Why are marketers buying into the millennial ‘faux-demographic’?

Brands are increasingly plumbing new depths to create a buzz in the world of ‘millennials’, but it’s a world of smoke and mirrors – argues former Ogilvy Asia-Pacific boss David Mayo

Mayo is moved by the topic of ‘millennials’

I have a small announcement to make; I was a ‘millennial’ once.

It was a while ago but it was a great time in my life. I remember it fondly, wanting my cake and eating it. Feeling I was different and that I could take on the world.

I wasn’t materialistic. Mainly because I didn’t have any money and because I didn’t like anything I saw plus I was not yet used to the rhythm of the world, I moaned a lot. I went on marches and stuck up for the things I believed in.

Even my clothing was different. Deliberately so. Once, I remember buying a ticket and just flying off to Africa for a year to help underprivileged people. I also remember coming back and being very ‘in touch’ with myself. I remember spurning material things because they no longer mattered. And I didn’t have any money.

I don’t remember being called a millennial then. I am not sure they had been fully invented. I think they called us ‘young people’ or something quaint like that. Anyway, I digress; now I am a little older. But I notice that as time passes, the police all seem to get younger. The teachers seem twice as knowledgeable and half as old.

And then there are the millennials. Young people, who best reflect the ‘true north’ of society. The idealists, the puritans, the flag wavers and the hand-wringing, left-leaning marchers and protesters who challenge authority with all of the tools available.

I do love a millennial actually. Everyone’s talking about them at the moment. You love them because they seem so sensible and serious. They take offence so easily and yet brands hate them because they are capricious and promiscuous with who they choose to spend their time with (brands, of course though, have to keep smiling or lose them).


They are like this because they are allowed to be like this. Technology has taught them to be like this. And it’s not just people born between 1980 and 2000, its everyone. The official description of a millennial is someone being born between 1980 and 2000. The last generation of the second millennium and the first tech generation.

And so the research and communication industry break their own first rule by using demographics to identify tribes of folk; because you are [this age], you think and behave in [this way] instead of using psychology to differentiate.

One of the greatest failures of this faux-demographic is the amount of ‘data’ that has mysteriously cropped up around the millennial oeuvre. This in itself has led to a brand new cottage industry in ‘busting myths’ about millennials.

It kind of goes like this:

  1. Millennials are softy moaners, who are workshy.
  2. Millenials are purpose-driven.
  3. Millenials are not materialistic.
  4. Millenials are monogamous and increasingly celibate.
  5. Millenials are increasingly ‘gender fluid’.
  6. Millenials are really good at understanding technology.
  7. Millennials know how to multitask better.

Then in come the myth busters:.

  1. Millennials are softy moaners who are workshy – it’s an age thing.
  2. Millenials are purpose driven – everyone is, we have to save the planet.
  3. Millenials are not materialistic – they will be when they can’t feed themselves.
  4. Millenials are monogamous and increasingly celibate – promiscuity skipped a generation, as it always does.
  5. Millenials are increasingly ‘gender fluid’ – everyone’s allowed to be, its 2019.
  6. Millenials are really good at understanding technology – that’s because technology has been invented quite recently.
  7. Millennials know how to multitask better – they actually do not, they split their attention between multiple things and they do not know how to concentrate.

And all of this has given rise to a new crop of medical and social issues and afflictions that hadn’t been invented in the previous generation. But again, that’s progress. We seem to lump everything onto millennials. Not because they deserve to be lumped upon but because now they have a name, it’s a convenient bucket to put things in.

And then there are the spending demographics. According to a recent outlook report from Accenture, millenials spend $600 billion each year in the United States alone and by 2020 this will be $1.4 trillion a year.

So – given everything we started with – is that the millennial demographic, who don’t work much and don’t value material things? Or is that the person, who is suitably high up the greasy pole of Maslow to adopt a few altruistic traits like, let’s see, working less and being more purpose-driven – and understanding technology better?

Or is it the same person? In other words, the person that just bought something. Anything. Because they had to. Anything from food to laptops, leisure kit to holidays, clothes to property and everything in between.

Because all the time numbers like this get pushed around, more and more brands start to swim about in the media pool hoping to catch themselves a nice plump millennial fish. And the owners of that pool are? Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook of course.

Accenture continues: “While originally typecast as financially dependent teens, today’s millennials include young adults in their 20s and 30s. Many have careers, are raising kids and live in their own homes.”

You don’t say. Is that what they are doing, these millennials? Living their lives instead of being, erm, millennials? Sadly for the marketing industry, millennial has become a bit of a catch-all for the current crop of 30-somethings who all got given a smartphone, some apps and access to the internet.

Then, says Accenture, there is “the millennial buying behaviour”. And you’re going to love this.

“…things like looking for a better price for things, Seeing things in a shop for real (presumably to make sure you actually want to buy it) and then buying it online, buying online when a shop is closed and having 24/7 information about products to help them to make up their minds on purchase decisions.”

And marketers are buying this twaddle?

The data, the behaviour and the numbers around millennials cannot be right. If there were a demographic for millenials, it would be ‘everyone on the planet since 1980 when the first commercially-available home computers were sold’. We are all millennials now. And the behaviour attributed to all generations are starting to morph.

There are a set of human Darwinian behaviours around technology, diet, travel and living space. And then there are some fairly homogenous beliefs that politically fall into two boxes. Socially fall into two boxes. Religiously fall into two boxes. Racially fall into four boxes. And morally fall into two boxes.

Even the way people dress in the developed world (and with the US, the United Kingdom and Russia as they are, even that description needs challenging) is shaped by the person standing next to them. To the extent that the fashion industry has stopped inventing new and interesting clothing, choosing instead to make clothing that doesn’t last in an effort to keep us spending. Which leads to more landfill.

So all the numbers and stats you read about millenials just cannot be true, as we are all being mulched into a broader demographic called ‘the human race’ and anyone that tells you otherwise should have a go at replacing the word millennial for ‘people’ in a social context or ‘consumers’ in a commercial context.

They will get a lot more out of their discussion and plenty more out of their marketing budgets.

David Mayo worked at Ogilvy and WPP for 21 years – for many years as a CEO in Asia – and is now working as a consultant and serving on the boards of several companies


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