The X/Y factor

Times Staff Writer

Jane Buckingham, a slender, blondish woman in a diminutive pearly gray dress and knee-high black boots, clearly has a following. The 39-year-old founder and chief of the Intelligence Group was standing at the podium in a swank conference room at the Sofitel hotel this fall addressing 50 marketers from studios, major game developers, cellphone operators and toy companies. Each had paid $2,500 a head to spend the day at Trend School, a guided tour Buckingham holds every six weeks or so into the hearts and minds of Generation X and Generation Y, the 112 million or so Americans ages 14 to 39.

It's the youth demographic so beloved by marketers and networks, the very people who, Buckingham explains, "dictate what's cool to both those older than them and younger than them."

Given the convulsions shaking almost everybody who sells pop culture, these are jangled times in the business world. Buckingham has a girlish but perfectly soothing manner, which undoubtedly calms corporate anxieties. She doesn't proclaim herself to be innately hip but rather to just have the ability to listen to what consumers tell her. With specials on the Style Network and regular bits on the morning talk shows, Buckingham has been called the Martha Stewart of the younger generation. In actuality, she's more like a Dr. Ruth of corporate world America, with insight into the quirky emotional rhythms that influence consumption. For instance, in describing Generation Y, the 72 million youngsters ages 14 to 28, Buckingham has the acronym IWWIW emblazoned on the screen of her PowerPoint presentation. For her, that's the generation's mantra, their ode to immediate gratification. IWWIW's translation: "I want what I want. I want it when I want it. And I want it how I want it." No one this young remembers a world before DVDs, or TV remotes, or TiVo. Buckingham points to the iPod as the quintessential Gen-Y metaphor. Everyone can have an iPod but all have different playlists, or as she summarizes, "I want to be different just like my friends."

A recurring subtext emerges from almost all of Buckingham's research: the wages of technology. How is it changing younger and younger minds? At times she seems like a family therapist, translating the post-texting generation for the people who remember a time before cellphones. Indeed, one of the nuggets casually dropped at Trend School is that Generation Y thinks that e-mail is for old people.

"I definitely think [technology] is a divider," she says, "and it's something that will continue to be a divider. If you don't text message, if you don't twitter, it will change your day-to-day reactions. I don't think [technology] is horrific and negative. At some point, technology will become so integrated into our lifestyles, we won't notice it, but right now we feel its presence a lot."

When recently discussing the trends for the upcoming year, Buckingham mentions the true coming of age of mobile entertainment, with the rise of gadgets like Kindle, Amazon's new electronic reader, and video and social networking sites operating on cellphones.

She sees a further blurring of Internet and real life. "People are willing to do anything and take anything from the Web," she says. On one hand, there's going to be a rise in more professional services online and such sites as AshleyMadison.com for people wanting to have affairs. At the same time, other companies, like Nau, are setting up storefronts for websites where people can try on merchandise but cannot buy it -- they have to go online for that. There also will be new applications of existing technology, like a new Google application that lets Gmail users check all their friends' schedules at once. "If everybody wants to go to a concert, you can check their appointment books all at once. Privacy is going to change."

Not that young and younger folk care.

Notes Buckingham wryly, "You're willing to give up privacy if it makes your life as 16-year-old easier for social planning."

Shooting for the hip

Buckingham is considered one of the go-to people in her field. She published her first book, "Teens Speak Out: A Report From Today's Teens," while a senior in high school in New York. In 2003, Creative Artists Agency bought her 15-year-old, 17-person shop. She estimates she has about 100 blue-chip clients; corporations like Fox, Sony, Electronic Arts, Lancome and T-Mobile shell out $35,000 annually to receive her triannual Cassandra Report, which features an exhaustive compendium of studies about the demographic. An additional 50 clients also buy the Tween Report, the Mom Report or the Latino Report at $25,000 a pop.

Cool-hunters became the rage after Malcolm Gladwell popularized the phenomenon in his 1997 New Yorker article, but since then that kind of golden gut approach has fallen out of favor to be replaced by the statisticians of hip. For Buckingham, that means some 14,000 paid correspondents from all over the country, divided up into three major groups: mainstreamers (10,000 strong), insiders (250 DJs, network execs and stylists) and trendsetters (3,500 people with a feel for the cutting edge). Almost every one of her competitors, outfits like Look-Look and the Zandl Group, boasts of a vast network of informers, whose predilections are carefully categorized and summarized and sold to corporate America.

Although Buckingham's research is fascinating, it's hard not to feel, sitting in Trend School with a crew of marketers, that one's sitting inside the netherworld of a pop culture sausage factory. Yet as Tristian Coopersmith, one of Buckingham's acolytes, explains during her presentation, Generation Y "likes advertising. They just don't like bad advertising."

"Market research and marketing in general does a lot to actually 'create' the trends that it pretends to discover and absorb," says William Mazzarella, an anthropology professor at University of Chicago who studies consumerism. "Marketing helps to organize more or less embryonic and fluid trends, giving them a kind of fixity and firmness of outline -- in the shape of branded meanings -- that they would otherwise not have."

Buckingham, who moved from New York to L.A. four years ago, with her husband, a leadership consultant, and her two children, wears her influence lightly, as befits someone who puckishly named her forecasting manual the Cassandra Report, after Troy's soothsayer who told the future but no one would listen.

"I do think there is a lot of anxiety out there," she says about this era of flux. "As a people, we're anxious. As marketers, we're anxious. People are unpredictable. They're not watching TV the way they used to watch. They're not buying the way they used to buy. So many older models are changing." Buckingham can have the soothing manner of a kindly nursery school teacher, and she frames what her company does as: "Let us get to know them [the consumers] more deeply so you're less anxious."

"Every client seems to want to have this foresight, this advance radar system where they understand where the next terrorist attack is coming from," says Marian Salzman, a trend specialist from the advertising firm JWT. Salzman is referring to "the terrorism of the consumer, the terrorism of the competitor, the land mine of change. All of those things feel like a terrorist attack if you're trying to protect a brand."

Generation grasp

Many of Buckingham's up-to-the-minute forecasts flow from her overarching view of the generations. The Xs, those in their 30s, are profoundly cynical, and the younger Ys, ages 14 to 28, are entitled and optimistic.

Standing at the podium at Trend School, Buckingham uses her infectiously cheery voice to nonetheless spin out a rather bleak psychological landscape for the 42 million American who qualify as Xs, the country's first generation of grown-up latchkey kids, who all had midlife crises at the ripe old age of 25.

One in 2 had parents who were divorced. One in 2 had both parents work. People had as "many different stepparents as CDs on the CD player." Xs matured into a world in decay, with holes in the ozone layer, lead in the water and the famous fried egg on TV showing "your brain on drugs." AIDS arrived just as they fumbled their way into sex. As consumers, Xers are "realistic and pessimistic, independent, commitment-phobic."

Consequently, because of X's undercurrent of depression, there have been huge increases in self-help books and interest in spirituality.

By contrast, Ys have a slightly annoying (at least to non-Ys) sense of their own greatness. They're the unintended byproduct of the enlightened parenting of the boomer set, kids who grew up in the "protect the children" era of car seats, when parents espoused the philosophy "you don't have to win, you just have to show up."

The coddling has led to some bizarre culture clashes in the workplace. Buckingham explains that Ys often show up and think, "What are you going to give me?" while their elder co-workers and bosses are wondering, "What is wrong with these people?" The college admissions people call them the "teacups" because they're so fragile. As consumers, they're "realistic and optimistic, individualistic but group-oriented." She details other trends affecting this age group, like the phenomenon of "permalancing," where everything, including jobs, homes and relationships, is viewed as a temporary way station until something better comes along, and a spongy moral code that differs sharply from that of their "peerents," their mothers and fathers who often act like their contemporaries.

Here's an example: "It OK to have a threesome but not to cheat on your boyfriend." In other words, anything goes as long as no one gets hurt.

What these kids like in a celebrity is "authenticity," a person who actually has "flaws." Buckingham cites the mind-bewildering popularity of Paris Hilton: "She's authentically stupid. . . . She's never tried to be anything other than pretty and rich."

The two generations are both affected by the macro-trend Buckingham describes infecting the nation. The world is such a scary place that consumers are looking to trusted brands to make them feel safe. "As a brand you need to be constant. . . . We're advising actors to do their core performances." Funny guys should stick to funny; dramatic actors to drama. Jim Carrey practically committed career suicide by stretching in such flicks as "The Number 23."

She describes a world where people are increasingly tired of bad news. As a result, people want happy endings for everything, for films, TV, even commercials. As Buckingham says, "They don't want Pepsi to be battling Coke. They don't want discord."

After its meat and potatoes analysis of two generations, Trend School is like eating pop culture whipped cream all day long. Undeniably, the interest factor increases the less you know about any particular subject. For instance, although the upcoming fall TV shows Buckingham's group highlighted -- "Chuck," "Reaper," "Gossip Girl" -- definitely were made to attract a youth demographic, none became breakout hits, although Buckingham's associate maintained that they weren't picking these shows as hits, just as symptomatic of some trends in the medium.

Indeed, as Buckingham noted before the fall season started, people were generally happy with their TV choices -- hence it was going to be incredibly difficult for any show to break through, because to do so would require dislodging an established favorite like "Grey's Anatomy" or "CSI."

At a sustainability panel with Rachel Sarnoff, the co-founder of Green Girl Guide, and Casey Caplowe, the co-founder of Good magazine, audience members asked how to make their brands more eco-friendly.

Ask a teen

YET the high point of the afternoon was a carefully culled panel of -- yes! -- authentic teenagers. There were largely kids from high schools and colleges across Los Angeles, guys like Jack, a gregarious 18-year-old who works at the clothing company Hollister, attends Beverly Hills High and owns 35 pairs of shoes. They were paid $100.

Almost all of them seemed at ease in their skins, as if they'd been asked 1,000 times before about the minutiae of their lives. And the audience members fired questions at them. What would they most like to do with their cellphones? What video games do they play?

These racially and economically diverse teenagers seem more assured than your average teenager lolling around the mall or MySpace. "Kids who agree to do panels are more poised than normal," allows Buckingham, though she does point out that kids today are more "poised than kids 10 years ago. Kids are more savvy, and more sophisticated, and grow up more quickly. I'm always amazed even if you go to Indiana or Wisconsin you hear a lot of the same things you do in Beverly Hills."

Still, the kids jazz the audience; it's like each marketer is finally able to hook up directly with the power source. One can begin to see how Buckingham gets some of her ideas about a whole generation with the attention span of gnats and the vulnerability of children who've been handed most everything by their doting parents.

As Lauren, a 21-year-old from Loyola Marymount pithily summed up her peers: "My generation is always trying to find the easy way out, not the right way. We have a different idea of what passes as a work ethic. We freak out if we make mistakes."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°