8. Generations In Conflict

We live in a media melting pot.

As technology evolved in the last century, it became possible to see generational differences in media preferences. Depending on your generation, your grandfather may have read about sports in the newspaper. Your father may have listened to them on radio. You may have watched them on TV. And your children may have experienced them over the Internet. The experience offered by each medium differs markedly.

Different Mediums – Same Event – Different Experiences

Imagine being at a real basketball game, sitting behind the home team’s bench and feeling the excitement of the crowd. You can hear the players and coaches plot strategy during time outs. You can stand next to players that tower over you. You can see the intensity in their eyes and smell their fear. You can hear bodies slamming into each other in ways that radio and television microphones never pick up.

Now imagine reading about that game the next morning in a newspaper. There is no sound, energy, excitement, suspense or drama. The game might as well be ancient history. You can’t see the players except for, perhaps, in a single black and white photo a few inches tall. The energy of 20,000 screaming fans is nothing but a distant and fading memory. Instead of being immersed in and surrounded by a seething throng, you’re wiping crumbs of toast from four column inches of tepid copy. The box score pales in comparison to the box seat.

Radio brings the game to life, but because the medium lacks a visual component, announcers must spend an inordinate amount of their airtime simply describing the action. There is little time for color commentary and background on the players during the game.

Radio forces the listener to imagine the visual dimension of the game and to focus only on what the commentator describes. If the commentator doesn’t discuss something, as far as the listener is concerned, it didn’t happen. How could he know what was not communicated to him?

In the advertising business, radio is often considered a passive or “background medium.” You listen to it while you’re doing something else, i.e., driving or working. This is possible because you only use your ears to listen to radio. Because TV involves both hearing and seeing, people focus on it more actively. They simply can’t watch TV and drive at the same time without killing themselves.

The added visual component of television communicates much that is never spoken, but still edits out much. We can only see where the camera points. We can only hear what the producer wants us to hear. We can’t feel the crowd. And we can’t see the nuances of players’ expressions that communicate so much about their confidence.

Dominant Mediums Shape the Way We Talk and Think

People who grew up in eras dominated by different mediums may talk and think differently.

For example, I grew up in a household dominated by print. My daughter grew up in a household dominated primarily by television and the Internet.

In the world of print, we expect headlines to tell us the main point of the story immediately and the lead paragraph to give us the broad outlines of what happened.

In television, often the opposite happens. Stories unfold sequentially in a dramatic fashion. Not surprisingly, in conversations, my daughter habitually reveals things in a sequential fashion and seems, from my point of view, to take forever to get to the point.

She would never say, “I am having problems with my boss. What do you suggest I do?”

Instead, the conversation would start like this. “On my way to work this morning, my car broke down. So I took the bus. But I had to wait 20 minutes for it to come. Then as it pulled up to the curb, it hit a big puddle and splashed me. So here I am, frustrated and dirty, thinking about my dry cleaning bill, having to pay extra money to take the bus, then I discover there weren’t any seats. I had to stand next to a wino all the way downtown. I don’t want to tell you what he smelled like. So, when I finally got to work, I’m thinking I should get a hero’s welcome. I’ve gone through hell to get to my job, and do you know what my boss said to me? He said, ‘How come you’re late?’ So, I told him everything that happened and then he said…”

The Evolution of Communication Styles

Instead of distilling the essence of what she wants to discuss, she hits the replay button on her whole day. Suddenly, I’m watching the movie in my mind and wondering all the while when we’ll get to the third act.

We sometimes find discussions difficult. I am sure she finds me as frustrating as I find her at these times. She is thinking, “Where are all the juicy details? How can he skip right to the conclusion? Why doesn’t he tell me where he’s coming from? Why isn’t he sharing my pain?”

Times like these remind me of the difference in our communication styles. My style is more logical, influenced, in part, by growing up in the medium of print. My daughter’s style is more narrative, influenced, in part, by growing up in the medium of television.

Many things, such as gender, life experience, culture, schooling and family, help determine communication styles. I believe that an individual’s media preferences also play a contributing role.

World Wide Web and Weltanschaung

Mediums may profoundly affect an individual’s outlook on life. One young person who read an early draft of this essay felt that the Internet had turned her and many others of her generation into skeptics. She observed that the Internet contained many reliable sources of information, but that it also contained much misinformation, disinformation and conflicting sources.

Wikis enable anyone, even those without credentials or those with biases, to post or edit information. As a consequence, unsuspecting readers may treat fiction as fact.

Different mediums shape our experiences differently. The experience of a library differs radically from the experience of a movie theater or an Internet chat room, just as a church social differs dramatically from social networking on the Internet. People behave differently in each because of the constraints (or lack of constraints) within each.

No one lives in one medium alone. We all expose ourselves to mixtures of mediums, but one usually dominates. We can see generational differences in media preferences[1] that shape the way people think, interact, speak and behave.

Television, Vietnam, Protest and Radicalism

These differences sometimes put generations in conflict. As the number of mediums has proliferated, their parallax potential has increased too.

Many people in the 1960s linked the radicalism and social unrest of the era to the rise of television. Broadening awareness of inequities and injustices fostered youthful idealism.

People in ghettos had lifestyles of the rich and famous broadcast into their living rooms every night. Likewise, television immersed people in the Vietnam War in ways that non-combatants in previous generations had never before experienced. These broadcasts profoundly eroded public support for the war.

Today, the advent of broadband Internet access, texting, blogging, and image distribution via billions of cell phones makes it impossible for dictators to control media the way they once did. Did this contribute to popular revolts in many north African countries recently?

The Democratization of Publishing

Silencing dissent is no longer as simple as seizing a few television stations, radio stations and newspapers in a midnight coup d’état. The democratization of publishing may have a democratizing effect on the entire world. Protesters have reportedly fueled and coordinated revolts in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere via YouTube, blogs, instant messaging and emails. The ubiquity of the Internet makes it virtually impossible to control the flow of communication.

This democratizing influence of the Internet also has huge implications for marketers. In an era dominated by television, immense advertising coffers largely allowed marketers to control communication about their brands. I am not suggesting a conspiracy of clout. I am suggesting that television, because it pushed information outward in one direction, did not allow much public contradiction of claims. Advertisers could keep negative feedback from consumers confidential in all but the most extreme cases.

If people began dying from tainted products, if planes fell from the sky, or if investors lost billions of dollars in Ponzi schemes, the stories would make headlines, of course. But most product- or service-related complaints do not merit news coverage. Advertisers were largely free from contradiction because of the one-way nature of television signals. Disenchanted consumers could purchase different brands, but had no other way to voice their disappointment.

The Internet gives them that tool. Metro is Houston’s mass transit system. Not long ago, I saw a Metro commercial on Houston television promoting “Fresh Air Fridays.” The commercials showed happy riders abandoning their cars to reduce air pollution and make more productive use of their time.

Immediately, people began posting YouTube videos showing unhappy riders in stalled buses. Another series of videos showed parked, empty buses belching diesel, waiting for riders to arrive. A third series showed the (now former) Metro chairman, who lived one block from a Metro line, taking a limousine to work.

In an age when disappointed consumers can launch free, viral anti-campaigns, marketers must exercise much more restraint in the claims they make. Claims must be absolutely irrefutable. Advertising must under-promise and products must over-deliver to avoid this kind of backlash. Consumers can easily make advertising – the most visible manifestation of many brands – into lightning rods for dissent. They do and they will.

Some of the challenges for marketers are these. How do you make conservative claims stand out among the din of hype? Do you segment campaigns by medium to reach different age groups?

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[1] Pew Research Center Biennial News Consumption Surveys in 2004, 2006 and 2008 have documented changes in newspaper, television, radio and Internet audiences. www.people-press.org.