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Confessions of a Millennial Guy: Mocking Males in Marketing Isn’t Working

When I’m not fast-forwarding through commercials, some consistent marketing themes are becoming clear—unfortunately, they seem cynical and out of touch. Marketing for Millennial males has become based around mocking them, or portraying an out of date concept of what they care about. These are the two predominant attitudes that are ruling the current market for commercials aimed at Millennial men, and neither of them is working for us.

The most offensive are the efforts to tap into the “age of social networking” by making it the butt of the joke—it’s insulting that anyone thinks Millennials will be engaged by commercials that are essentially mocking them. The AT&T “selfie” commercial is a good current example. The commercial sets up a scenario with two stereotypical Millennial men discussing the expansion of AT&T’s digital network. One character follows the trope of the bearded Millennial hipster while the other eventually ends up squealing in embarrassingly absurd delight about reaching 100 selfie likes. I’m not really sure why those responsible for this commercial think this is a good thing for AT&T or why it would make me interested in them. (I am a long subscriber of AT&T for what that is worth.) For me, it seems the hyper self-reflexive nature of social networking has given marketing directors the false idea that everyone interested in social media is fodder for amusement. Unfortunately for them, this approach discounts the fact that  Millennial men (and women) have strong and serious opinions about the way they use and consume their products. Having an older generation make jokes about selfies is not necessarily the best way to appeal to me.

The other end of the spectrum that I constantly see in advertising is the refusal to accept changing norms of masculinity. Numerous articles have been written about the end of the patriarchal masculine man, but there is still a strong marketing force for this “endangered” demographic that relies on outdated ideas of what men are interested in. Personally, in an odd way, I find this less offensive, maybe just because it has been around forever and I am desensitized to it. At the same time, it doesn’t appeal. Buffalo Wild Wings has been producing advertisements showcasing Millennial men’s supposedly unending desire to consume buffalo wings and cheap beers as long as the football game continues. No matter the blatant circumstances of how the game is brought into overtime, these bros are just happy to drink more. I’m not saying we don’t like beer and wings, but the portrayal of male fans as clueless and silly is kind of insulting—and also seems like a lack of effort. This is what you think appeals to guys? Your viewers are smart, and they appreciate smarter content. A better example of “masculine” advertising would be found with the long running series of ESPN commercials; they have long embraced the irreverent humor that has become a more consistent standard of men my age. ESPN’s general take on their commercials is to have professional athletes, typically in their team uniforms, engaging with ESPN staff and reporters in a mock office/water cooler style way. The athletes and ESPN reporters are presented as absurd caricatures of themselves with a knowing wink.  

What I find odd about both of the approaches I’ve mentioned is they are each mocking their target audience. The AT&T “tech” guys are made fun of for having “effeminate” responses to selfie likes. The “masculine” beer drinking guys at Buffalo Wild Wings are being mocked by not noticing that the bartender is controlling the fate of the NFL game they are watching to get them to stay longer, and for being basic football bros. In both scenarios younger consumers are supposed to laugh along by laughing at themselves. The problem is that neither portrayal of Millennial men is really that accurate in my opinion. It isn’t that there aren’t elements of truth in these character tropes, but the marketing strategies reveal more about the attitudes of those behind the camera than the Millennials they are targeting. It also makes me wonder what the reaction would be if marketers created commercials aimed at Baby Boomers just trolling them for all of the tropes that have become expected of their generation (oversized SUVs, McMansions, Limousine Liberalism, to name a few). Interesting that we never see those, but commercials aimed at Millennials while making fun of Millennials are commonplace.

Personally, one of my favorite recent commercials is the Wendy’s ad featuring Carlton Banks, the Karate Kid, and Steve Austin. These three personalities span a wide spectrum of Millennial male (and female) culture and experiences. (I have never even watched wrestling but I still know Stone Cold Steve Austin. )Most importantly, this advertisement is not mocking the consumer, they are playing off the shared history that the consumer has with the characters involved. Alfonso Ribeiro does not need to take a selfie—he can make us all remember how much we enjoyed Carlton on Fresh Prince. Also, the fact that the Karate Kid via Carlton via Steve Austin stretches across the divide of Millennials and young Xers’ childhood memories is a brilliant move. Wendy’s has been guilty of Millennial mockery in the past, but from my perspective they seem to have finally tapped into something actually funny without straight mockery of their target demographic.

I guess from my perspective, I would rather be entertained by something that is actually amusing and or worth shedding a tear over. I don’t really think making jokes about things you don’t understand is the way to appeal to a younger generation.