BrainTrust Query: Gen Y’s Moment of Truth

Nov 15, 2010

Commentary by Doug Stephens, President, Retail Prophet

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a
summary of a current article from the Retail Prophet Consulting blog.

A new
poll from Harris Interactive suggests that 90 percent of adults ages 18-34
believe that the advertising they see is truthful (at least some of the time).
In contrast, only 81 percent of those 55 and over feel the same way. When asked
if advertising was truthful "all or most of the time," 24
percent of young adults agreed, compared to only 16 percent of those over the
age of 55.

So why the disparity? Is Gen Y simply gullible? I don’t think
so. In fact, I think exactly the opposite. I believe they’re really savvy.

you’re 55 and over, you grew up on a steady diet of false advertising. You’re
part of a generation that lived vicariously through Mike Wallace and the 60
news team as they busted into seedy businesses, probing endless
claims of false advertising and fraudulent business practices.

If that wasn’t enough, every major daily newspaper had its resident
pit bull consumer advocate. Each week we’d hear about another company
that had set out to scam an unwitting consumer, only to be outed after a significant
weeks-long investigation.

And it wasn’t just hysteria. There really was
a lot of false advertising, largely because there could be. Companies could
get away with it. The world was a big place where corporate executives could
hide in ivory towers, unconcerned about the angry mob outside.

It took a lot
to bring a brand down and no one knew this better than the brands themselves.

if you’re under the age of 35 you have a very different view. You’ve
grown up watching brands who dared to pull a fast one, publicly executed in
the court of the internet. You’ve seen YouTube videos posted within minutes
of a product failing to meet its claims, only to have thousands of viewers
chime in with lightening fast support.

You’ve seen big companies — really
big companies — fail. You
grew up with the understanding that you were your own 60 Minutes crew.
All you needed was a camcorder and a Facebook account and you could affect

For the generations before you, "free" was often a code
word for rip-off. You on the other hand have grown up downloading free stuff
that is really free and, moreover, actually does what it says it will do.

the way I see it, if all we do is look at this survey with a skeptical tilt
of the head and dismiss it, we miss the fact that something really cool might
be happening. It might be that a new generation of consumers is putting the
truth back in advertising right before our eyes. Let’s not discourage

Discussion Questions: How has the internet and social media changed perceptions
over the veracity of advertising claims? Is Generation Y justified in putting
a higher degree of trust in advertising than their older counterparts?

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14 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Gen Y’s Moment of Truth"

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David Biernbaum
10 years 5 months ago

Sometimes polls like these are silly because questions to respondents, and respondent’s answers, can be interpreted many different ways. However, it’s fair to believe that skepticism is driven as much by education as it is by age.

Dr. Stephen Needel
10 years 5 months ago

Of course, younger people, lacking experience, could simply be more trusting of what they are exposed to, no matter what the source. We would need to know that this generation is different from past generations to say that they are more trusting. My guess is that this is a stage-of-life phenomenon, not an internet/social networking phenomenon.

Paul R. Schottmiller
Paul R. Schottmiller
10 years 5 months ago

Definitely a “wisdom of crowds” element here driving truth in advertising and it is Gen “Y” especially the Millennial faction (18-35) that is most actively “tuned in and turned on” to borrow part of a pop cultural term from their grandparents.

Gene Detroyer
10 years 5 months ago

I have to agree with the author. My experience tells me the exact opposite. I find the older the individual, the greater they seem to believe in the mass advertising messages. I find younger people finding many advertising messages so questionable that they are humorous.

The younger generations seems to question more and search more for the answers. The internet is their tool to uncover the truth. When they talk about products, they don’t talk about what the add said, they talk about the information they found.

Fabien Tiburce
Fabien Tiburce
10 years 5 months ago

Personal opinion here but as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I don’t think today’s consumers are necessarily savvier than those of generations past. We have better tools yet but the same tools can be also be used by marketers to “deceive” us (the countless privacy breaches of Facebook and even Google when it launched Buzz should serve as a reminder). I am inclined to think that younger folks are more trusting, until years of experience cause them to scale back that unconditional trust.

BTW, for studies like this “18 to 34” is too wide a spectrum. There is a huge difference in mindset between an 18 year old and a 30 year old (who may already have a car, house and family). Lumping them together as a single group with a shared opinion is risky.

Robert Heiblim
Robert Heiblim
10 years 5 months ago

The question asked was if they believe the ads were truthful, but that does not ask them if they matter in the purchase decision. Younger shoppers may take in advertising and assume the claims are true. However, there are so many competing claims that very few are unique and what younger shoppers have that older ones did not is consumer reviews and social networks that give actual feedback on purchases. When used along with ad claims, these consumers feel better informed.

So, while ad veracity may be up, how about ad effectiveness? Unless marketers feed both sides of the consideration and ensure that they encourage positive consumer support of their brands then their claims may make little difference in a world where everyone makes claims.

Liz Crawford
10 years 5 months ago
I would like to believe that the tools of this generation–social networking, twitter, Google searches, etc–have created an era of accountability and therefore greater trust. However, I am a bit skeptical about this. I wonder if younger people aren’t a bit more sheltered in some ways than the boomers were. Sure, there have been national tragedies and struggles during the Millennials’ time (Gulf War, Iraq, etc). But the culture here at home has been much more protective. Boomers remember no seat belt laws, no lease laws, no serious DUI laws, smoking in restaurants (even airplanes!), corporal punishment in schools and latch key kids. Today, the mother of a latch key kid would have protective services called on her. Today, you can go to jail for driving while intoxicated. Today, we have helicopter parents. I believe that helicopter parents and nanny-state laws create an atmosphere of false trust among young people who don’t know any different. For many young affluent people, the world is a big padded room, where you can’t really get hurt. Sorry to… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
10 years 5 months ago

I’m sorry, but with all respect to Doug, I don’t see a story here: the differences are small, and just as easily explained as age-related as generational (differences); as for a connection to social media, I see none. (Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable claim is that about fifth of people apparently don’t believe ANY advertising; does this cynicism carry over into other areas of their lives…if so, a scary thought.)

Lee Peterson
10 years 5 months ago

I’m actually startled by both those numbers. I guess, if you count the disclaimers at the end (SNL fodder), they’re more truthful than political ads!

M. Jericho Banks PhD
M. Jericho Banks PhD
10 years 5 months ago

Confession of an adman: It’s always ticked me off when reports surface alluding to rampant dishonesty in advertising. In my experience, notwithstanding political, erectile dysfunction, or class-action trolling ads, I’ve never been involved with any advertising even remotely misleading. In the biz since ’72 and similarly degreed, my experience is mostly at the national level. I have vetted hundreds and hundreds of claims for products and services, and my teams have never knowingly employed false claims.

Whew! That felt good. Doug Stephens has clearly matriculated at the “I Heard, They Say, I Feel” college of misinformation and innuendo regarding advertising. “Putting the truth back in advertising?” When did it leave? Why insult all of the honest advertisers?

Bill Hanifin
10 years 5 months ago

From the microcosm of young people that I have to survey, their level of skepticism would be a good bit higher than in the survey. Writing young people off as naive is way too easy and my instincts tell me that Gen Y is skeptical, if anything.

Somehow the survey results are counter-intuitive and I’d like to see more to draw judgments.

ron kurtz
ron kurtz
10 years 5 months ago

It is interesting that no one observed that 10% of the younger respondents and 19% of the older respondents feel that advertising is NOT truthful even some of the time, i.e. is NEVER TRUTHFUL.

Christopher P. Ramey
10 years 5 months ago

Two thoughts to contemplate:
1. The poll was taken Oct 5 – 7; just as the political advertisements had ramped-up. It would be reasonable to consider that a higher level of skepticism exists during this period.
2. Products advertised to older adults are different than products promoted to the younger generation. We’re making assumptions based on judgments of different products.

Doug Stephens
Doug Stephens
10 years 5 months ago

I just wanted to thank everyone who responded to my article for your comments. It’s refreshing to see so many differing points of view and frankly so much open uncertainty around this question.

And for anyone who believes that advertising hasn’t really changed all that much, I offer the following amazing look at some vintage ads.

Thanks again to all who contributed.


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