Marketing has existed since the dawn of time. It’s just changed with each generation.
OK, that’s a bit dramatic. But one could argue that it has been around since people started hocking goods at one another. After all, word of mouth is an early form of marketing (and the bedrock of modern marketing today)!
My mind started whirring over the relationship between eras of time and marketing when Jennifer Aniston made a comment about how the growing behemoth of social media has removed the “movie star celebrity glow” of the nineties and early aughts.
If you know me, then you know my mind will jump from one topic to another in an instant. I think “wow, Allure magazine is going away and Jennifer Aniston brought up the point ‘of no more Hollywood stars.’” Then I’m picturing black and white photographs of Marilyn Monroe stepping out of a limo to the flash photography of paparazzi. That made me think of old Hollywood glamor, wartime advertisements, and propaganda.
And I realized – there have been a ton of generations, and the way we speak to each of them is so different.
In this article, we’re jumping in a time machine. We’re going to look at how marketing and advertising evolved throughout the seven living generations. Then we’ll see if there’s something we can take away for the future.
The Generations & Marketing
To understand stand a generation, you can’t just look at birth years. You need to look at what happened during their coming-of-age instead. Those events will inform the generation’s general outlook and purchasing decisions. Because while Millennials are entering middle age, the effects of life experiences from earlier years persist.
Next, it is important to consider how the start and end years of generations are chosen. Looking at the world in 15- or 20-year age bands is a neat and orderly way to digest large amounts of information regarding a population. Some generational theorists such as William Strauss and Neil Howe, of Strauss-Howe generational theory fame, apply generational theory all the way back to 1433. (Shout out to the Arthurian Generation!)
But for the sake of your eyes, my fingers, and everyone’s time, I’m just going to focus on the main “living” generations. They are:
- The Greatest Generation or G.I. Generation
- The Silent Generation
- Baby Boomers I
- Boomers II (aka. Generation Jones)
- Generation X
- Generation Z
Photo ℅ FamilySearch.org
The Greatest Generation or G.I. Generation
The Greatest Generation is aptly named. I think another contender for the name should be “The Baller Generation” or “The Generation That’s Tough As Nails”.
- Born: 1900s-1920s
- Current Ages: 100-122
- Birth Year Events: WWI, The Great Depression, WWII
- Coming of Age Events: The Great Depression, WWII
- Characteristics: Driven, patriotic, frugal, family-oriented, team-players
- Main Marketing Tactic: Print (with radio at the end)
Many were either born or raised during WWI. They then spent their early years in the Great Depression. They saw the wonderful highs of economic prosperity in the 1920s quickly followed by the sudden despair that the stock market crash brought with it. G.I. Joe’s and Jane’s clawed their way back to the top as everyone was a part of the war effort.
The Greatest Generation watched the fall of an old economy and the rise of wartime propaganda and radio.
So what did marketing look like during this ping pong of events?
WWI was marked by a lot of advertising and marketing that flirted with propaganda. A lot of marketing referenced the Great War and how important it was to be a supporter. Buying a pack of cigarettes was no longer just fueling an addiction to nicotine. Rather, it was a way to help win the war against The Central Powers.
Through great challenges grows great innovation. And that can be said of the relationship between the Great Depression and marketing. A lot of advertisers were shuttering or having to fight tooth and nail to keep their big accounts. Many businesses saw advertising and marketing as a waste of money. Of course, the advertisers called this foolhardy, but businesses were struggling.
Around the same time, a different set of marketers decided to throw caution to the wind and try out this newly popular medium – radio. I think we all know how that went.
Just one month after the United States joined WWII, President Roosevelt retooled the new Advertising Council into becoming the War Production Board. Ninety advertising agencies from the Council were to support the war efforts through advertising at home.
War bonds, victory gardens, Women’s Army Corps, mail service for troops know as V-mail or Victory Mail, to anti-inflation measures and other forms of conservation.The Advertising Age of Encyclopedia
Advertisements of this era leaned into WWII patriotism.
Two key themes ads leaned upon were:
- How was the advertiser helping the war?
- How will today’s sacrifices result in lavish products after the war?
After all, companies recognized that while they could not sell products like in pre-war times, they could keep their name in the forefront of their customers’ minds in the meantime. And it was their hope that once peace rang free, customers would flock to the companies that helped make that peace possible.
The Silent Generation
During the tail end of the Great Depression and throughout the Second World War, babies were born and life went on. Those born during this era are known by many names. They’re called the Post War Generation, the Silent Generation, Traditionalists, and Radio Babies.
- Born: 1925-1945
- Current Ages: 77-97
- Birth Year Events: The Great Depression, The Dust Bowl; WWII
- Coming of Age Events: The Great Depression; The Dust Bowl; WWII; The Red Scare (McCarthyism); unrest leading to Cold War, Korean War, Vietnam War, and Civil Rights Movement
- Characteristics: Determined, resilient, self-sacrificing, respectful of others
- Main Marketing Tactic: Print, Radio, Persuasion
The Silent Generation is, in my opinion, one of the saddest generations. People born during 1925-1945 entered a dark world that felt like it was just getting worse. During the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, Americans felt weak and broken down. Everything felt scarce. IOU’s were used instead of money. Tough choices were made in terms of “have to” and “want to”, leading to a pragmatic outlook on life. Then there was WWII, which was another time of great fear.
For a short period of time, Americans thought they were going to be able to breathe and enjoy the Allies’ win over the Axis Powers. But alas, the United States was thrust into another time of great fear – The Red Scare. Those who stood out in this conformist time might have been seen as communists. So Silent Generation members learned to keep their head down and fit in with those around them. They learned how to avoid making a fuss. Play the game and conform as much as possible.
All the while, wartime propoganda and radio advertisements still dominated the marketing world. But because the Silent Generation grew up in times of such economic scarcity, advertisers how to work extra hard to convince them that it was OK to spend their money.
Baby Boomers I
The Silent Generation was pretty quick to grow up and have babies. In fact, they were the youngest generation to procreate. While major life events such as WWII were happening, the newest generation was already being born. You might have heard of them: The Baby Boomers.
Historian Landon Jones even said that exactly 9 months following the end of WWII, “the cry of the baby was heard across the land” as babies were being born. What else boomed during this time? The economy, housing, agriculture, television and automobiles.
- Born: 1946-1954
- Current Ages: 68-76
- Birth Year Events: End of WWII, Cold War, Korean War, Vietnam unrest
- Coming of Age Events: Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, Sexual Revolution, Counter Culture (hippies), Woodstock
- Characteristics: Idealistic, individualistic, creative, rebellious, hippy
- Main Marketing Tactic: Mass/Traditional media, Above-the-line
The Baby Boomer generation is so massive that it is sometimes split into two different generations. The first half Boomer generation was born into a world of post-WWII optimism and patriotic excitement. But they also grew up during a time of reform, and they learned to question authority and be independent free thinkers. They practically (and in many cases, literally) revolted against the ideals of their Silent Generation parents and many became hippies.
Baby Boomers felt suffocated by the conformist ideals of their Silent Generation parents.
It is the stark contrast between the Silent Generation and the Boomers I Generation that makes advertisements so interesting during this period of time. If you look at ads in the 1950s, many are quite misogynistic. Just look at the one below featuring airheaded suburban housewife. These ads were directed to the adult women of the Silent Generation where the goal was to fit in and sacrifice theirselves.
Then when you look at the advertisements pitched to Baby Boomers and it’s completely different. For example, check out this birth control ad from the early 1960s, right when the earliest Boomers were coming of age. These ads align much more closely with the rebellious and idealistic way of life of this then-new generation.
These two ads alone are really good at showing the difference between Silent and Boomer generational ideals. Marketing and advertising agencies worked hard to understand these differences. How else would they sell to the massive generation of drugs, sex, rock and roll in the era of Woodstock and Jimmy Hendrix?
Shampoo Advertisement from 1970, photo ℅ Hair & Makeup Artist Handbook
Boomers II (aka. Generation Jones)
While the original Baby Boomers are beginning to question authority and individualistic viewpoints, the second half of the Baby Boomers – known as Generation Jones (as in, “keeping up with the Joneses”) – was being born. Despite only having at most ten years of difference between the two, this other half of the generation had a different coming of age experience.
For Generation Jones, they still experienced a booming economy, but they experienced cultural changes much earlier in their lives than the first half of the Boomer generation.
- Born: 1955-1964
- Current Ages: 58-67
- Life Events: Cold War, Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, Watergate
- Coming of Age Events: The Cold War, AIDS epidemic, Reaganomics, Blockbuster Movies, Cable Network TV
- Characteristics: Goal-centric, strong work ethic, self assured, resourceful, materialistic
- Main Marketing Tactic: Mass/Traditional media, Above-the-line
When the Boomers I were singing at the 1969 Woodstock Festival in their late teens and early twenties, Generation Jones came of age much closer to the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Cold realities like the AIDS epidemic were happening alongside the emergence of cable networks like MTV or movie blockbusters like young director Steven Spielberg’s E.T.
Generation Jones grew up in a prosperous world, but also a world affected by Watergate and high inflation, the Cold War and AIDS. In response to the constant novel threats, they became more goal-centric and materialistic.
Both halves of the Boomer generation were individualistic. But whereas Boomers I were more likely to become hippies freed from material concerns, Boomers II were more likely to accumulate material goods to feel better about the chaos of the world.
Television was a huge part of advertising to Baby Boomers.
What did have a big impact on Generation Jones was television. They were familiar with the huge box sets since the moment they were born. While the television was invented in 1930, it did not have its real boom until the 1950s. The American Century advises that in 1950, only 9% of American families owned a television. However, by 1959 that number catapulted to a whopping 85.9% of families. The number continued to increase from there. This was the largest direct-to-consumer platform ever available to advertisers. And you better believe they used it.
Advertisers shifted the ads (both print and video) to that of what is now known as “lifestyle advertising”. Generation Jones was continually being shown products in cool new ways. Instead of focusing on features, the ads focused on values and life practices which Generation Jones wanted to imitate. ways that made the growing generation want to adopt those same values and life practices.
Generation X is practically a pipsqueak of a generation compared to The Baby Boomers. These days, Gen X is in their 40s and 50s. A perfect example of a clique Gen X feminist would be the mom in the book/Netflix movie Moxie.
- Born: 1965-1980
- Current Ages: 42-57
- Birth Year Events: Watergate, Civil Rights Movement, War on Poverty, Vietnam War, Women’s Movement
- Coming of Age Events: Fall of Berlin Wall, Challenger Disaster, The Gulf War, Energy Crisis, Watergate, Terrorism at Munich Olympics
- Characteristics: Resourceful, work-life balance, tech-savvy but not dependent, flexible
- Main Marketing Tactic: Direct/Targeted media, below-the-line
If you look at the earliest memories of Generation X, it feels like the world is falling apart. This is a slight exaggeration, but they did have their coming of age during worse times than the Baby Boomers. Their formative years were marked by high divorce rates, the AIDS epidemic, and the distrust of the Watergate scandal. Named the “latchkey kids” generation, Generation X grew up in a very hands-off environment as mothers went off to work in the new age of two-income households. This independent upbringing is a huge contributing factor to their fierce independence.
Generation X advertising was a lot more provocative and skeptical.
Despite being a small generation, there was an increase in political and global strife during their coming-of-age period. Like the Boomers, they needed to question authority and stick it to the man. But unlike the Baby Boomers, they didn’t have an idealistic attitude of peace, love, and harmony. They were pushing back against their parents too but in a different way.
So how did marketing look during Generation X’s formative years?
Well, there is the famous Got Milk ad campaign and the provocative Calvin Klein underwear campaign for starters. Sex and vibrant colors were in especially with the advent of Photoshop.
Ivanka Trump in the Got Milk Ad: “the one thing nobody can afford is too much fat.” This is attributing health and looking skinny to milk.
Samsung’s Digital Muscle: If you buy a Samsung phone, you will have muscles like this.
Mediterranean Fragrance: The tagline says it all. “The fragrance for Men. Created for the Pleasure of Women.” So if you spray this on yourself, Fabio himself will come crawling out of the ocean naked ready to cater to your every whim.
Sex sells and Photoshop doesn’t hurt. These ads prove it.
Gen X ads take many of the free love ideals of Boomers and give them a more materialistic and outright hedonistic spin. The high glam look of the 1980s and the lazy, comfortable 1990s were the heydays of Gen X.
According to my cousin, I am so Millennial it physically hurts her. That includes using Buzzfeed as a reason or explanation when proving a point. So there you have it, I am a Millennial, loud and proud.
- Born: 1980-1994
- Current Ages: 28 – 42
- Birth Year Events: Cold War, Berlin Wall, War on Terror
- Coming of Age Events: War on Terror, Global Financial Crisis
- Characteristics: Adaptive, creative, values meaningful motivation, task-oriented, free-thinkers, idealistic
- Main Marketing Tactic: Viral/Electronic media, through friends
So what did my generation live through? For starters, the dissolution of the USSR, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 9/11 attacks, the War on Terror, and the Global Financial Crisis. That’s just the coming-of-age events too.
My generation has seen the start and end of the longest war in the United States, as well as one of the hardest post-college job markets in American history.
After learning so much about the generations, I’m actually seeing some parallels between the Millennial generation and the Greatest Generation. (And it’s not just because I want to be seen as great!) Both generations have seen prosperous and patriotic times, which were then followed by explosive recessions and hard job markets.
Millennials are the first audience to experience massively customized advertisements.
During the Millennials’ coming-of-age and adulthood, we have seen the invention of social media, YouTube, and smartphones. Advertisers now have the ability to collect information on our interests and tailor our pitches to what we’re interested in.
Looking at YouTube alone, I remember when it started. It didn’t have ads. Banner ads showed up later. Short video ads soon followed. Now there are at least two ads for the start of every video. Longer videos are broken up by ads too. YouTube grew from a weird experimental website in the 2000s to a massive industry with its own business conventions in the late 2010s.
Advertisers from the 1950s would lose their minds if they had access to these tools.
Millennials are the only generation to grow up in a time of both mass media and social media.
Direct-to-consumer advertising has been around for a long time. But internet advertising hasn’t. Millennials are the only generation to have come of age during both pre- and post-internet culture.
When I grew up as a kid in the late 1990s, the peak of childhood was Saturday morning commercials between cartoons. Super Soakers. Sunny D. Hot Wheels.
To me, these commercials were the perfect example of marketing to Millenials to get to Baby Boomers’ wallets. Water guns fights never looked as epic as in the Super Soaker commercials.
Print marketing still existed, sure, but it was more for adults by this time. TV was the easiest way to reach young Millennials.
But now, with so many Millennials eschewing traditional TV for streaming services, it’s often easier to catch Millennials through advertising on social media platforms such as Instagram or YouTube where ads can be tailored to our interests. We’re the first generation to experience ads that constantly feel like they’re talking specifically to you.
That’s a huge change.
One last thing to note about Millennials, which we’ll talk more about with Generation Z. They are the first generation to start forcing corporations to adopt moral values in a really public way. Consumers have always had this power to some extent, but Millennials took it one step further.
Corporations now champion environmental and political causes in a way that they didn’t before. This paved the way for Generation Z activism.
Some think Millennials are the new Greatest Generation, which is making others wonder if Generation Z is a new Silent Generation.
Maybe. For Generation Z, it feels like when they were born, everything was going poorly and it just got worse. This is different than Millennials whose early memories, prior to coming-of-age, are of a relatively stable world. Gen Z just doesn’t have those memories to reference at all!
- Born: 1995-2010
- Current Ages: 12-27
- Birth Year Events: War on Terror, LGBTQ+ movement, social media, Global Financial Crisis, Increased Political Polarization/Culture War,
- Coming of Age Events: Increased Political Polarization/Culture War, COVID-19 Pandemic
- Characteristics: Highly collaborative, self-reliant, value diversity, digitally sophisticated, activist, pragmatic
- Main Marketing Tactic: Interactive campaigns, Positive brand association, showing your work in advertisements
Marketers are still figuring out how to pitch to Gen Z, to varying degrees of success.
Where Millennials saw the rise of social media, smartphones, and targeted media, Gen Z is perfecting it. This fierce group of people arguably have the best qualities of every generation. They are collaborative like the Greatest Generation, resilient like the Silent Generation, activists like the first Baby Boomers, resourceful like Generation Jones, pragmatic like Generation X, and have the tech-savviness of Millennials.
But Gen Z has also made a lot of their elders uncomfortable. They question the patriotism of the Greatest Generation and the self-sacrifice of the Silent Generation. They scoff at the materialism and hilariously out-of-date advice given by Baby Boomers. Gen X is questioned for its hands-off, lazy cynicism. And Millenials are called out for their workaholism and continued use of the ? emoji.
But on a serious note: if you had to sum up the difference between Millennials and Gen Z, it would be this. Millennials are trying to win what they think is a rigged game. Gen Z is either refusing to play or changing the game entirely.
A sizable portion of Gen Z seems to be falling into despair. Hence the call for Gen Z being the New Silent Generation. Both generations were born into difficult times that did not get better for a long time (if at all, in Gen Z’s case).
Gen Z is still coming of age right now, so we don’t know how things are going to shake out. But they’re already making a name for themselves. If they are able to rise above the unending barrage of negative historical events, then they might be the generation to save us all. (But isn’t that always the problem new generations face?)
Gen Z has no tolerance for BS.
Multilevel marketing has been a scourge for a while. You probably know someone involved in an MLM scheme who’s tried to sell you knives or Tupperware or some other garbage. But Gen Z has fought back against this harder than any other generation yet.
If something seems off, Gen Z will speak up. Marketers better show their work or Zoomers are going to call them out. This is exactly what happened when Generation Z took out MLM on social media platforms YouTube and Tik Tok.
But it goes beyond that, too. Corporations started reflecting moral values to please Millenials. Gen Z can see through a lot of these phony attempts, and now they’re asking companies to be accurate with their facts and transparent in their policies.
Companies can’t just say, for example, “black lives matter.” They actually have to donate to causes and show that they’ve done so or else Gen Z will roast them mercilessly online.
You’ve just finished a 50,000-foot look at marketing and advertising in the last 120 years. There is so much more I’d like to cover, but can’t simply because it would put you to sleep!
So instead, I will leave you with this. Every 15 to 20 years, a new generation will be born. Those individuals will grow up and experience life through their own unique lenses, which will help them form their opinions. What happens during their teens and twenties is probably most important in shaping their mindsets. These mindsets will form their ideals that they’ll carry throughout life.
What can you do? Pay attention. Pay attention to your target audience. What generation are they? What is important to them? Do they value a company’s ethics?
Are they interested in material goods or instead do they value familial experiences? How can you effectively market to your target audience by understanding their generational values?
I hope that this post has given you a lot to think about as you approach your next advertising campaign. And don’t forget – Generation Alpha is already being born.