Lessons from representing young people in the media

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Half of young Australians thought they were unfairly represented in the media. So what are the stereotypes we’ve internalised, and how do they cloud our judgement when talking to or about young people in media and marketing?

Kirsty Sier and Sophie Al-Bassam

Is the media a boomer? We all know the kinds of stereotypes of young people that exist in media. The lazy and narcissistic teenager who is obsessed with their phone; the naïve ingenue who is too immature to make decisions for themselves; the parasitic bludger who can’t hold down a job; the dangerous and irresponsible rule-breaker who threatens the very fabric of our society. Most of these stereotypes are patronising at best, downright negative at worst – and consistently, they are oversimplified.

A Junkee study in 2020 found that 50% of Australians aged 16-35 thought they were unfairly represented in the media. As content creators, we should be asking ourselves: what are the stereotypes we’ve internalised, and how do they cloud our judgement?

Stereotypes don’t form in a vacuum. Media representation has a major influence on the way that society and individuals perceive and treat young people. These stereotypes can also have a wider impact: alienating young people from older people and even leading to discrimination.

Yet it seems we don’t learn our lesson. Various studies made over the course of decades show the pigeonholed versions of youth that we adopt and perpetuate. The blame may shift – from rock music to television to social media – but the negativity remains. 

In 1997, a survey by the Australian Law Reform Commission and Human Rights Equal Opportunity Commission found that 80% of young people believed the media never, or only sometimes, portrayed young people truthfully. 

In 2004, research carried out in the UK by MORI for youth worker magazine Young People Now found that one in three youth-related articles in the examined period were about crime. Meanwhile, young people were quoted in only 8% of stories.

The Junkee study made very clear the misguided nature of our assumptions. While we tend to hang onto the rise of influencer culture and unscripted (reality) television as proof of youthful vapidity, Junkee’s results showed a much more progressive and community-minded demographic.

When asked what they care about the most, the top three answers from young Australians were mental health (72%), sustainability and the environment (71%), and gender equality (68%). At the other end of the scale, the subject they least cared about was the Kardashians (2%).

Even when we are not directly fuelling the fire, these stereotypes affect the way that we as media professionals and content marketers try to speak to young people. If we believe young Australians to be individualistic and social-media obsessed, then we miss an opportunity to connect with them on the subjects that mean something to them.

Brands try marketing to young people frequently, but it’s easy to get wrong.

Marketing to young people: when it goes right

  1. Money app Cleo masters Gen Z marketing with its sassy Instagram feed. It teases young people about their lack of money but they’ve pitched it right to get laughs instead of offence. And by including a large number of comments and tweets from users, they continually encourage cheeky engagement. They even have designed AI chats with a sense of humour. 

  2. Season 2 of HCF’s Navigating Parenthood podcast, which we produced, is to help parents talk to their teens. But rather than making assumptions about how to do that, host Rebecca Sparrow talks directly with teens on the topics that are close to their heart: mates, dates, sexting, self-esteem, study stress and grief. It then followed up with practical articles with lessons from the podcast

  3. Tide.Pr’s client HoMie aims to break down the stigma associated with homelessness. Their Pathway Alliance Program equips youne people affected by homelessness with skills and confidence to be better prepared for their future. And 100% of their profits go towards their social impact programs. It’s a genuinely caring company, and a perfect fit for the more socially conscious younger shoppers. Their Instagram radiates cool with diverse young people sporting their clothes, many of them personal introductions to staff.
    Pay careful attention to their sensitive language – “HoMie works with young people affected by homelessness or hardship” – they never refer to people part of the Pathway Alliance Program as “homeless youths”, for example. On Instagram they do include occasional quotes from program participants, but they keep the focus on their fashion.

  4. Flybuys are what nannas collect, right? The loyalty program has updated its image in one fell swoop with this masterful campaign. Although they’ve described it as an attitude “that transcends age, gender, income and postcode”, and the stars of the ad are of various generations, the music and language make it relevant to the younger demographic. Plus they get extra points for the poetic rap about shopping.

Marketing to young people: when it goes wrong

  1. People aged 18–24 might be less likely to vote in the UK, but that doesn’t mean they can’t spell. Just ask Britain’s Stronger in Europe campaign related to Brexit which advocated “Chillin Meetin Tourin #votin”. It was ridiculed by all ages as being inauthentic and trying way too hard to speak a language they didn’t understand.

  2. A Britain Stronger In Europe campaign poster featuring a young woman playing in the waves, with the slogan "Chillin Meetin Tourin Votin".

  3. When a 21 year old Kendall Jenner kindly interrupts her photoshoot to join a demonstration for a Pepsi ad, it was making light of the racial tensions and Black Lives Matter protests that were at the time across America and the world. The 2017 Pepsi ad was designed to “truly reflect today’s generation”. Unfortunately, today’s generation didn’t agree and the ad was pulled.

  4. Calvin Klein understands gender and sexuality inclusion is important to Gen Z. But when they included Bella Hadid, a straight supermodel, making out with a computer-generated influencer, it came across as insincere and gimmicky. The hashtag #mytruth seemed particularly irrelevant. They brand apologised for queerbaiting, saying “it was certainly not our intention to misrepresent the LGBTQ+ community”.

    A Calvin Klein ad featuring model Bella Hadid kissing computer-generated influencer Lil Maquela.

Tips on talking to younger people

Speak to them about the stories important to them. Don’t make assumptions about this – as shown above, they care about sustainability way more than the Kardashians. Authenticity is more important than ever, so If you care about something, prove it.

Leverage insights: don’t assume, do your research.
Find out what’s important to your audience, and use their opinions and perspectives to inform your content and messaging.

Include younger voices: recruit young content producers or freelance writers. Start an intern program. At the very least, interview in the appropriate age bracket.

Aim for diversity: within each age category there is a host of diversity. As always with content, aim for cultural diversity, as well as including people of different genders and sexual orientation. Aside from reflecting your audience, by including diversity you’re reflecting changing attitudes. For example, 56% of American consumers aged 13 to 20-years-old say someone they know uses gender-neutral pronouns.

Go where they are: there’s no point having an amazing Facebook strategy to reach younger Australians, because they aren’t there. Research the best way to reach the audience you want, and learn from the content they consume. The top social media platforms for Australian teens (generation Alpha, born since 2006) are YouTube, TikTok and Instagram.

Again, don’t assume you know what content works where – TikTok isn’t just about dance videos. In June 2020 the most popular hashtag on the social media app was #blacklivesmatter. TikTok works best when brands partner with established creators.

Don’t speak their language unless have permission to. People can smell a try-hard. If you’re not a young person, or don’t consume young media regularly, don’t try to speak in a way that you think they speak – you’re likely to get it wrong.

Include age diversity when possible: even if you’re not speaking directly to younger generations, consider whether it’s still relevant to include them. Young people are rarely presented in the media, and when they are, it’s usually in a negative way. How can you include young people in a positive way? For example, will the topic impact young people now or in the future? 

If you’re struggling to identify who your audience is and what they care about, or how to speak to them authentically, let us know how we can help. We can partner with you to conduct research, generate insights from search, and provide some expert guidance on your creative.  

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