Whither the Young?: Stalking The Elusive Plum Demographic

by on July 26th, 2005

There we were. A packed labor hall filled to bursting with determined activists. Sweating but un-stifled in the midsummer swelter, we’d come to topple a tyrant. Here was a raucous mix of aged beat hipsters, aging hippy boomers, hip Gen Xers and, and… where the heck are the kids?!? In this noble quest to combat tyranny, Gen Y is apparently as AWOL as, well, ol Dubya himself. To coin a phrase, what’s up with that? Granted, it’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in Seattle and hanging out with a bunch of be-sloganed fugitives from a Pete Seeger concert shoe-horned into an air conditionless un-wired AFL-CIO Temple of all places may seem as tired and anachronistic as the AFL-CIO is itself about to become. But, be that as it may, the average age had to be 45 or even 50 and the number of attendees south of 30 one could practically count on one’s one hand. I was glancing around for a defibrillator unit just in case, I tell ya.


Mind you, it’s not that today’s youth don’t have a radical activist component, as any attendant to a typical anti-globalization rally can attest. College campuses still sport a midway of activist club tables hawking their agendas along the commons, though perhaps less so than in the past. And, of course, this is a demographic that voted in greater numbers in 2004 than 2000 and broke for Kerry. So where are they? “Lost causes” just too uncool perhaps? Then why the affinity for anti-globalist anarchism? Could the attraction there be that it’s the ultimate cynicism? That certainly suggests the formula for success of The Daly Show as the news source of choice: everything’s a joke; everyone’s absurd.

Of course, It’s not just the core anti-bush movement that is wondering “whither the young?”. Both the progressive and the conservative mainstream political machines are actively wooing this prized cohort, longing to win their hearts and minds for the short and long haul; not at all unlike, indeed exactly like, that longing among corporate product and service marketers and for the same reason: brand loyalty. In fact, progressive think tanks like the New Politics Institute are advocating just such a media savvy, targeted marketing approach to connecting with Gen Y. And apparently at least one uber-Democrat has been listening. Partnered with entrepreneur and Democratic insider Joel Hyatt, none other than Al “I was robbed!” Gore entered the new media fray last year by buying The New World International news channel from the CBC. Slated to launch August 1, they plan to re-target the format from one of boomer friendly world news to productions by gen Y independent producers and for that same audience. Gore and Hyatt in fact brainstormed this project with The NPI’s media wonk Jamie Daves. This from San Fransico Magazine:

    WHAT MOST PEOPLE DON’T REALIZE is that Al Gore has been fascinated by media for more than three decades. He wrote his 1969 Harvard University thesis on how television, with its emphasis on images, not words, has altered the conduct of political campaigns, and his first job after serving in Vietnam was as an investigative reporter at the Nashville Tennessean. During his years as a senator, Gore was considered an expert on issues regarding the public interest and technology. As vice president, he battled the cable TV industry in an effort to stave off media concentration. 

    And now he has a score to settle: during the 2000 presidential campaign, Gore was hurt by the lack of large-scale, independent TV networks that could disseminate his views (or at least lay off his wooden demeanor). So once free of the campaign trail, he started giving speeches berating the Bush administration for intimidating the media in its post-9/11 coverage. He also liked to note how problematic it is that just a few corporations own all the networks and major cable channels. And almost as soon as he conceded the election, Gore began talking to liberals who also were concerned about the rightward shift in television news.

    Around the same time, he started meeting regularly with an old colleague, Joel Hyatt, a millionaire lawyer and ex-Stanford lecturer in his fifties, either in New York City or at Hyatt’s home on the San Francisco Peninsula. Hyatt had served as the Democratic party’s finance chair during Gore’s presidential run and is considered one of the country’s foremost business leaders. (His Hyatt Legal Services came to serve more than 3 million low- and middle-income clients. Hyatt Legal Plans, which catered to employers, was acquired by MetLife in 1997.) Like Gore, Hyatt was intrigued by the prospect of influencing politics through media; in 2001, he attempted to buy the New Republic, a deal that never materialized. He and Gore spent part of that year tossing around the idea of a political website, but it got shelved because news websites are notoriously unprofitable.

    As the two continued to explore media possibilities in 2002, they hired Jamie Daves, a former student in Hyatt’s entrepreneurship classes who had directed Democratic youth outreach and served as an assistant to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Daves, now 32, suggested that rather than invest in an online or print publication, they look to cable television, since only cable can provide sizable revenue from both advertisers and subscribers.

    Daves argued that no cable TV entity adequately represents young adults’ interests. As for the news networks, young people have utterly abandoned them. The average age of CNN viewers is 64, and those under 40 who tune in to TV news prefer to get it as parody from Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. Soon Daves was urging Gore and Hyatt to envision a channel targeted at Gen Xers and Gen Yers, the Internet-embracing demographic coveted by advertisers.

    Gore warmed to the idea of a youth channel, and he, Hyatt, and Daves began to hold brainstorming meetings in San Francisco and New York. The high-powered, media-savvy people they consulted included Steve Jobs of Apple and Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, among many others. According to Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and a member of Current TV’s board of directors, “The discussions started out with nobody thinking about the market. The general question was, ‘What would you like to see on TV?’ ” Gore’s idea that audiences can not only choose programs they like but help create them drove the discussion.

A bold initiative. Only time will tell whether this is genius or folly. The challenge of holding the much-divided attention of multimedia addicts is a daunting one, what with many of them actually watching less and less TV while consuming more and more movies, music, games and of course the Internet; and these often simultaneously! Got cynicism Al? Likely he does. He was a politician after all.

Daves, methinks, gets it about right: shake down the well-heeled NPR crowd for capital and unleash a targeted pan-media blitz. Gore’s hip TV journalism may well prove one piece of the puzzle known as youth “brand” loyalty and commitment. Radio – online, offline or podcasted – can be another, though the hip aspirations of Air America for instance can only boast an average listener age of 47; obviously some way to go there. Films like Fahrenheit 9/11, Progressive themed video games (Save the Planet sims?), P2P, viral and long tail marketing, and of course blogs and their variably formatted progeny. All these need to be explored and where useful exploited. No one solution or time frame but a diverse, inter-linked tech savvy media and marketing approach from the political culture that brought you diversity. Because a diverse strategy is a robust one.

The GOP machine has already leveraged their own pan-media onslaught and to great effect in energizing their base and key swing demographics. Though they too have yet to crack the youth code in a big way, they are focused on that goal like a laser. Fortunately, bible thumpers and neo-cons are largely boring, regressive old wind bags. But they have lots of cash, media outlets and marketing acumen to throw at this image problem. That makes it all the more imperative that progressives get competitive in this arena. We’ve got to get off the ropes. The alternative is to live with the minority opposition role for years to come. Tapping the Gen Y potential with a message and a mission that resonates is one, possibly thee, key to turning our flagging political fortunes around. Given the jaded impression many young people hold of politics, progressive or otherwise, it’s a tall order indeed. But in an evermore dangerous and ever less sustainable world, have we any choice but to succeed?

Our young people are the future. Without gaining their attention and by this their commitment to our cause, we may well have none.

Kit Robinson