Director, Producer, Artist

Part 2: The Promise and Poison of Demographics

Posted on: March 28, 2012

Let’s just say it: things are not what they used to be.

Everyone seems to have heard the news: advertisers want to sell to a younger consumer to buy their products.  Why is this?  Some folks over 40 feel like their hard earned dollar is worth just as much (if not more) than a 20 year old.  (We certainly remember working hard for it.) What’s going on?

I’m no economic expert, but I know a few things.  One of those things is the effect of advertising on a child as opposed to an adult.  As a child, I loved commercials so much I wanted to live inside the big TV box where the happy Mr Kool-Aid guy was.  I wanted to eat hamburgers and pretend to be a cheerleader with girls my age, shouting, “you deserve a break today!”  I really believed that products like these were making people happy, making their daily life better.  I was eventually hired for over 30 commercials by the time I was sixteen years old.  You could say my belief had an effect on my ability to get hired.  I truly BELIEVED MacDonald’s loved the world, oh yes I did.  I was a kid!

After sixteen, I began to develop a sneaking suspicion that advertisements were not the world I thought they were by virtue of the fact the products I sold were not buying me, or anyone I knew, happiness.  My parents spent my money and the kids at school called me “Katie the Cleaning Lady” after the Dawn Dishsoap spokesperson, which I laughed off but did not enjoy.  I found myself moving further and further away from “normalcy” and deeper and deeper into show business, as if show business were simply hiding the joy I once found in it.  I also felt a bit betrayed by Tampax and Maybelline.  As I got older it bothered me more that the products didn’t always live up to their ad line.  Sometimes my tampon was not so comfortable and my mascara flaked.  This led me to a state of confusion.  I saw these products were flawed, but the ad’s still were pitching the same line: “Be Loyal To Us, We Are America.”  What to think?  I tried hard not to.

My last commercial audition was for Oil of Olay.  I was twenty-two and my mother was dying.  I was working on All My Children and feeling a fair amount of stress, which no doubt played a part in what was about to happen.  At the audition, I was to take a plastic tulip out of a glass and softly place it on my face while telling the camera how nice Oil of Olay was.  I looked at the tulip and could only picture a penis.  This is an absolute fact.  I could not get the image of a penis stroking my young cheek out of my head.  I believed the advertisers wanted the audience to see me as “sexy” and they were using this phallic symbol to push the message “Oil of Olay Will Make Men Want (A Younger) You.”  I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t even get through the lines.  I burst into tears and the very kindly casting director offered to get me a cab.  I had reached the statute of limitations on my suspension of disbelief.

Think about it: I, a child actor who grew up around advertising and once believed every promise it made, was in my 20’s finding it impossible to buy into the advertising world.  That was almost twenty years ago.  How much harder is it these days?  How can the 20-somethings of today in our culture of maximum exposure to violence and sex, believe the sweet lies that ad’s sell?

The fact is, they generally don’t, and that is why their dollar matters more than mine.  The younger generations KNOW they are being sold to but they buy stuff anyway.  Watching what they spend and HOW they spend it is like putting your finger on the heartbeat of a generation.  Look at what they buy and you know what they value, who they are and possibly what they think.  I think these many of these young people know the advertisers want their attention and resist much more strongly than I did.  Once they buy a product, that company can feel pretty confident their sales pitch did a good job that day.  So we get more aggressive advertisements to capture a more resistant (younger) audience.

Now these young people are bound to grow up and when they do they will act just like us older folks did.  They will stop following the trends so much and start spending less.  They will develop brand loyalty and not risk so much on newer products.  Some people I know only buy Tide because their mother bought Tide and that’s that.  Life has changed since then.  Many young people will take into account the new environmental issues we have and break from tradition to only buy detergent that is proven not to hurt the water system.  Advertisers watch these trends- the trends of older spenders and the trends of younger ones.  It’s not that the younger dollar is more valuable, it’s that it is harder to get.  ONCE YOU HAVE IT, you can exploit it for what might be a reasonably long period of time.  Nostalgia plays it’s part.  Think about Proctor and Gamble and how many people of the past few generations BELIEVE in their products and use them out of a sense of loyalty to their once more mobile past.  That is one major thing advertisers want out of young people.  Loyalty to their product which will last over a generation or more.

How has this affected Soap Opera’s?  A few years ago, this new awareness in the advertising world of the long range promise of the young consumer led them to start paying attention to a new system of rating: THE DEMOGRAPHIC.  Many of the soap opera viewers were sticking loyally by their soaps, but their children weren’t always following, partly because of other factors which I will talk about in other essays- economy, the internet, the culture of choice.  The audience for soaps was not only getting smaller but the bulk of the audience was getting older.  That isn’t to say there weren’t younger people watching, but they were harder to capture and not always as loyal.

Since advertisers changed their idea of what was the most worthy audience, soaps, a medium that was built to sell a product like SOAP, was asked to change in order to accommodate their advertisers new focus.  For example let’s say Tampex wants to get more young people to buy their tampons.  They tell the network it is worth it to them to pay MORE if the shows appeal to a younger audience.  So the network told their shows to make them more appealing to the younger generations.  It’s about making money, right?  This is how a change of emphasis on a ratings system  heralded a change of programming.  Where once the Neilson rating (how many people on average are watching in what areas) reigned over all,  now there was a new focus: a focus on AGE, with higher ad rates for viewers 18-49.

The New York Times made an interesting point when they stated, “When a show has a disproportionate number of women over 50 in its audience, it simply cannot charge as much for commercials. That is not because advertisers do not like older women, but because they are so easy to find all over the rest of television.”

Although this seems slightly arrogant and insulting, it is a significant point for those viewers over 50 who feel slighted their viewership isn’t counted as valuable as the younger generations.  Because of two customs that come in spades with age- habit and loyalty- many people over 50 watch more TV.  They are used to being sold to, and often watch the commercials.  Many are making the shift to DVR’s and the Internet, but slowly.  This means they are still a willing audience for ad’s, which means advertisers can tell the Networks they won’t give them a lot of money to sell to them.  It’s a strange logic, but it’s the latest “truth” in advertising.  Your willingness is not as valuable once it is gained.  Now what relationship does this remind you of?

It seems that advertisers (or perhaps the agencies that cater to them?) have convinced themselves they do not want what they have because they have had it for so long it DOESN’T FEEL as valuable anymore. Like the older man who leaves his wife to date a younger woman, advertisers are going to where they think the grass is greener and will grow for longer.  It’s certain one day that man will look at the ceiling and say, “I miss my wife.”

“Focus on the young, because the advertisers will pay more for that dollar,” is what soap opera producers had to hear and follow if they wanted to keep their jobs.  This is why you saw, starting around 2002, a huge shift towards younger storylines, which (you know it) started to piss off the loyal, older audience.  But guess where the younger audience was really going?  Where there were no advertisements or cable bills at all.  The Internet.

The loyalty of longtime, older viewers was left in the dust while young people were chased using any and all of the latest trends (websites, blogs, v-logs, instant messages, “behind the scenes” videos online, etc.)  When those didn’t help raise the demo score, they resorted to altering the look of the medium (Hi-Def cameras, new sets, more location shoots) and increased sexuality (girls in bikini’s, girls kissing girls, more topless guys), and over the top violence.  Even onscreen torture became acceptable if it got the attention of the young folk.

It is only in the last two years, when soaps are at the very end of their tether, that networks desperate to keep the audience they have are allowing producers to do what they think will save their show.  Save them from the awful fate that so many good soaps have fallen victim to: replacement.  In a effort to bring back the audience whom they ostracized to an almost infinite degree- they are bringing back the actors, writers and production values that once captured millions.

Will it be enough?  Who knows.  Sometimes the betrayed wife can forgive, sometimes she can’t.  But now you know (at least my thoughts on) what part demographics played in the demise of what once appeared to be an invincible medium.

Next Essay: Money Changes Everything


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