The Drum Awards Festival - Official Deadline

-d -h -min -sec

Brand Purpose Policy & Regulation Marketing

Is brand purpose the reason youths are shunning democracy?


By Ian Murray, Co-founder

May 13, 2024 | 8 min read

Young people have been steadily falling out of love with democracy for decades. Burst Your Bubble’s Ian Murray blames the privatization of purpose and the rise of political consumerism.


2024 is being widely heralded as ‘the biggest year ever for democracy’ with 70 countries and half the world’s population going to the polls. For many, furthering the marketing industry’s ‘progressive’ social and environmental agenda depends on getting the ‘right' result in these elections. This youth-obsessed industry might be in for a big disappointment.

A demo losing faith in democracy

The marketing industry believes implicitly in the transformative power of gen Z. There’s an endless flow of ‘insights’ promoting the radical credentials of young people. McKinsey tells us that gen Z leads a ‘new wave of inclusive consumers and socially progressive dreamers,’ and for years, Edelman has been at the forefront of pushing the spurious idea of a new ‘brand democracy’ led by young ‘belief-driven buyers.’ Purpose fans in ad and media land have lapped it up because it is what they want to hear. The problem is that in the face of evidence from proper impartial social science, the story doesn’t stand up.

The real world has been mired in a democratic recession for years. In the UK, we tend to take democracy for granted. However, only 8.4% of the world’s population live in fully functioning democratic states, and the data shows that democratic institutions are retreating across the globe.

This isn’t only about countries where political upheaval has seen democracy give way to autocratic rule. It is also about the rise of illiberal policies and assaults on civil rights, which have undermined established democracies like the UK and the US in recent years.

Democracy’s share of GDP is in decline

Democracy's share of GDP is falling

Democracy ratings in decline in US and UK and globally


Young people ‘turning off’

Voter turnout across all age cohorts has been in decline since the 1950s.

However, the gap in participation between younger and older voters (in elections and wider institutional politics) continues to widen. Young people today participate less than young people did in the past. This is why we're seeing so many policies aimed at older people.

Democracy 3

But it is lazy to put this slip in young voters just down to apathy or disillusionment.

This is about a fundamental shift in the values of young people. The World Values survey shows that young people simply don’t believe in the ideal or importance of democracy to the same extent as their parents and grandparents. Across Europe, the UK, and the US, 66% of adults rate democracy as important (top two box on a 10-point importance scale). This drops to 58% for 16-24s. There’s considerable variation across countries. Support for democracy in the UK is marginally below average (53% for 16-24). Incredibly, just over one-third of young people in the US rate democracy as important (38%).

World Values survey shows young people less likely to value democracy

Democracy 4

This leads Kevin Cassas-Zamorra, the secretary general of International Idea, an intergovernmental organization with a mission to support and advance democracy worldwide, to conclude that ‘young people’s support for democracy is in freefall.’

The World Values survey offers many other challenges to the marketing industry’s belief in progressive youth. The data shows that young people are not inherently ‘progressive,’ and they do not necessarily hold a vision for democracy that is more radical or even distinctive from that of the general population.

Asked whether equal rights for men and women are an essential part of democracy, almost three-quarters (72%) of adults across Europe, the UK and the US agree. But the figure is no higher for 16-24-year-olds. Many readers may be surprised to find that just under half of young people think civil rights and protecting people from oppression are essential in a democracy or that only 20% endorse reducing the gap between rich and poor via progressive taxation and economic redistribution.

World Values survey: role of progressive values in democracy


Why the diminishing faith in democracy impacts brands

The European Parliament’s report on young people’s participation in democratic processes is clear that there has been a change in culture, which has radically altered ‘the relationship between young people and the political sphere.’ Young people have been exposed to a different process of ‘political socialization’ that has changed their ‘citizenship norms.’

Cassas-Zamorra attributes the erosion of democracy to a culture where young people are encouraged to ‘engage with politics around specific struggles they believe in’: “When you are a warrior for a specific cause, you don’t have to compromise. The bread and butter of formal politics is the art of compromising. You have to be aware of trade-offs. That smacks to young people of losing your purity.”

Recent academic research has shown how the ‘neoliberal worldview’ (explored in a previous article here) promotes a form of ‘political consumerism’ that emphasizes economic over political agency. This simultaneously pushes young people away from electoral politics and pulls them towards the marketplace as the main mechanism for attempting to further their social and political causes. The push factors include a self-serving agenda to undermine beliefs in the efficacy, efficiency and trustworthiness of political institutions while promoting the power of ‘buying as an effective substitute for voting.’

Of course, the marketing industry's obsession with ‘brand democracy’ and social purpose has been at the forefront of shaping this anti-democratic, pro-market culture.

In ‘Mission Economy,’ Mariana Mazzucato describes capitalism as being stuck. It can’t shake off the neoliberal dogma that portrays governments as clunky, bureaucratic machines that suppress the animal spirits of the wealth-creating private sector.

Mazzucato tells the story of how, in the cradle of capitalism in the 1960s, it was the US government that engaged, inspired, and supported businesses in the shared mission to put a human on the moon. She argues that the way to solve the 21st Century’s biggest challenges, drive the economy and build a more inclusive and sustainable future is to take inspiration from the Apollo missions and ‘rediscover the state as a creator of value’.

Marketers continue to contort themselves in their mission to fuse social radicalism with the cult of the individual, aspirational consumerism, and free market economics. But the privatizing of purpose is not the answer. Re-empowering our democratic institutions may be the only way to get us out of this mess. People, and particularly young people, need a new mission. It’s about rediscovering public purpose and democracy.

As long as ‘progressive’ marketers persist in encouraging young people to herd around single issues or outsource the world’s biggest problems to global corporations, democracy will continue to wither on the vine.

If our industry is serious about the ‘biggest year ever for democracy, ’ we need to do some soul-searching about the role we all play in the decline of our democratic institutions and political participation.

Brand Purpose Policy & Regulation Marketing

More from Brand Purpose

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +