Gen Z Is Killing Advertising

Chris Huebner
5 min readApr 26, 2019


Modern marketers are obsessed with youth. As practitioners left the Fredrick Taylors efficiency-fueled business culture of the 50s and transitioned into the dominate hip-injected, youth culture of the 60s, marketers — hoping to assume those same stylized markers of their audience — have continued this obsession with Millennials and Generation Z.

Perhaps it’s the combination of new marketing tools with audiences that have grown up using those same tools, but I believe our industry has over complicated how exactly we reach them. And while obsessing over an audience is important, our industry’s love affair with defining how different they are from previous generations has led to fixate on perceptions that may not actually exist.

In many ways, we have become fixated with using perceived rapid changes in technology to mean we also have large rapid changes in behavior. This fixation has forced us to miss the fact that, relatively speaking, they haven’t. And in our attempt to reconcile these rapid perceptions of change, we have conflated the behaviors of our audience and the ways we must communicate with them. For example, Gen Z aren’t necessarily exhibiting “more comprehensive expressions of self,” they simply have easier tools to self-express. Why is a quest to self-express extended to mean brands must now authentically self-express?

University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School professor Chris McKenna, in ”Our World is Changing — but not as rapidly as people think,” documented this phenomenon. He wrote: “They said that change was accelerating in 1900. They said it in 1920. In 1940, in 1960, in 1980 and in 2000. So the presumption is that the people who said it before were wrong, but we’re right now.”

The Attention Economy

No. Attention spans are not decreasing. The notion that goldfish now have higher attention spans than humans was based on a fabricated study. This myth has managed to make a completely arbitrary marker define what we create and how we create it. When you pair the myth with common video view-through-rates we are reassured that this study is correct — creating a belief that skews our view of what can truly work. Yes, your logo should be shown early, but not because of short attention spans. Yes, our content should be made simple and smart, because that is considered good marketing, not because of Gen Z’s falling attention span.

Howard Gossage famously stated: “People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.” We start from a position of weakness when we try and re-engineer “interesting” based on these arbitrary markers. Instead of boxing ourselves into this creative framework, we should start with captivating creative ideas that speak to a human truth (that doesn’t need to be redesigned as a human-centered approach, that is called marketing).

The same can be said for each incumbent generation in the minds of marketers. Instead of urban migration, cars, leisure time, purchasing power, television and counterculture, we face declining attention spans, sophisticated consumers, “neo digital natives” and something that can only be described as an authenticity crisis.

Technology has changed, has changed marketing

Both the “power of the internet” and the immediacy of digital participation developed alongside the notion that the consumer is now in control. The more control the consumer has, the more it affects the tenets of our discipline.

For example, we posit that advertising is no longer needed because, “prospective students and their parents are more in control of the enrollment process than ever before. Now, they are the ones who initiate the search for the right school.” Or, “…if your marketing messaging only talks about your organization’s great features or how your different than your competitors, you’re likely to be ignored.”

Yes. This might sound great in a slide deck, but we neglect the fact that most of the tactics we use to become salient are essentially advertising (word-of-mouth aside). These fundamentals don’t need to change. No matter your stance on Gen Z’s aversion to selling, it is our job to shape preference. Our communications are ignored because they weren’t effective, not because we attempt to differentiate our institution (read: marketing).

We hinder true creative progression when these types of false narratives are repeated ad nauseam. According to Ehrenberg-Bass Institute’s Jennifer Romaniuk, “Today’s world of never-ending technological breakthroughs creates the illusion that jumping from bandwagon to bandwagon is moving us forward, when we are really going around in circles.”

Instead of focusing on the “unchanged man,” we chase tactical ghosts meant to keep us relevant and as far away from anything related to advertising (i.e. inbound marketing).

Gen Z is not short hand for early adopter

We are told that we live in an era of unprecedented change and it is having underlying effect on our industry. As the trade press continue to write about this new world of acceleration and with Gen Z planted firmly in the middle of it, we have created Gen Z as the sophisticated, urban, entrepreneurial master-of-technology, who has achieved the “absolute zenith of self-actualization.”

Is this truly our audience or is this the audience we craft to rationalize the new-and-exciting instead of the tried-and-true? Does it ultimately help rationalize our romanticized view of disruptive ideas or disruptive technologies — both becoming the building blocks for our push to develop exciting new voice search strategies, chat bots and overly-personalized digital marketing strategies. When profession is tied up with technology, do we overreach? Not only because of the perceived technology adoption of our audience, but also due to the “always on” Silicon Valley archetype?

Authenticity is like content

Authenticity is like content. It’s been driven into meaninglessness. In Gen Z’s case, the logic is that their overexposure to media has created some fallacy that traditional advertising and promotion no longer work. We must use authenticity, storytelling and now “storyselling.” This isn’t a generational marker. It’s called being young. To become more “authentic,” Pepsi gave a name and a look to an entire generation — in 1958. To promote its 501s, Levis’ turned to more “authentic” messaging to sell to youth — in 1985.

Yes. Gen Z has grown up with unprecedented access to technology. However, technology has simply amplified behaviors associated with youth. To take a 20-year period and define 61 million people the way we do in our marketing whitepapers is not helpful. Maybe we are enamored with a generation sophisticated enough to allow us to employ a more sophisticated practice of marketing.

From Media in Focus

In any case, where has redefining advertising as content marketing got us? Inbound? According to the IPA, marketing effectiveness has decrease over the years, meaning marketing campaigns are producing fewer results. I wonder if our fear of advertising and promotion has played a role.

*Shout out to Alex Murrell and is his article Magpie Marketing for the inspiration and two of the quotes! It’s definitely worth the read.