Although it’s unlikely to be officially added as a new word in the Oxford Online Dictionary (alongside recent additions “vajazzled” and “tweeps”), by the close of 2012, it’s very likely that you will have come across an article or a tweet or a Facebook post that included the au courant colloquialism YOLO. What is YOLO, you might ask? For those of you without a Tumblr account or a teenaged child (with a Tumblr account, of course), YOLO is the cleverly crafted acronym for “you only live once.” Think of it as “carpe diem!” for the text-messaging generation.
If by some good fortune you managed to avoid YOLO in 2012, I can only assume that you live in an alternate reality that’s devoid of irresponsible teenagers (or teenagers who like to feign irresponsibility) and their ridiculous slang. In this reality, however, YOLO emerged in 2012 as the teen mantra, dominating the social media space and portraying kids as reckless, fearless and self-destructive.
A battle cry for teens seeking to live life to the fullest, YOLOers pushed the boundaries of safety and rational thinking. Their admittedly stupid behavior (the strangely popular cinnamon challenge is just one popular example) was justified if they simply “hashtagged” their insouciance with #YOLO. But consequences ensued. Kids got hurt, suspended, and some were even arrested. But no consequence has been as powerful and negative as what YOLO might have done to the collective reputations of an entire generation.
The acronym gained attention and became popular—as most teen trends do—largely by celebrity endorsements. In the curious case of YOLO, hip-hop artist, Drake released a song and tweeted about the mantra, followed by the word being tattooed on the hand of teen heartthrob, Zach Efron. It subsequently spread like mind-numbing wild fire across the Internet and quickly became a staple in the lexicon of even the most demure teen.
Perhaps YOLO was intended to inspire young people to take on new experiences and to overcome the fear of life’s uncertainties. After all, who knew whether or not the Mayans got their calendar right. For teens, YOLO was about leaving their comfort zones and seeing the world through a fresh set of eyes. In ye olde days, some tweeps used to say, “Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse.” Or whatever. But when teenagers got their hands on the acronym, the term became warped with reckless abandon. The new iteration of YOLO simply became an excuse to be stupid. And boy, were teenagers being stupid.
To wit, a YOLO sampler:
@Adrian Vella: We don’t got beer so we drink hand sanitizer…#YOLO
@El Buenaflor: Lets all not go to school tomorrow and just sleep all day! #YOLO
@Patrick Brady: 2 fights and nearly getting arrested. YOLO
The use of #YOLO went from adorbz to downright dangerous. For adults, watching a YouTube video with #YOLO usually presaged two minutes of praying that the video subject wasn’t seriously injured or dead by the end of the stunt. Reading a post with #YOLO inevitably led to a reflexive wince, plus a simultaneous eye roll.
Thanks to the prodding of overzealous YOLOers, overnight, today’s promising youth transformed into the nation’s fools. Whatever previous notions about this generation of young people’s exceedingly good behavior quickly became cause for concern.
But the reality is that as a collective group, this generation is better known for their obeisance to good behavior instead of their foolishness. This is a generation that has proudly proclaimed love for their parents and respect for their teachers and other authority figures. Numerous studies have shown that compared to previous generations, this generation of teens drink less alcohol, smoke less marijuana, and have less pre-marital sex. A survey conducted by Mintel asked teens how they wanted to be perceived by friends and family. They ranked being nice (92%), achieving good grades (79%), and acting as a good citizen (75%) within the top five. And a whopping 59% say they like going to school!
And when asked about YOLO, many teenagers still grasp the word’s original intention of pushing beyond fear. One teenager said, “I try taking chances and doing things I might not do every day within reason ... [someone who lives by YOLO] has fun enjoying life by just doing what they love all the time.”
When brands approach this generation, it’s useful to put the YOLO fad far into the abyss. Yes, a reasonable amount of teen rebellion is inevitable. Teenagers, anxious for independence, have always demonstrated a bit of recklessness. But that doesn’t mean this generation is looking for brands that match YOLO’s disingenuous anti-establishment personality. In fact, two-thirds of today’s teens note that their favorite brands support good causes or give to charities (Mintel 2012).
Thankfully, the YOLO fad is predicted to die in 2013, and hopefully the unfortunate misrepresentation of the teenage generation will go with it, too.
Jenni Blady, Associate Strategic Planner at G2 USA, contributed to this article.