Religion & Liberty Online

Mass Marketing to Millennials: A Marxist Paradigm?

A recent Boston Globe headline reads: “Marketing to millennials can be a tough sell.” The article relates the differing approaches of Campell’s, Lindt USA, and GE when it comes to marketing to Millennials, highlighting a general skepticism and indifference toward advertising in the target demographic:

For instance, marketing materials for GE’s Artistry series of low-end appliances featuring retro design touches, due out this fall, says it focuses on “the needs of today’s generation of millennials and their desire to uniquely express themselves.”

Lindt USA recently introduced a line of chocolates — they include Berry Affair and Coconut Love flavors — that are wrapped in vibrant packaging and are being promoted through social media.

And packaging for Campbell’s Go Soup, which comes in microwavable pouches with ingredients such as chickpeas, quinoa, and smoked Gouda, features photos of young people with thought bubbles. The sayings include cutesy snippets like “Make your momma proud” and “What’s kickin’?”

The idea is to hook millennials now and remain connected with them as they progress to bigger and more expensive products.

But marketing specialists and consumers like Volain question the effectiveness of that approach.

“My immediate reaction to targeted marketing is to picture a bunch of people sitting around in a room saying, ‘How can we get these people to buy these products?’” [Anna] Volain [a millennial] said.

While I am sympathetic to Volain’s sentiment here, I think something deeper is at work. There is an erroneous anthropological assumption that people of a particular, generic group must be homogeneous enough that all one needs to do is figure out the perfect calculus for appealing to their sensibilities, and they will be hooked on a brand for life. In particular, I think the problem is ultimately a Marxist error: assuming that one can perfectly categorize a whole group of people and then act on their behalf.

Critiquing the errors of radical individualism on the one hand and collectivism on the other, the Russian Orthodox philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (d. 1900) sums up the latter error well, writing,

[T]hinkers who are under the spell of collectivism take the life of humanity to be simply an interplay of human masses, and regard the individual as an insignificant and transient element of society, who has no rights of his own, and may be left out of account for the sake of the so-called common good. But what are we to make of a society consisting of moral zeros, of rightless and non-individual creatures? Would it be human society? Where would its dignity and inner value of its existence spring from, and wherein would it lie? And how could such a society hold together? It is clear that this is nothing but a sad and empty dream, which neither could nor ought to be realized.

Millennials are, of course, a real and meaningful demographic — I do not mean to promote the opposite error of isolated individualism — but the idea that one can market simply to “Millennials,” without any further qualifications, betrays an impoverished anthropology. Millennials, just as all other mass groups, are neither faceless nor homogenous.

This latter point regarding homogeneity reminds me of a contention of the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck in his work The Christian Family (1912), aimed particularly against the Marxist notion of the “masses” of society:

The history of the last half century has brought to light so clearly that nothing is as dangerous as generalizing and lumping everything together. There is not a single law that governs the entire development of society; there is not simply one theory that fits all the facts of reality; all events do not move along a single straight line. Just as in previous centuries, society exhibits the richest diversity; that diversity itself has increased to a large extent through the progress of science and technology, of agricultural industry, of trade and traffic. It is not the case that two classes stand in opposition against each other—the rich and the poor, entrepreneurs and employees, the rulers and the oppressed. Instead, life is infinitely varied. In every enterprise, there are large and small, strong and weak, between whom again there exists not a gap but differences of degree…. Modern society is no different in principle from previous ones and will not differ radically from the society of the future.

He does not mean to eschew the importance of any group, saying, “The distinctions between men and women, parents and children, government and citizens, employers and employees, rich and poor, healthy and sick, will always exist.” However, his basic point applies here as well.

I cannot say how many times at this point I have read about how Millennials are supposedly “more educated” or “less religious” or “more tech savvy” and so on. Some such assertions may be based upon solid research, but some are only supported by slim majorities if at all, at best leaving out substantial minorities who do not conveniently fit the mold. Furthermore, every generation has its diversity. To slightly alter Bavinck’s statement, the Millennial generation “is no different in principle from previous ones and will not differ radically from [generations] of the future.”

I hear all the time about how we are less traditional in X, Y, and Z ways, and then I see a film about hippies dropping acid and dancing naked at Woodstock in 1969 and remember that perhaps we are simply young and otherwise not so different from other generations when they were the same age. Of course all generations are shaped by their contexts and ours has its own unique features, but yet we have our fair share of religious adherents and atheists, social liberals and conservatives, closed and open-minded people, narcissistic and self-sacrificing persons, and so on, just like any other generation.

Certainly, generations are important demographic groups that ought to be considered in any marketing campaign, but to reduce whole generations to one easily classifiable mass will surely fail. Marketers can do better. Such a conception does not accord with reality, and worse yet, it runs the risk of diminishing a whole generation’s “dignity and inner value,” which is no small risk indeed.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.