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Jane Caro on youth marketing: ‘we look like a bunch of middle-aged arseholes’

Change Makers

Jane Caro on youth marketing: ‘we look like a bunch of middle-aged arseholes’


Jane Caro talks to Marketing about communicating with young people, how data is killing creativity (and legislation will too) and why marketers need to reconnect with their own humanity.

The ‘speaking topics’ list on Jane Caro’s bio runs for two pages. The author, novelist, lecturer, mentor, social commentator, columnist, workshop facilitator, speaker, broadcaster and award-winning advertising writer is in high demand by agencies and event organisers, and is a regular guest on a number of television programs, including The Gruen Transfer.

She is the only woman to have been the chair of judges of the Australasian Writers and Art Directors Association, and is on the boards of Bell Shakespeare and the NSW Public Education Foundation.

On this occasion, Marketing chats with Caro about her upcoming appearance at the forum ‘Marketing and Communicating with Today’s Youth’.

As she points out, the common thread in all her work is communication: “If you’re going to sum up what I talk about, it’s how to engage and connect with people, real people. So you will hardly get me to utter a stat. I’m not interested in stats and data.”

Marketing: Does that mean you’re not interested in research? 

Jane Caro: I’m interested in qualitative research. I’m interested in things that feed my curiosity about what it is to be human, and I’m not curious about data, because I see it as inhuman. And I believe that the intuitive understanding of human beings and how they’re hard wired to communicate gives you good data. Good data does not give you the intuitive understanding of what’s required.

So it only works one way?

Yeah, but basically data can tell you if you’ve got it wrong, but it can’t tell you why you’ve got it wrong, and it can’t tell you whether you missed out on getting your connection right, or whether there are a whole lot of other circumstances and competitors’ influences – because my view is communication is an art, and you cannot control all the variables that can affect your communication. A simple example I give is: I once wrote an article about education. It was a good column. There was nothing wrong with it. It appeared in a very well- read section of The Daily Telegraph on 12 September 2001. Nobody read it because it was the day after 9/11. There was absolutely nothing I could do about that.

The relationship between intuition versus quantitative research was something I was going to ask about in relation to youth marketing, and how it’s considered a fairly difficult job for a marketer. Do you think that’s because marketers have a hard time in general putting themselves in other people’s shoes?

Yep, and they lack imagination. I’ve always found that our attitude to advertising to young people is completely wrong – we’re like a bunch of divorced men who want to go to a nightclub and pick up chicks, and we think the way to do it is to unbutton our shirt to our waist and get a comb-over, and that will make us hip and down with the young crowd, and that’s exactly what we look like. We look like a bunch of middle-aged arseholes.

Why is that?

Because we’re trying to be like them instead of understanding that they are human beings who happen to be younger than us, and the same emotions that move us, move them. And they, like everyone else, respond better to honesty and integrity than they do to obvious, creepy manipulation. I often say to people, if you think of your product or service as a person, would it be the sort of person you would love to sit next to at a dinner party or the sort of person that, if you were forced to sit next to them, would make you want to run screaming from the room, or suddenly develop a hideous headache and have to leave early? If your product is in the second category, you have a serious marketing problem.

From a marketer’s perspective, though, there’s a challenge there with second guessing how they’re putting it out there, because they’re not in that market themselves and they’re wondering what will work and what won’t. 

Well, they just need to reconnect with their own humanity and they won’t have a whole lot of trouble. I always use this example: go to the cinema and watch a comedy. Before the lights go down, have a look at all the people in the cinema and you’ll find that usually, particularly if it’s a blockbuster film that a lot of people are going to see, you’ve got all sorts of demographics. You’ve got different races, you’ve got different genders, probably got different classes, socioeconomic backgrounds, all those things that we divide our markets up by. Now, the lights go down and something funny happens. Do people laugh according to their demographic? Do they laugh according to their age? Do they laugh according to their ethnic background? No, they do not. They all laugh at the same jokes. Why? Because they’re human.

That raises an interesting point about segmentation and media targeting, that we assume a lot about an audience based on the type of film it is, as in your example.

Exactly. And the point is targeting and segmentation is really useful for buying the media to reach a particular target. Where we’ve gone completely the wrong way is in thinking that it should therefore influence the kind of creative we use to send the message. As long as you get the emotion right in a message, everybody will respond to it. Everybody. That’s why the ads that win at Cannes or ‘ad of the year’, everybody loves them. It’s not a demographic that loves them, everybody loves them.

I don’t understand why marketing and communication has completely lost the plot about this stuff.

How do we correct that?

Stop being afraid of being human. We’ve marginalised the creative people, which is my background, who have become creative people because they’re really, really good at communicating, and we’ve marginalised them. And they’re actually the people who give us the insights that we really badly need. The other is really good if it is used to enhance the creative process, but when it is used to control, to damp down and to dictate, it just destroys it.

My view about marketing and talking about young people, I’ve had a number of people tell me that in media, in particular, that one of my strengths is I cross demographics, because I’ve got 16,000 followers on Twitter, and I’ve been told that an awful lot of them are young people, and I’m nearly 56. And I don’t pretend to be anything other than a middle-aged woman, but I speak straight, I say what I think, and that apparently crosses demographics. I live what I was taught to do.

What do you see as the key misconceptions then about marketing to young people? 

That they are some strange creatures from another planet. I think they’re other human beings, and I talk to them in exactly the same way as I talk to any other group.

I will not change any part of the way I present myself or my message. And I don’t believe you have to cast your target audience in your ads either. I think you could write an ad showing two really old people, and young people would love it if it was funny, if it was moving, if it was honest, if you got the emotion right. People don’t have to see themselves in the ad to think that it’s about them.

Not even aspirationally?

God, ‘aspirational’. Jesus, is that a killer on creativity. No. We don’t see ourselves in the outward appearance of other people. What we see ourselves in is when we emotionally relate to the story about someone else.

That’s when we identify. And we don’t identify with people just because they’re a good-looking model of our age.

That brings up the idea of celebrity, which is a fairly common tactic for marketing to young people. 

Yes, because people don’t know what else to do, so they go to the fall-back position, and then they make themselves absolutely hostage to that celebrity. And also there are an awful lot of marketers that are awfully nice about promoting a celebrity’s career. Celebrities are fine if that celebrity works with your product category and your message, and their whole story fits with your whole story. But simply shoehorning a young sports star into an ad about a breakfast cereal or whatever the hell it is, you’re much more likely to just promote the sports star than advance the product, because everyone is interested in the celebrity, not whatever the product is.

So the idea of popularity by association, you don’t think is the way to go?

No. It’s lazy marketing. You’re not thinking about it. And also, what happens? That celebrity gets involved in a sex scandal. What happens to your brand? Celebrities are human beings, they live lives. Their next three films are a complete wipe-out. If they’re a sports star, you’re really putting yourself at risk these days.

Touching on the parent/child relationship and how that’s capitalised on in marketing, how much advertising out there for children’s products is actually aimed at the parents? 

I think a lot of it should be aimed at the parents, because, in the end, the parents are adults and can make the decisions, but I actually think quite a lot of it is aimed at children to get them to persuade the parents. I think that’s probably quite effective, but it’s short-term effective, long- term danger. It’s because it gives lobbyists against junk food advertising, soft drink advertising, sugary cereals etcetera, real ammunition.

We would be much better if we did talk much more to parents, much less to children and we are starting to move that way. It’s pretty easy to influence a five-, six-, seven-year-old, but is it really entirely ethical? I think we should be talking much more to parents. But of course when you get into talking to parents, you’ve got to talk to them completely differently about the product.

Do you think parents realise how much effect their children have on their purchasing decisions? 

I think a lot of parents do. I think we actually make it quite hard to be a parent in our society. We kind of expect them to control everything, and it’s terribly difficult and we don’t help them. There are some fascinating debates about a shopping centre in [the Sydney suburb of] Dee Why that wanted to ban screaming children from the food court, and yet what do all the marketers and retailers do? They put all the sweets and all the treats at the till to tempt children. And good parents will say to their children, ‘No, you can’t have that,’ and the kids scream. So do you see what they’re doing? They’re creating the problem and then they’re banning the parents who are trying to actually act responsibly.

Instead of thinking about helping parents to minimise their children’s screaming, they’ve just gone the kneejerk, ‘They should discipline their children and, if they don’t, we’ll ban them.’

We don’t think, ‘How could we help those mothers?’, in the main, whose children are tired and they’ve got them out shopping, and then we’ve thrust all those tempting things in front of them and Mum’s exhausted and she knows the kid is screaming and she doesn’t want to stay out there, but she’s got to get some groceries because she picks the older kids up from school. It’s pretty hard being a mum. And then we bloody well tell her that she can’t come back because we made it difficult for her to get through the shopping without her having a fight with her child.

On those ethical issues you alluded to, what do you see as the biggest challenges currently in relation to marketing?

I think there are a number of areas where there will be a battle. One is the saturation of online gambling ads during sporting programs. I think that will turn into an issue, and it’s beginning to already. I think junk food obviously is the big one – obesity in children is the big issue that advertisers simply have to take some responsibility for.

How do you see that changing?

There will be regulation unless they fix their game. Big Brother will come in and control what you can show in those ads.

The thing is, of course, that the children’s lobbyists are fighting the wrong battle, because they’re still talking about children’s television viewing times – waste of time. Nobody watches at viewing times anymore. That’s just disappeared. If we don’t start to operate more ethically as an industry, recognise that it is not OK to reach your profit and sales targets if, in the process, you make a generation of children obese to the extent that they will die of artery disease 30 years younger than their parents did, then there will be legislation.

Do you think the industry can take responsibility? 

I think they can, in the way the alcohol industry, to a large extent, has. And I think in fact, with FMCG, they’ve got more chance than the alcohol industry, because there are quite a few mavericks in the alcohol industry that make the whole of the rest of the industry look bad. But there aren’t a lot of small food manufacturers and small food sellers in Australia. Mostly, they’re the large corporates and I think they have the capacity to get together and self-regulate in an effective way.

But they just can’t bring their heads around the idea that that might actually limit how much they sell. It’s counterintuitive for marketers to be asked to sell less. But, of course, they just have to get innovative. They have to produce better products that aren’t as dangerous.

So it really does go back to the product level. I think so. I think McDonald’s has done a fairly good job in putting in salads and healthier options and that kind of thing.

I think smaller cans of drink is probably a good idea, and Coke has been doing that. But I think a lot of R&D has to go into finding ways of producing food that is not fattening, full of sugar and full of salt, that’s better for us.

The other area where there will be a battle is in alcohol. I think now that the plain packaging of cigarettes has gone through and is going to make a difference, I think, to the number of people who smoke, which has been going down rapidly for a very long time, there will be a push to do the same sort of thing for alcohol.

But do you see alcohol and tobacco as being in the same group? 

Well, I don’t actually agree that alcohol should have to go down that same road, because we know you can have a moderate level of alcohol and you actually live longer – moderate drinkers live longer than both teetotallers and heavy drinkers. We know there’s no moderate level of smoking – any cigarette, as they say in the ads, is doing you damage. It’s not the same with alcohol. So I do think it’s in a different category.

I think gambling is much worse and much more in the cigarettes category than either alcohol or even fatty foods.

I guess one of the biggest issues is finding where you draw the line when it comes to legislation to control behaviour. The argument being that adults are adults, they can make their own decisions. 

I agree. Go to the devil in your own way, but the problem is that we all bear the health costs. It’s just like traffic accidents where they’ve put an enormous amount of effort, you have to obey the road rules, you have to wear seat belts, you have to get a licence, all to minimise the health costs. We will be in the same situation. I’ll be honest, if it keeps costing the community more and more money and we have a community that is determined to pay less and less tax, and governments are determined to withdraw more and more from offering services, you can see what’s going to happen. I’m not talking morality here. I’m not talking about what I agree with. I’m talking about where the nexus is heading.

What do you agree with?

We have to protect children, and it’s no use simply saying their parents should do it, because we know for a fact that many parents don’t do it, and we cannot therefore hand those children over to the tender mercies of corporations. We can’t. It’s not right.

We already have control over things that we know can have a negative effect, and I think that’s reasonable. And I think we have to be prepared to self-regulate, and self-regulate properly, or else we won’t be able to fight legislation. That’s the problem. I don’t want to see it legislated. That will destroy creativity like crazy. I want to see self-regulation work. That means we can’t have pretend self-regulation.


If you would like to hear more of Jane Caro’s thoughts, she will be speaking at ‘From Ben 10 to Lady Gaga: Marketing and Communicating with Today’s Youth’, a two-day forum taking place in Sydney on 18 and 19 April.


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