“The Fault In Our Stars” And The Fault In Our Fact-Based Marketing
Why are Millennials so optimistic?
The facts point to a bleak present and a very uncertain future for this cohort. The economic recovery can’t gather steam, job prospects are limited and student debt is historically high. As a result, one in five young adults age 20-30 have moved back in with their parents and well over half of people in that age group depend on their families for financial assistance. Then of course, there’s climate change, a dysfunctional political climate in the U.S. and multiple, deadly conflicts breaking out all over the world.
Despite it all, Millennials seem to think that everything will work out just fine. They have faith that the miracles of technology will raise economic tides for all. More telling is that “their optimism is linked, in part, to attitudes instilled by parents and teachers who told them they could do anything,” according to a July 7, 2013 article from the Los Angeles Times. The piece goes on to quote a Millennial expert as saying that “confidence has been hard wired into their DNA. It’s not that they’re young and dumb. They were taught ‘believe in yourselves.’”
Still, I wonder.
I went to see “The Fault In Our Stars” a few weeks ago, the blockbuster film (domestic box office total was $116 million as of July 6) based on the blockbuster novel by John Green (11 million copies sold to date). The subject of this cultural phenomenon? Terminally ill teenagers with cancer. Sure, there are the “I’m living in the moment” and “doing it my way” affirmations, but the message is certainly not “love conquers all.” Rather, one of the inescapable conclusions is that death conquers all and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Even more fascinating than the film itself were the in-theater ads and previews. There was an ad for a TV show that has since premiered on ABC Family, called “Chasing Life.”
With the tagline, “Cancer Sucks,” the show “follows twenty-something April, a smart and quick-witted aspiring journalist” who is overcoming several consequential life challenges. But “just as things start to look up at work, home and on the romance front with co-worker Dominic, April gets the devastating news she has cancer.”
Then came a trailer for “If I Stay,” another new film based on a best selling young adult novel with the young rising star Chloë Grace Moretz, also based on a best selling young adult novel. Moretz plays an aspiring concert cellist who follows up to falling in love by falling into an automobile accident induced coma. “I’m still here, and I’m so in love with you. Please stay,” implores her perfect boyfriend, as she lies unconscious in hospital bed.
But death wasn’t done with us yet and the terminal diseases kept on coming. Another trailer, and I wish I could remember the name of this film, was about seriously or terminally ill kids in a children’s hospital.
Oh joy! And lest we forget, there’s The Walking Dead, True Blood and all the other tales of soulless, out-of-control creatures feasting on human blood and brains in an out-of-control world.
Still filled with optimism? Boomers look at these facts and cultural trends and can’t image their children and grandchildren even thinking about enjoying better lives or higher standards of living. But while Millennials are sending mixed signals with media consumption that belies reports of great optimism, perhaps the rosy outlook is simply a coping mechanism for living in such uncertain times. And underlying it all is a certain kind of faith.
Not faith in the traditional religious sense. Millennials are opting out of organized religion due to its increasing politicization and their overall mistrust of institutions overall. Still a survey of 2,000 U.S. men and women, ages 18-34 by the Integrated Innovation Institute at Carnegie Mellon University found that that 62 percent said they talk to God, while 52 percent said they look to religion for guidance.
“Millennials are widely believed to have less faith in God and are less active in religion than their parents and grandparents,” says Peter Boatwright, co-director of the Integrated Innovation Institute. “While our survey doesn’t explore this comparison, we think it’s telling that, overall, the majority of this generation does express a fairly strong sense of faith,” he says.
Faith is an important survival mechanism that extends well beyond belief in God. As I always say, the facts never matter in marketing, only perceptions are important. But of course, that observation is not limited to marketing or religion. Faith-based approaches in everything from politics to diets are easily identified.
“When faith — including faith-based economics — meets evidence, evidence doesn’t stand a chance,” writes the Nobel winning economist and New York Times Op-Ed contributor Paul Krugman in his July 6 column. He goes on to say:
“On Sunday, The Times published an article by the political scientist Brendan Nyhan about a troubling aspect of the current American scene — the stark partisan divide over issues that should be simply factual, like whether the planet is warming or evolution happened. It’s common to attribute such divisions to ignorance, but as Mr. Nyhan points out, the divide is actually worse among those who are seemingly better informed about the issues.
“The problem, in other words, isn’t ignorance; it’s wishful thinking. Confronted with a conflict between evidence and what they want to believe for political and/or religious reasons, many people reject the evidence. And knowing more about the issues widens the divide, because the well informed have a clearer view of which evidence they need to reject to sustain their belief system.”
Marketing, and advertising in particular, have always been faith based. I am often struck while watching all the direct marketing pitches on late night TV on how perfect my life could be if only I bought all those gadgets. When I was a kid, I always marveled at cereal commercials. Attractive, blonde, All-American families up at the crack of dawn, playing touch football on the front lawn or having a ball washing the family car together before gathering around the kitchen table for a bowl of Cheerios.
Who lives like that? Even back in the time when “traditional family values” seemed to matter more, didn’t everyone wake up grouchy?
I can’t put it any better than Heather Havrilesky did in her recent New York Times Magazine article, 794 Ways in Which BuzzFeed Reminds Us of Impending Death, a terrifically smart piece that is well worth reading in its entirety.
“Death and disappointment were suddenly everywhere — in the news every night, at the breakfast table in the morning — but rather than acknowledge the burden of such things, we’d all agreed to smile along, taking our cues from Captain Stubing and Captain Kangaroo and Cap’n Crunch. The famous yellow smiley face, that 50-year-old precursor to BuzzFeed’s yellow buttons, urged us to Have a Happy Day, which sounded to me less like a request than a command.”
Faith, and the stories that emanate from it have always helped mankind cope. Cave paintings, myth and religion, music, literature, film and even TV commercials. It’s why as marketers, we need to pay relentless attention to the popular culture. Not just the trends, but the faith-based reasons from which they emerge.
As the founder of Revlon, Charles Revson, famously said, “In the factory we make cosmetics; in the drugstore we sell hope.”