NEW YORK — Have sexually charged messages grown less appetizing for a younger generation hungry for new connections with the brands they consume?
What once was the staple has morphed into a complex question that is particularly pressing for the fashion business, a sector that has long relied upon sexual suggestion to market its wares.
Sexually charged marketing messages and entertainment images have been pervasive during lifetimes of Millennials, now ages 10-27. That has made the generation’s experience quite distinct from that of Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers — both in the presence of such portrayals and the degree of their acceptance as part of everyday American life, from Net surfing, video gaming and prowling premium cable TV channels to dressing in revealing styles at an ever-younger age.
All of this has served to desensitize American youths to sexuality in pop culture, generation experts and marketing executives pointed out. For many, it has bred a sense of boredom with such images in entertainment, and a suspicion of phoniness about the use of them to sell products, notably fashion, which long has traded on the promise of sex appeal.
At the same time, the prevalence of sexual imagery online, on TV, in movies and in advertising, among other venues, has rendered a person’s body image a bigger piece of sexual image, which, in turn, said historian Neil Howe, has become “a very powerful determinant of whether one is liked, or hated, and how they are perceived in general.” This phenomenon, he added, marks a sharp departure from the largely “desexualized” childhood of their Baby Boomer parents, prior to the social upheaval and sexual revolution that began in earnest in the mid-Sixties.
In fact, Millennials can’t remember a time when strong sexual imagery and messages weren’t widely available, or were considered controversial. “Boomers remember a pre-Kennedy prudishness, when it wasn’t available, and Xers recall a period of sexual liberation in the Seventies, which created controversy and dismay,” said Howe, a generation expert and co-author, with William Strauss, of “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation” (Vintage, 2000).
“For the Millennials,” Howe stated, “it was all settled before they came along.”
The updraft of these forces has raised the issue of whether the ratcheting up of sexually charged images proliferating in various marketing campaigns is serving primarily as a turn-on or turnoff to the young consumers the fashion business courts most passionately. At stake is spending on apparel by 10- to 27-year-olds, which reached $64.2 billion in the 12 months ended Feb. 28, up 5.4 percent from $60.9 billion a year earlier. Of this, $41.3 billion, or nearly two-thirds of it, was expended by females.
Most of the dozen or so marketing observers interviewed by WWD advised that if fashion brands are expecting to lure teens and twentysomethings with a sexual appeal, it will need to be subtle rather than blatant and clearly tied to the values espoused by those brands. While many agreed nudity can be effective in fashion marketing, a Sunset Boulevard billboard portraying a person’s nude buttocks in an ad for Joe’s Jeans, for instance, is less likely to influence a Millennial than people of other generations, maintained Tom Julian, trend analyst at Fallon Worldwide.
“It gets your attention — you look at the buttocks — but you may not look at the brand logo,” he reasoned. Such an attempt might be more effective, particularly for teens and young adults who prize authenticity, Julian added, “if it were all about a brand called Cheeks, about living in your Cheeks.”
Such a balancing act is a delicate one to strike with the Millennials, however, cautioned observers. Generation expert Geoff Meredith predicted that provocatively sexual ads, like those of Skechers and Candie’s, will turn off much of the group, in part, because of its values, which are left unaddressed in messages meant to titillate. “Millennials believe in institutions like marriage; they’re optimistic and cause-oriented,” noted Meredith, who is president of market researcher Lifestage Matrix.
A world away from such qualities, a recent Skechers ad portrays Christina Aguilera as both a woman with a prominent backside and plunging neckline, leaning over a car as she’s being arrested, and as a dominating police officer, with exposed midriff and partially exposed breasts, clad in black short-shorts, black fishnets, black over-the-knee boots and dangling a pair of handcuffs.
There is another camp of observers, however, who expect it will take increasingly outrageous imagery — including portrayals of sexuality — to grab the attention of savvy, multitasking Millennials, let alone hook them. “Images need to be more and more sexually charged if they are to appeal to teens and young adults,” contended Arthur Korant, creative director at marketing communications agency Double Platinum. “I am amazed at [youths’] knowingness about sex, from their early teens, on.
“They are able to absorb stuff and move on, really quickly,” Korant noted. “That’s the real challenge.”
Indeed, pop culture influences from Paris Hilton’s flirty, sexy looks to hip-hop videos set in brothels, like 50 Cent’s “The Candy Store,” and the popularity of strip clubs among females have given rise to what trend futurist Irma Zandl dubbed “porn-star style” as the new feminine.
“A lot of it is a backlash against the conservatism in this country,” Zandl said. “It’s become an accepted part of the culture; it’s not a big deal for a certain segment of the population.
“At the same time,” Zandl acknowledged, “a rising number of teens are evangelicals and born again.”
In addition, against a backdrop of an increasingly sexualized American pop culture, Millennials’ own sexual activity has grown more cautious. Citing findings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Strauss pointed out teen pregnancies, births and legal abortions are at their lowest levels ever and have declined for three years in a row.
Not surprisingly, Howe related, “The left wing of the Millennials is more oriented to fiscal liberalism, like spending more on their college educations, than to pushing more permissiveness.”
Also, the fashion preferences of some youths have started to skew more conservative, with a renewed interest in preppy styles and higher waistlines, for example. From June 2004 through mid-February, preppy was the third most popular personal style claimed both by females ages 13-17 and by females ages 18-24, cited by 10 percent and 12 percent, respectively, in the 2004-2005 Zandl Group Consumer Panel.
By comparison, the Zandl Group found sexy/slutty/revealing was used to describe one’s personal style by just 3 percent of the female teens, 13-17, while sexy/diva/girly was used by only 4 percent of the young adult females to characterize their looks.
It all adds up to a world in which the suggestion of flamboyant sexuality may not be the best way to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of youths and young adults, who perceive such displays, observers said, as ploys once used to entice their parents. Most broadly, marketing plays that are less aggressive and more family-oriented are more likely to resonate with Millennials than are much of today’s youth-oriented commercial messages that center on what Howe described as a socially predatory, single professional living in an urban area, apart from his or her parents, trying to be cool.
A more compelling message could be concocted with ingredients such as intrigue and romance — perhaps in the form of a storytelling campaign — offered Jane Buckingham, president of trend forecaster Youth Intelligence, whose April research found storytelling marketers like Marc Jacobs and Nike among youths’ current favorite advertisers. Such efforts might play on themes that resonate more effectively with Millennials, such as team spirit, community mindedness and a desire for style that is comfortable as well as professional, as they enter the workforce. “This group is strangely conservative,” Buckingham said. “They don’t mind being sold to, but they may feel, ‘Is that the best you can do — fake sexuality?’”
Indeed, style, product quality and technology are all paramount for a youth culture that is influencing marketers more than marketers are influencing them — a reversal of the historic dynamic, noted Raul Martinez, chief executive officer and executive creative director of ad agency AR, who named Nike and Apple as brands particularly responsive to the group’s priorities. “Millennials are more self-aware and confident about how they see themselves,” he said of their rising influence.
The generation’s values are evident in the ads named as favorites by females described as trendsetting in the April edition of The Cassandra Report, published by Youth Intelligence. They include Apple, Target, American Eagle and Nike, for those ages 14-18; Marc Jacobs, Target, VW and American Apparel for the 19-24 crowd, and Apple, Target, Diesel and VW for 25- to 34-year-olds. For example, optimism is reflected in a Diesel ad that proclaims: “The Future: A Musical To Believe In”; authenticity is appropriated by the latest incarnation of Coke’s “make it real” campaign and in Apple iPod’s take on life’s randomness, and a community-minded spirit imbues eBay’s encouragement that, “People are good.”
Those priorities may point to an overarching desire for more simplicity in Americans’ lives, a longing for innocence that Sam Shahid, president and creative director of Shahid & Co., said was reflected in the reelection of President Bush. “Advertisers are afraid to take a chance,” Shahid related. “All you hear now is you have to be beautiful, sweet and wonderful versus showing a lot of skin, being sexy and hot. Being on the edge seems passe.”