to the group via the Web site in a separate window. Each of these ads were targeted at a particular generation, two for each. Once the group had the chance to view the ad for about a minute, conversation was then turned toward reactions to the ads, emotional and intellectual, and how well the ad communicated its message to them.

The Ads

Six magazine print ads were chosen in advance and presented for discussion. The ads were drawn from magazines targeting age demographics consistent with the three generations:

Forbes Volume 179, Issue 6, March 26, 2007
(Boomers age 42-61)

Wired Volume 15, Issue 4, April 2007
(Gen Xers age 22-41),

M Volume 7, Issue 5, May 2007
(Gen Ys age 12-21)

J-14 Volume 9, Issue 4, April 2007
(Gen Ys age 12-21).

Ads were presented in the following order:

1. Ford Edge

This ad, drawn from Wired, was for the Ford Edge minivan/SUV crossover vehicle. Its target demographic was clearly featured in the ad itself, represented by the couple walking along the boardwalk near the vehicle perched on the railing. The ad was chosen because it represents a modern, “environmental” appeal to Gen Xers. Rather than focus on the selling points of the vehicle, the ad emphasizes a more right-brained approach, an emotional, aspirational appeal which the younger demographic might respond to more strongly when making a purchase decision than a strictly facts-based rationale. In other words, the ad attempts to reach Gen Xers by putting the car (and themselves) into a situational context, much like a clothing ad. This is one of two automotive ads in the set.

2. L’Oreal Vive Pro for Men

This ad was chosen from Wired, and advertises a shampoo/conditioner for men designed to thicken hair. The ad features a very minimalist concept, showing only the product bottle with the headline “Go for the upgrade” and copy showing its thickening properties. Its appeal to Gen X is specifically in its headline; the use of the “techy” nomenclature applied to a shampoo made it relevant in Wired and to Gen X overall. This is one of two personal hygiene ads in the set.

3. Mercedes Benz S-Class

This ad for the Mercedes Benz S-Class was selected from Forbes as a counterpoint to the previously seen Ford Edge ad. The ad layout was altogether different and more of an “Ogilvy style” design: headline, simple photo of product, straightforward body copy, and signoff. The appeal of this ad for Boomers is much more left-brained than that of the Edge ad. No creative gimmicks are involved, only a testimonial from an individual whose credentials as executive vice president of a private aviation firm (NetJets, although this is unnamed in the ad) are his only (apparent) claim to celebrity. The ad is color, but uses it extremely sparingly, allowing the photo to have the greatest visual impact on the page. The Mercedes Benz ad was the second of two car ads in the series.

4. Pop-tarts

This ad for strawberry Pop-tarts was taken from M, a magazine targeting teenagers (Gen Y). This ad was unique in the set for many reasons: it was comprised entirely of illustration, had almost no copy, and had an entirely subjective appeal. The product itself was featured in the ad, anthropomorphized, in a compromising position which indicated its own (humorous) lack of foresight. In other words, the product itself was shown to be charmingly naïve at best, fatally stupid at worst. This was interesting because while clearly targeted to Gen Ys, its cartoony appeal to Gen Xers and Boomers was difficult to predict, because the ad’s message was fairly oblique.

Two characters from "Rejected".

The ad was also interesting because its illustration style is evocative of the style of an animator who gained notoriety in the early 00s with his Academy Award-nominated short film “Rejected”. Don Hertzfeldt’s film was seized upon and circulated among Gen Ys and Gen Xers using electronic media, and it gathered something of a cult following. This wasn’t known to the researcher at the time the ad was selected, but was recognized during the first interview as the Pop-tarts ad was being shown to interviewee Raul Vilaboa, and it became a point of discussion for each of the interviews which followed. (The similarity in illustration styles was in fact pointed out by one of the Gen Y participants, but the significance of the reference was lost in the quick-moving flow of conversation, and wasn’t recognized again until transcripts were studied later.)

5. Smith-Barney/Citigroup

This ad for financial counseling services was found in Forbes magazine, targeting Boomers. It was chosen because it was a unique design scheme in the set, being the only ad that fashions itself as an article lead page, so it was intended to provoke discussion about the feasibility of this aesthetic concept among the generations. In addition, the ad features an individual prominently in the ad, but who is not representative of the intended demographic, contrasting with both the Edge and Mercedes Benz ads. This was not visually confusing, but worthy of discussion (why were the people on the boardwalk in the Edge ad immediately recognizable as the intended target demo, but this boy is not?). It was also of interest to see how Gen Ys would react to the portrayal of themselves as intended for an expressly non-Gen Y audience. Finally, this was advertising not for a product but for a service, and was the only such ad in the set.

6. Stridex

The final ad was pulled from J-14, aimed at teenagers (Gen Y). Its message was straightforward, but communicated in a uniquely Gen Y vernacular, through the use of emoticons (note the thought bubbles of the two faces), to communicate satisfaction and dissatisfaction with the characters’ choice of acne pad. It is the only ad in the set to include a coupon. This ad was chosen specifically because of the use of the emoticons, to determine how successful it would be in delivering its message to Gen Ys, and to see whether Boomers would understand them or be confused. This is the second of two personal hygiene ads, and would also be used to compare and contrast with the L’Oreal ad.

Phase two: Interviews

Phase two of the study was carried out with art directors working at major advertising agencies. Steinar Kvale refers to the act of interviewing as “literally an inter view, an inter-change of views between two persons conversing about a theme of mutual interest.” (Kvale, 1998) The second phase of research gathering used the unstructured interview method, best for more interpretive research efforts, when individuals’ personal experiences and opinions are being captured and explored (Creswell, 2003; Ruane, 2005; Silverman, 2005).

This method was chosen for a number of other specific reasons. First, conversations in this phase would be more probing and detailed than the focus groups. The focus group participants are presumed not to be experts in the field of advertising—in fact such over-familiarity with the field would have disqualified a participant, since an ad pro in the group might make the group “too smart”. However, art directors being professionals in the field who themselves produce the creative work, in order to investigate the rationale and decision-making that goes into marketing to the generations, in-depth interviews are the best means to examine these issues. Furthermore, it is unreasonable to expect that art directors working for competing firms will be open and forthcoming with their creative process and proprietary methods if participating in a focus group together, and such a focus group would be very difficult to recruit for.

The focus group transcripts, having been analyzed for trends, emergent concept and insights into generational attitudes toward advertising, was brought to the art directors in the form of encapsulated findings. The interview discussions were built on their opinions of the ads shown to the focus groups and the findings of the focus group analysis, but some preliminary questions included:

How do you distinguish between these generations? How would you characterize them?

What techniques do you use to reach Generation X? Generation Y? Baby Boomers?

How do generational differences influence your creative process?

Who (which generation) is this ad targeted to? How do you know?

Could you use this ad to target to another generation? What changes would you have to make to do that?

Interviews lasted between one and two hours, depending on the availability of the individual (and the momentum of the session). All interview sessions were digitally recorded for transcription. Upon completion of the interviews, sessions were transcribed and analyzed, again to look for common themes and concepts.

Recruiting for the interviews was much more challenging than expected. Front-door approaches, such as calling the agency directly and asking for help, were unsuccessful. The following Chicago agencies were contacted directly: Energy BBDO, DDB Chicago, Young & Rubicam, Leo Burnett, J. Walter Thompson, Ogilvy & Mather, McCann Erickson and SaatchiX. While some of these calls resulted in conversations with agency staff, none resulted in the successful scheduling of an interview.

In light of this, a back-door approach was attempted, using contacts stemming from the Journalism School. While these were more successful in terms of reaching people genuinely willing to help, these efforts too were ultimately unsuccessful. Finally, contacts stemming from the American Advertising Federation were explored, and this resulted three of the six interviews ultimately held. Those three, upon completing the interviews, in turn provided two additional contacts—actually more, but only two were needed—which led to successfully scheduled meetings. The sixth (actually first) interview was conducted in Miami by mere fortuitous chance, as a creative director of a major Fort Lauderdale agency was the personal friend of the stepfather of a friend of the researcher, who was in Miami on vacation.

Raul Vilaboa, Senior Art Director, Zimmerman & Partners

The son of a well known sculptor in his native Cuba, Raul Vilaboa graduated the National School of Design, with a full professorship in drawing and design. He also graduated with a doctorate from the Institute of Superior Studies of Art in Havana, and his early experience dealt with various major publications in the Latin American market. In his current position as Senior Art Director and Studio manager for the Bravo Group, Latin division of Young & Rubicam, world-recognized advertising agency, Raul and his team have produced creative for such accounts as Lincoln Mercury, AT&T Wireless, Oscar Mayer and Blockbuster among others.

Raul was the personal friend of the stepfather of one of the researcher’s friends, who lives in Miami, Florida. A vacation to visit him in early July resulted in the serendipitous interview opportunity. Although Raul is not based in Chicago, his credentials made him a perfect candidate to include in this project.

Marcus Moore, Senior Art Director, Carol H. Williams

Marcus Moore was one of the first names provided by Heather Deja at the Chicago American Advertising Federation chapter, because of his cooperation with the club on a recent project. He graduated from the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbia, Ohio, and then started building his career in Los Angeles before returning to his home town of Chicago. Today, Marcus does creative at Carol H. Williams, an agency specializing in advertising for African-American audiences. He has done work for Wells Fargo, Bank American, Washington Mutual, Chevrolet, GMC, Lexus and Baby Gap.

Matthew Spett, Art Director, Cramer Krasselt

Matthew Spett was a contact referred by Heather Deja at the Chicago chapter of the American Advertising Federation. He’s done acclaimed work on (including art direction for several Super Bowl spots), Supercuts, McIlhenney (Tobasco), Morningstar Foods (Borden, Dean’s), and the Chicago Music Exchange. Before working at Cramer Krasselt, he served as an art director at DDB Dallas and Element 79 in Chicago.

Ed Zimkus, Creative Director, Burrell Communications Group

Ed Zimkus was a referral from Marcus Moore, who had provided the name of Camella Sledge at Burrell Communications. Camella then provided contact information for Ed, who agreed to be interviewed. Ed has been with Burrell for 17 years, and has done work for McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Sears, Proctor & Gamble (Tide, Crest and Olay), General Mills, Verizon, Kraft and Polaroid. Before coming to work for Burrell, Zimkus did creative for Foote, Cone & Belding.

Tristen George, Senior Art Director, Digitas Inc.

As a Senior Art Director at Digitas, Tristen brings over 14 years of experience in developing communications for both the print and digital space. Capitalizing on her traditional design education from the American Academy of Art in Chicago combined with years of industry experience in Chicago, Miami and New York she creates engaging consumer experiences across multiple channels for a seamless brand experience. Some of these brands include: America Online, The Ritz-Carlton, Unilever, Hill & Knowlton, Florsheim, The Home Depot, AutoNation, Eli Lilly, Kitchen Aid, and Whirlpool.

Michael Nwoke, Associate Creative Director/Senior Copywriter, Saatchi X

With Best Portfolio honors from the Portfolio Center in 1996, Michael’s creative journey led to an Associate Copywriter position at Leo Burnett USA-Chicago, where he primarily worked on the agency’s Coca-Cola, Reebok and McDonald’s accounts. Career highlights include cross-country travel to spring training camps to meet and record players such as Tony Gwynn and Nomar Garciaparra for Major League Baseball’s 80-spot ‘Fan Mail’ campaign; and the national launch of NBA All-Star Tracy McGrady’s signature shoe while at Burrell Communications, also in Chicago. Michael’s most recent, meaningful and audacious venture is embracing the call to use his 10-plus years of advertising experience to love, lead, serve and save 'underrated' young boys/men through a non-profit network called THE CREATIVE RE: SOURCE STUDIO, an i.d.e.a.s.-driven mentoring outlet where ‘endangered’ youth in underserved communities can plug into for positive and creative-minded resources to help them overcome negative and destructive-minded behavior.