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This industry’s Gen Z bias is rife, often generic and misleading

By Brett Booth, Co-founder

NERDS Collective


The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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December 9, 2019 | 5 min read

Over the coming weeks, Urban Nerds will use its ongoing research study - Frontline - to lift the veil on one of adland’s biggest blindspots: the rife misconceptions around youth culture.

Tom Sodoge young person

This series will share our findings from the frontline of inner city youth culture to illuminate the issues that undermine many brands’ ability to authentically connect with hard-to-reach youth audiences.

Many of the Gen-Z insights touted by our industry are often generic and misleading. They overlook the cold hard truth that, when it comes to the youth landscape, there’s a widening disparity in lived experience, media consumption, values and mindsets.

Because we live in polarised times (thank you, social media), we’re no longer exposed to the varied experiences that exist across the Gen Z spectrum. As the overlap between privileged and inner city youth shrinks, the thin layer of empathy that once existed between the two is being eating away. Different youth groups now have completely disparate lived experiences.

At one end of the spectrum we have the accelerated prioritisation of climate justice by important movements like Extinction Rebellion. At the polar opposite end, we have the boom in extreme fast fashion: low-price e-commerce platforms peddling the complete opposite of an environmentally considered lifestyle to create low-cost products for mass audiences.

This conflict is heavily fueled by the dominance and mechanics of social media as it algorithmically locks us into echo chambers and filter bubbles. End result? Others’ opposing opinions and alternative ideologies are kept out-of-sight and out-of-mind.

Case in point: there are 20,000 13 to 24-year-old social media users in the UK that have both an interest in BooHoo and climate justice. To put that into context, BooHoo has 6.2 million followers, while XRYouth - the chief youth protagonists of the climate justice movement - have a mere 45,000 followers. The overlap in these interests is evidently very thin.

We’re not here to say that one is more worthy than the other, or that one is wrong and one is right. We’re simply pointing out this polarisation and the fact that it’s too easy for marketers to overlook potential blind spots when understanding today’s youth.

With such divergent values being played out across society, particularly in the youth landscape, very few brands and agencies have been taken to the frontline of mass youth consumerism.

Bias and blind spots

As an agency that specialises in helping brands reach inner-city youth audiences, our Frontline research questions over 5,000 young urban Europeans about what matters to them. When we present our findings from this less privileged end of the Gen Z spectrum, clients often say our insights contradict those from other youth marketing experts.

Does this mean our research is flawed? Absolutely not. We are merely focusing on the lesser-told side of the Gen Z story. But the disparity in findings confirms adland’s rife bias and blind spot when it comes to understanding inner city Gen Z.

Truth is, this blind spot is directly impacting on our industry’s ability to connect and engage with a significant segment of today’s young people. There’s a lot of arrogance in the industry, with many saying: “Tunnel vision Nah. Not me!”. Don’t get caught out. To be an effective industry player, at least ask yourself this: “Might we have a blind spot? Do we really know who our audience is? Is it possible we may have missed something?”

For a quick sense-check, take a look around your office. Do you see a genuinely diverse representation of society? I’m not just talking about gender, race, religion and sexuality. I’m talking about the elephant in the room too: class. Do you see people who are capable of deciphering a broad spectrum of values and mindsets?

Do you work with anyone who is authentically able to bridge the divide between over-privileged and disadvantaged young people? If the answer is ‘no’, it’s very, very likely you’re only seeing part of the picture.

If you want to know exactly how urban youth differs from the usual Gen Z tropes, then stay tuned for our next instalment, where we dissect youth culture in all it’s rich and disparate glory. Articles in this series will touch on sustainability, product versus experience, fast food and many more misinformed myths from the youth and culture landscape.

Brett Booth, partner, Urban Nerds


Content by The Drum Network member:

NERDS Collective

NERDS Collective was founded by Luke Hodson In 2013 as a specialist agency that places brands at the frontline of street culture through hyper-nuanced consumer insights,...

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