I wish I had MediaPost Editor in Chief Joe Mandese’s cojones. Take a recent post, where he shared a COVID project of his: “I began drafting my own sci-fi treatment for an Anti-Idiocracy, in which stupid people who rejected the science of vaccination died off in significant enough numbers that it meant smarter people inherited the earth.”
I have to admit, that very thought has crossed my mind -- more than once. But I’ve never said it out loud, let alone in print.
So when Joe gets a full head of steam up, as he did in that recent post -- entitled “Peak Idiocracy?” -- I set aside some time to read it. I can vicariously fling aside my Canadian reticence and enjoy a generous helping of Mandesian snarkiness.
In this case, the post wasn’t about a Darwinian culling of cluelessness from the planet, but rather a recap of MediaPost’s 2023 Marketing Politics conference -- and the depths that political advertising is sinking to in order to appeal to younger demographics. Without stealing Joe’s thunder (please read the post if you haven’t), one example involved TikTok and mouth mash-up filters.
After the panel where this case study surfaced, Joe posed a question to the panelists: "If this is how we are electing our representative leaders, do you feel like we've reached peak idiocracy in the sense that we are using mouth filters and Harry Potter memes to get their messages across?"
As Joe said, it was an “old-guy question.” More than that, it was a cynical, smart, sarcastic old-guy question, which is firmly in my wheelhouse. But it was still an old-guy question, to which one of the panelists, DGA Digital Director Laura Carlson, responded: "I don't think we should discount young voters' intelligence. I think being able to have fun with the news and have fun with politics and enjoy TikTok and enjoy the platform while also engaging with issues you care about is something I wouldn't look down on. And I think more of it is better."
There’s something to this. Maybe a lot to this.
First, I think we have fundamentally different idea of “messaging” from generation to generation. Our generation (technically I’m a boomer, but the label Generation Jones -- a cusp generation squeezed between the massive boomer block and Gen X -- is a better fit) grew up with the idea that information, whether it be on TV, newspaper, magazine or radio, was delivered as a complete package. There was a scarcity of information, and this bundling of curated information was our only choice for being informed.
That’s not the case for a generation raised with the Internet and social media. Becoming aware and being informed are often decoupled.
In an environment jammed with information of all types -- good and bad -- information-foraging strategies have had to evolve. Now, you have to somehow pierce the information filters we have all put in place in order to spark awareness. If you are successful in doing that and can generate some curiosity, you have umpteen million sources just a few keystrokes away where you can become informed.
Still, we “old guys” (and “old gals” -- for the sake of consistency, I’ll use the masculine label, but I mean it in the gender-neutral way) do have a valid perspective that shouldn’t be dismissed as just being old and grumpy. We’ve been around long enough to see how actions and consequences are correlated, and how seemingly trivial trends can have lasting impacts, both good and bad. There is experience here that can prove instructive.
But we also must appreciate that those a few generations behind us have built their own cognitive strategies to deal with information that are probably a better match for the media environment we live in today.
So let me pose a different question: If only one generation could vote, and if everyone’s future depended on that vote, which generation would you choose to receive the ballots?
Pew Research did a generational breakdown on awareness of social issues and for me, the answer is clear. I would much rather put my future in the hands of Gen Z and millennials than in the hands of my own generation. The younger cohorts are more socially aware, more compassionate, more committed to solving our many existential problems, and more willing to hold our governments accountable.
So, yes, political advertising might be dumbed down to TikTok level for these younger voters. But they’re savvy enough to know a TikTok mash-up is not something to build a political ideology on. They accept it for what it is, a brazen attempt to scream just a little louder than the competition for their attention. If it has to be silly to do that, so be it.
Sure, our generation -- Joe’s and mine -- grew up with “real” journalism: the nightly news with Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, “60 Minutes,” the New York Times. We were weaned on political debates that dealt with real issues.
And for all that, our generation was one of the key voting blocks that put Trump in the White House. So much for the wisdom of “old guys.”