Meaningful Millennials: On Millennial Advertising

millennial advertising

Millennial Advertising

We’re back with our ongoing installments of “ Meaningful Millennials ,” where we interview millennials on a variety of different subjects that are top of mind for us in the studio.

As a brand strategy firm, we work with a lot of clients who are looking to reach, connect, and engage with millennials in productive, positive ways. Millennials now represent the largest group of consumers within the U.S., and thriving brands today are highly aware of this. When millennials are wielding over $170 billion per year in purchasing power, there’s no ignoring us.

I heard fourteen millennials’ thoughts and here’s what I learned:

Millennials have higher expectations, bigger demands, and greater criticisms of the brands who target them. We want more efficiency, better innovation, and greater convenience and quality. We care that the brands we choose to buy from are transparent, authentic, purpose-led, and dedicated to social giving. We’re wary of pushy brands who feel like they know us a little too well, but at the same time, want brands and their advertising to be highly personalized and feel unique to us. That’s why the brands that are succeeding with millennials are finding new ways to seamlessly weave themselves into our lives – creating meaningful experiences while maintaining a hard-to-get aura.

Read more about what millennials have to say about millennial advertising today.

“I do my best to avoid advertising. I don’t listen to the radio or cable. If there’s an option to pay more to opt out of commercials, like on Hulu, I do it in a heartbeat.

That being said, it’s impossible to avoid advertisements all together. I have found a lot of brands associated with marriage or children advertising at me. But I’m not engaged. I’m not pregnant. I have no children. I’m a 27-year-old single woman. I find the fact that these ads are wrongly targeted at me highly obnoxious and presumptuous.

However, I do see a lot of Facebook advertising for clothes and makeup that I actually am interested in. I’m pretty sure most of those are suggested because of my Google and browser history, which is kind of creepy, but also, kind of genius.”

Amy Muller
Business Owner and Tattoo Artist

“Any advertising that casts its net so broadly to target “millennials” isn’t doing the best it can to be relevant or targeted. My concerns, situation, and interests are very different to those of a high schooler. Gen X, boomers, and millennials are useful tools for describing large, fuzzy age cohorts, but aren’t a good focus for marketing. I often take millennial targeted advertising to include things like using memes, which can go horribly wrong very easily. Just look at brands that continued to use Pepe the Frog images in an effort to be fresh or relevant after that image had been coopted by white supremacists, not realizing what it had come to represent.”

Alex Gray
Director, Global Solutions Consulting


“I’m always looking at ads with a critical eye and asking myself: What are they really selling and how are they trying to get me to buy it? So it’s hard to think of an ad that I genuinely connect with or like.

A lot of advertising that targets millennials seems to sell a product by selling a feeling or experience. I’ve also noticed a lot of companies putting out ads that make it seem like they’re socio-politically conscious. While it’s great to see constructive ideas being promoted and normalized, it’s problematic that those very ideas are being aestheticized and commodified. Pepsi’s latest ad that aestheticizes activism and thus trivializes the struggle that many people face today is a clear example of that.”

Julia Kwon
Visual Artist

“I think millennial advertising has the potential to be more meaningful and more informative than any advertising before it. Take, for example, the Quip toothbrush whose ads constantly run on my social media feed. Quip’s ads are simple, visually pleasing, and easily digestible.”

Carolynn Langsdale

“I find that millennial advertising today is way too entrenched in social issues. Many advertisements disregard their actual product or value in order to appeal to people with a certain social view. I enjoy an advertisement that focuses on the actual product and the value it is going to add to my life, instead of a brand that aligns itself with a certain social view or popular way of thinking in order to appeal to people’s opinion of the company and how it’s run.”

Dominic Morbidelli
Associate at Transwestern

“I feel like most millennials, myself included, really loathe traditional ads – we don’t like being overtly sold to. I know it’s always about selling, but the minute it feels like a pitch, it’s a turnoff.”

Denise Christie
Marketing Communications Manager

“Brand loyalty is not as common as it once was. It can be difficult to entice us with new and upcoming products. Becoming the next “big” thing can be a trying venture when competition is high and your consumers are always looking to be trendy and time efficient. Also, thanks to social media and technology, we are more informed than ever and our generation has really high expectations.

Lately, I’ve felt like I just don’t connect with millennial advertising. The Mountain Dew Kickstarter commercial left me wondering what the point even was. It had no direct connection to my life.”

Michelle Cooley
Horse Trainer & Social Media Marketer

“As a millennial, I like advertising that’s a little illusive. I like the idea of selling a lifestyle. I like when brands give back to the community. I like brands that use models of all sizes, ages, nationalities, and attractiveness in their advertising. I like brands that support the same social & political views I do (or, that don’t make those views known).

Recently, one ad that has stuck out to me is the Secret commercials. The featured women look like every day women, obviously successful and intelligent. That’s what I want to see promoted more. That’s what I connect with.

The best experience of advertising I’ve had recently is the Super Bowl Lumber 84 commercial. It told a story, an important one, and made me start to build brand loyalty without knowing anything else about the brand or who they were.”

Megan Peterson
Charter Sales Analyst

“Many of us do not read the Sunday newspaper, collect paper coupons, or even shop at a mall. Marketing had to change in order to reach and resonate with us.

Now, I find myself watching sponsored videos on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. I follow influencers on different media platforms and keep my eye on products they use.

For example, for an upcoming trip, I came across some sponsored Instagram ads from Revolve clothing. It was crazy how spot-on they were. They totally fit the look and trip I wanted to have, so I made an order.”

Juhwi Kim
Media Analytics Research Analyst 

“I can no longer watch TV because I don’t have the patience to sit through ads. Instead, I stream my shows through HBO, Hulu, and Netflix.

Sponsored ads celebrities post on social media also upset me. I feel like I am being lied to. That these celebrities don’t actually believe in these products. It’s just all about money.”

Hana Fleek
Lab Manager, Mechatronics, Embedded Systems and Automation (MESA) Lab

“Millennials have grown up in a social media world where a lot of us feel the need to share our lives constantly. Successful brands today are creating content that provides an opportunity for us to become a part of their brand story.

Toms is a prime example. By making each purchase equal to a charitable donation, consumers feel as if their purchase has a purpose beyond just getting new shoes. I don’t want to support “evil corporations”. I want to feel like I’m making a difference. I want my purchases to go towards something good.”

Jon Lawhead
Structural Project Engineer, 4STEL Engineering

“I find that hyper-targeted advertising can be too aggressive and feel overwhelming. I don’t like feeling like brands have a constant presence in my life. And often time it’s like no matter what I’m doing or where I am, they are there – whether I like it or not. I’m torn because sometimes what they throw at me is spot on, but at the same time, most of them just never leave me alone.”

Shannon McGuire
Analyst, M Powered Strategies

 “I really like the campaigns from Harry’s – the razor company. The brand conveys their brand story in a compelling way, making it simple and witty. On the other hand, the recent Pepsi ad that majorly backlashed totally missed the mark with millennials. I think they were actually attempting to connect with us by picking an issue they felt this generation really cared about. However, they did it in an inauthentic and inappropriate way. It was clear that they didn’t really care at all.”

Andrew Dewey
Associate Consultant, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff

“Most recently, the ad for Pepsi that co-opted the BLM movement really missed the mark. In terms of appearing authentic, the Coca Cola ad that aired during Super Bowl 2017 was riveting because it blended individuals together without forcing a narrative.

A trend I’m not too comfortable with in millennial advertising is that personal data is becoming a commodity. I hope that in the future, advertisers can come up with other ways to target individuals and micro-communities.”

Nathan Lacy
Environmental Permitting Assistant, Kinder Morgan

Here are our top-line findings from these millennials.

  1. Our generation articulates a general distrust for millennial advertising. Many millennials feel wary of the lines crossed collecting personal data. Others feel many brands are just in it for the money. Most question brands authenticity when it comes to targeting millennials. So it seems winning over millennials requires brand behaviors that will help foster trust and articulate authenticity above all else.
  2. Millennials want to hear from brands that fit perfectly to our personal image, style, and needs, integrating seamlessly into our lives without feeling like we are being advertised at. Pushy, aggressive advertising doesn’t resonate well. Instead, we prefer content and experiences that add something meaningful to our every day. That’s why brands that tell compelling stories and bring consumers along on the journey (often digitally) are winning with many millennials.
  3. Many feel that “millennial advertising” casts too wide of a net. We want to be seen as unique individuals and not be lumped into such a big group. That’s why fit and personalization are really important to millennials today. When a brand resonates with something we feel is unique about us as an individual, it already has a leg up against other brands.
  4. When millennials feel as if a brand genuinely stands for something good, they are more likely to spend money and dedicate more time engaging with it. Having a purpose beyond profit isn’t an advantage, but a requirement for millennials today. But authenticity is key. When brands try to latch on to ideas just because they think millennials will connect with them, many notice the inauthenticity. And that does not bode well for those brands.

We understand that we have only polled a small group of millennials. Please add to our discussion. Comment your thoughts about millennials advertising, and keep posted for more Meaningful Millennial posts to come.

Emotive Brand is a San Francisco brand strategy and design agency.

Comments (2)

  1. Very interesting post, Saja! Clearly a sense of unease about the growing commoditization of personal data crosses generations; but at the same time, we don’t want to be pitched as part of an overly broad demographic (per Alex Gray’s response). Julia Kown puts it well when she decries advertising that “aestheticizes activism” or other social causes. Some marketing strategists and agency-types should just get out of their own heads and onto the streets a little more!

    I’m enjoying your series, and I hope that Emotive Brand will also do a series on Gen Z – which is now coming into adulthood itself!

    • Pete,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. You hit all the key points. And I also think getting out there is key! Keep posted for Gen Z insights and keep reading!

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