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Dispatches from the Millennial Mega Mashup: Marketing ‘The Hunger Games,’ Millennials’ Sense Of Humor

With the media options that Millennials have at their fingertips, it’s easy for media properties to get lost in the clutter. Breaking through and grabbing young people’s attention can seem like an impossible mission. But tying into Millennial traits and the sentiments they’re feeling led to success for Scholastic’s “Hunger Games” and Comedy Central’s humor platform.

A Tribute To The “Hunger Games” Marketing Strategies

David Levithan, VP Editorial Director for Scholastic was on site to talk about the secret of “The Hunger Games” success. Ultimately, it was the luck of scoring a great book — the credit goes to the author because it was the content that drove the buzz. Levithan admitted that Scholastic could do the same marketing program all over again with a different book and it could fail miserably.

There were many stages of buzz and word of mouth in the process of promoting the book — and many different mouths that spread the word. The buzz started with two people, himself and the other editor, who both read the book over a weekend and who both had the same response: “Holy sh*t!” They knew from the beginning that they had a great book from an already acclaimed writer.

The next stage was to share the book within the company, and as each person read it, the buzz grew and the staff became evangelical about the book. Sharing the book outside the company, it began with their go-to teen readers, but also to the teens’ mothers, knowing it was a classic crossover book.

The more people who read the book, the better because the story spoke for itself. Going to the Book Expo — the biggest industry event — Scholastic chose to print nearly as many advance reader copies than a typical YA novel would sell. It gave the book away because they knew in return they would earn more evangelical supporters. Upping the print run multiple times, the book eventually debuted at #9 on The New York Times Bestseller List.

Entertainment Weekly became the “patron saint” of the novel, asking Stephen King to write the review. Stephenie Meyer blogged about it, encouraging Twihards to take it up.

The pivotal moment in the series, again thanks to Entertainment Weekly, was last May when the magazine ran the first picture of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss on the cover. That was the moment when “The Hunger Games” crossed over from book phenomenon to cultural phenomenon. As the movie premiered, sales of the series and movie tie in books topped the 2 million mark per week.

A side note to the success of the film was the rise of ereaders. More adults than teens have the devices, and it allows them some guilty pleasure reading. They didn’t need to be embarrassed by the fact that they were shopping in the “YA section.” It’s also a cheap, easy way to get the hot new book.

The success of “The Hunger Games” would have happened without “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” going before it. The notion of fandom was key — the fans of those series wanted something new to latch on to. Within weeks of the book coming out, teens were acting out scenes from the film and talking non-stop about “The Hunger Games.”

Fandom is the backbone around which everything can be made. They were the deputized buzz makers, speaking the word about the book online and in person. The fascinating thing about “The Hunger Games” is that unlike the other YA stories that dominated, it’s not aspirational. “Harry Potter” was a fantasy, “Twilight” was a fantasy, but “Hunger Games” is about survival. It speaks to the tenor of the age — the agita that they’re feeling, the aspiration has become survival. Yes, there’s a love triangle, but the fans will declare (while wearing a Peeta t-shirt) that it’s not the point of the story. Katniss wasn’t born a hero or with special powers; she’s a regular girl who is thrust into a situation where she must rise to the occasion. It’s relatable because it’s realistic — she loses things along the way as she struggles to survive. She has to compromise.

The dystopian genre is popular at the moment, but it’s a loosely cobbled together genre of unrelated stories. No one says they’re a fan of dystopian fiction. And they’re getting tired of paranormal stories. They want to read the story about a girl in an impossible situation and get through it. Suddenly realistic fiction is exciting, the next big thing. It’s a huge umbrella, but readers are getting into the journey of the characters.

With YA right now, anything goes, no topic is off limits. Talking about a complicated, messy world is okay. The litmus test is if it is exploitative or meant to be titillating — if it’s there for gratuity, it’s not appropriate. But if the emotion or reality of complex situations is there, there aren’t any barriers.

The readers who have latched on to these series and fallen in love with books; they’re continuing as readers, but they also seek out narratives in other forms, even YouTube. Once they’re engaged, they remain engaged. With “Twilight” as an example, publishers reprinted classic novels with black and red Twilight-ized covers…and it worked. We don’t see a fall off.

We’ve been astonished at the rise of young writers. They’re writing essays, stories, fan fiction, novels… The rise of sites like Figment support them. They don’t have to get through the ivory gates to be writers — they write, so they’re writers. It’s a bit dangerous though because there’s a tinge of immediate gratification. Levithan worries that they’re writing for the response they’ll get in the comments section below their post, rather than writing because there’s a story they need to tell.

Comedy Central’s Comedy Natives

Chanon Cook, VP Strategic Insights & Research for Comedy Central explains why humor is so important to Millennials’ sense of self, particularly for their key audience of 18-34-year-old guys. Comedy evolves, so Millennials’ sense of humor is different from that of other generations; they prefer the hilarity of everyday life. They grew up with “America’s Funniest Videos” and “Jackass” believing that anyone can be a comedy star. The comedy isn’t about ridicule, it’s celebratory. It can seem cruel at times, but the humor is delivered with a sense of “we’ve all been there.”

Today comedy is driven by and plays off of Millennial traits. With technology, they’re able to contribute to the comedy scene like never before. They’re creators, posting funny videos of their friends and family. They’re marketers and promoters when they share a clip online.  It’s a 24/7 pursuit for this generation. They click from one link to the next, getting their comedy fix.

Comedy is central to Millennials’ sense of self. Their sense of humor says more about them than their taste in music, their sports allegiances, their political views. They feel that if you get their sense of humor, you get them.

Young guys see comedy as the ultimate pathway to cool…and getting girls. It’s an ice breaker and a revered trait. It shows they’re smart and plugged in to what’s going on. This stems from what they watched growing up. Funny kids were the central characters in the TV shows and movies. Funny guys get the girls in Judd Apatow movies.

They don’t just share comedy clips, they create their own too. They use comedy to help them do what they do best — connect online. They consider comedy a critical predictor of friendship. If they admire a person’s sense of humor, they want to be better friends with them. Comedy is also social currency. They like to one-up each other, and the funniest guy is the leader of their social group.

Comedy is also a driver for social change. Just because something is serious doesn’t mean it can’t be hilarious; it’s a way to shed light on social injustice. Millennials get their news from shows like “Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show” because it makes difficult or frustrating stories more palatable. They’re drawn to the absurdity of it, and it gets them involved. No topic is off limits — comedy only crosses the line when it comes from a place of hate or it simply isn’t funny.