Youth In Revolt

Youth often rebound from the attitudes and preferences set by previous generations. For example, in the recent past, generational differences were dramatically apparent in Boomer parents’ and Millennial kids’ attitudes toward technology. Boomers resisted technology’s influence in raising their children, often going so far as to ban cellphone use at the dinner table.

Millennials rebelled from this idea then and continue to do so today, choosing to see technology largely as a blessing rather than a burden. Now, it’s Gen Z’s turn to rebel from certain values their Millennial parents have established. One intriguing way this is manifesting is in teens’ attitudes toward under-age drinking and marijuana use. 

Millennial parents have taken a progressive view of drinking and marijuana use: among those who think it’s acceptable for their children to ever drink alcohol or use marijuana, the average age at which they think it is appropriate for their children to try booze is age 19, and the average age at which they think it’s appropriate to try weed is 14, according to our Modern Parents Report. Despite this tacit permission, however, teens are increasingly likely to opt out of these behaviors.



The CDC has noted a decline in under-age drinking and marijuana use among teens over the past decade. Meanwhile, drinking and marijuana use among adults is on an upswing. In effect, by giving teens the okay to engage in these activities, their interest has declined. In contrast to previous generations, for Zs, teenage rebellion actually looks like a lot like compliance, upending a once-reliable youth marketing tactic of being “edgy.” 

This shift in attitude serves as a warning sign for brands and marketers targeting Gen Z. Historically, teen rebellion is about testing boundaries and making older generations uncomfortable—but the usual boundaries simply aren’t there for modern youth to test. As true digital natives, the Internet gave Zs unprecedented access to illicit content and exposed them to a wide range of unconventional ideas and opinions.

As a result, trying to appeal to the traditional sense of teenage rebellion and edginess no longer resonates; instead, it falls flat with today’s youth. Whereas advertising could once capture teen interest by being a bit taboo, there is little that can surprise this generation in terms of subject matter. Therefore, it’s difficult for marketers to grab their attention with the usual tactic of shock and awe because teens have seen and heard it all before. Even sex no longer sells, as Axe demonstrated when the brand successfully evolved its marketing to showcase individuality rather than overt sexuality. 

With these long-standing strategies losing their relevance and failing to entice this generation of teens, marketers and advertisers have had to resort to drastic measures. Some have been able to win teens’ interest for short bursts by leveraging randomness and incongruity, which naturally gives the brain pause. However, companies that seek to hold teens’ interest for more than a moment have to rely on substance rather than shock value.

Because teens have been exposed to so much from a young age—including more ads than they could possibly count—they’ve been desensitized to traditional tactics and have developed into savvy young people. They see through the veneer of brands trying to be outré purely for the sake of attention and choose to ignore them. By delivering on substance, through communicating transparently and genuinely about their values, brands are able to form more personal and emotional relationships with young consumers, which in turn engender greater customer loyalty.

1 comment about "Youth In Revolt".
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  1. David Mountain from Marketing and Advertising Direction, July 21, 2016 at 12:25 p.m.

    Solid points, but one caveat: teens haven't seen a massive upswing in ads compared to previous generations, because the tech they use allows them to skip or block, and they do that with a vengeance. Requires a lighter touch, through endorsements, native, etc.

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