An open letter to advertisers who target millennials

That is, my age group. Everyone’s trying to sell stuff to 20-year-olds. Seems like they think we’re easy to sell to.

…We are not. We’re broke. But if you still want to, here’s what you’re doing wrong.

It’s been said over and over again that millennials hate ads. I’m going to argue with that a little bit. Everyone’s been freaking out that “traditional advertising” no longer works,  but they haven’t actually bothered to figure out why, and instead they’ve jumped into wild guesswork about what these young whipper-snappers will respond to (read: fork over money for) instead.

Here’s what we actually don’t like: being manipulated. Apparently many advertisers have forgotten that ads don’t have to be manipulative, so they’ve come to the conclusion that they don’t work at all, instead of considering that their favorite tactics are actually counterproductive.

(And yes, this seems a little tangential for this blog, and a little ranty, but it’s important because programmers often rely on advertising as a sole or main source of revenue for websites and mobile ads–and we sometimes have to advertise our own products as well. So, this post is for anyone purchasing advertising, in the hopes that they’ll end up making a better revenue source for programmers. We both profit if you guys get this right.)


Have you ever heard of a game called Choices? Or Episode? (I’m not totally clear on the difference, if there is one. I’ve never played either.) If you haven’t, you’re almost certainly not a 13-30 year old girl, or at least you haven’t been revealed as such to advertisers. Even people outside this demographic probably remember at least one ad, because they’re among the most obnoxious I’ve ever seen. Usually they’re about people cheating on each other, but sometimes they feature people breaking up with each other, interactions at a party (usually involving making out with a stranger), or a woman getting pregnant. They’re always demeaning and ridiculous.



Yeah, that kind of ridiculous.

I’ve seen these mocked endlessly by people who use the platforms they advertise on. You’d think this attention would be good for circulation, but instead it’s become the app you don’t want people to find on your phone, ever. I’m sure some people played it to find out just how ridiculous it was, but with a free-to-play, you’re only going to get money from people if they’re actually invested in your game. Mockery is not investment.

Or take the ads for The Walking Dead, which are so prevalent on Tumblr that they were turned into a meme, which then spread to Walking Dead ads which didn’t feature this scenario, and then to just about any ad on Tumblr users considered annoying enough.

First they came out with this one:

One meal, two lives. It’s the zombie apocalypse. What’s your choice? Feed yourself or feed this starving child?

At first the ads were ignored. But they became so prevalent and so obnoxious that you’d run into one after every five posts (on mobile, at least–that was my experience). Eventually users got (heh) fed up with them, and started responding.

But not in the way the advertisers wanted.

With comments like, “that is the ugliest kid I’ve ever seen” and “why can’t they split the meal again???” the ad was… less than successful. But, figuring out that gamers actually care a lot more about virtual dogs than kids, they tweaked the ad to manipulate a better response, and replaced the kid with a dog.

That’s when this happened.

Feed yourself or feed the dog? Well… at least the dog won’t starve one way or another.

If you can’t read this, it’s the same picture but with a dog as the second option. The first comment is a more genuine response, “feed the dog” (I’ll spare you the all-caps on these), but the rest urge the suggested action to either feed the child from the previous ad to the dog, or cannibalize the child yourself and let the dog have your TV dinner.

And thus, Eat The Child became a meme. No Tumblr ad was safe, at least if they left the comments or reblogs on. If users don’t like your ad, they’ll spam it with Eat The Child in any way they can, or ignore you, or even block you (sometimes this is possible on Tumblr). After all, from their point of view, what you’re sending them is spam.

So how do you become not-spam? Why are advertisements so reviled? I think the main problem comes down to this.

This is what your ad looks like when we’ve seen it ONCE.

Have you heard about our product? (showcases product)

See, this is good! Business philosophy should be based around, “We’re making something you want. Will you trade us money for it? It might be a good deal for you.”

This is what an obnoxious ad looks like around the thirtieth time we’ve seen it that week:

(advertiser's face pressed up against screen) HAVE WE WORN DOWN YOUR WILLPOWER YET???

This business philosophy says, “We’re going to ask again and again until you give in and hand us money. We’re trying to psychologically manipulate you.”

Yes, manipulate. We all know about the theory of ego depletion, we know you’re trying to use it against us, and it pisses us off.

Now, how much control do you have over this? I’m not entirely sure, as I’ve never bought ad space, but I think it’s a fair amount considering that I see some ads WAY more frequently than others. Apps and so on may be offering bulk deals where your ad gets way more screen time. Don’t take them. They’re counterproductive.

Also, the more narrowly you target your ads, the less likely it’ll be that that exact audience has a lot of other advertisers after them. So those users won’t see as wide a variety of ads, and every slot will be filled by yours. This is not a good thing. You have to strike a balance.

Users seeing your ad once a day is a good thing. Users seeing your ad once every twenty minutes is a bad thing. It doesn’t scale the way you think it does. Ego depletion only works if the prospect is actually tempting. (Even then, the theory seems to be under dispute. Psychology is a very young field and it’s hard to draw firm conclusions quickly.)

Once your ad becomes overexposed, you’re also about to hit a wall with word-of-mouth. Say a user does give in to the ad they’ve seen twenty times, and they actually do like your product. Are they going to tell their friends about it, and give it a good recommendation? No! They’ll assume their friends have already seen the ads, far too many times. Not only will bringing it up be considered annoying, but you’ve done all the selling already–and less effectively than your user would have.

It’s cool to find something that not everybody has seen, and introduce it to your friends. It’s not at all cool to introduce something your friends are already sick of seeing.

Now that I’ve hashed out why overexposure is bad, let’s talk about audio.


There’s some Harry Potter game that came out in the last two weeks. I already hate the ad. It barges in with “YOUR LETTER HAS ARRIVED!”

First of all. No it hasn’t. I’m twenty years old. Yes, I grew up with Harry Potter. Yes, I like the story a lot. No, I don’t want to play your Sparklypoo game. (Seriously, the protagonist of the ad and the comic look identical.) You should be marketing to 13-year-olds, or focusing on the story in the game rather than the appeal of YOU GET TO GO TO HOGWARTS IN A DUMB PHONE GAME, WOWWW.

I recommend instead that you put instrumental music in the background.

Why? That doesn’t say anything about what my product is.

Exactly. Users who have put down their phone to listen to something on YouTube (this is where a lot of these ads live, that and Instagram) have to pick their phone up to figure out what the music is. It’s an instinctual compulsion, but not one that will make people mad if you use it. It’s called curiosity. Instrumental music is kind of like clickbait, but way less annoying. And if they’re already holding their phone anyway, the music is less likely than other audio to be irritating, or worse, embarrassing if there are other people around.

But only if the music itself isn’t annoying. How do you know? Make a playlist on your phone and make the music you’re thinking of using come on every two or three songs. Just the clip you want to use, not the whole song. Keep your headphones in all day. If you don’t hate the music by the end of the day, if it’s still inoffensive, then it’s probably fine.


“But I like classical music, and my target audience is teenagers, so I should use pop music.”

Please don’t. This line of thought is condescending. Classical music is inoffensive to most people, including teenagers, and pop music (or what you might think of as pop music) is irritating to many people, also including teenagers.

This ruins a lot of ads.

Also, I can’t remember where I heard/read it, but it’s accurate if you pay attention: ads targeted towards men center around the message, “you’re awesome, and so is this product!” while ads targeting women focus on the premise, “you’re not good enough, and this product will fix you!”

This isn’t a millennial thing specifically. It’s just really annoying and manipulative in general, and people are picking up on it. Millennials don’t like manipulation. Cut it out.


The above point, condescension, is closely related to the clumsy use by advertisers of memes. Done right, memes can be effective advertising. Done wrong, they make you look like you’re trying really hard to “Relate.”

The thing is, memes are jokes, and even trickier, they’re in-jokes. If you’re actually in on the joke, then they’re awesome. Take the Denny’s Tumblr account. They’re not paying for ad space. It’s a normal Tumblr account. Which people willingly follow. Why? Because it’s actually hilarious, for a bizarre surrealist form of hilarious. Like, what the heck is this?

The exfoliating properties of the meat loofah and marinara soap are ideal for body and facial cleansing.
I’m… not entirely sure what they’re trying to say here. It’s pretty gross.

But I follow them for that grossness. It’s weird and kind of off-putting, but that’s what makes it so great. And they can get by with this while selling food.

If you’re not one of the people who inhabits memeing spaces enough to find them funny, you’re probably going to get memes wrong by imitating what you think is the joke, and getting it wrong or overdoing it.

There’s a very delicate balance you have to strike to get it right, and a lot of components.

The graphics and editing you use should often be kind of crappy, but not so bad you can’t read them or you look like you’re trying too hard, and even then there are lots of exceptions. If you use the wrong font, it’ll be obvious–some memes use Impact, others use Comic Sans, others use something entirely different or you have to actually alter the words themselves in Photoshop to make them look worse. Many memes are self-deprecating or look intentionally bad, but you can’t go too far in that direction either.

If you try to imitate an existing meme, you run up against its lifespan. Often by the time an advertising committee hears about a meme, it’s kind of old, and they tend to have a half-life of about six weeks. Let’s say you have your ear to the ground and you hear about it in two. Next month, it’s going to get kind of stale. Are you willing to change your advertisements that often?

And if you get it wrong, you end up with this steaming dog turd:


We didn’t take kindly to this. Let’s dissect it.

  1. Colored Comic Sans. Would be fine under some circumstances, but not these; the third line isn’t easily legible because of contrast issues.
  2. Awful stereotypical girl names.
  3. Nobody talks like that. Not even groups of interchangeable high school girls in push-up bras.
  4. This isn’t remotely close to how you use “wow I cannot even”. Slang has rules which are just as strict as normal grammar.
  5. Why are they drinking out of mugs? What is that, black coffee? Or are they drinking Sprite or milk out of a mug like someone’s dad?
  6. You can’t see it in this image, but they usually tag their own posts with things like #lol and #dank memes and #fun. Nobody browses those tags, except maybe other 40-year-old advertisers who are “trying to figure out what the kids are into.”
  7. People only use the phrase “dank memes” ironically, and ironic usage is a whole other pot of “you’re gonna screw this up.”

People REALLY hate Totino’s ads. The responses can get pretty hilarious.

Names and avatars blocked out to protect the guilty. 🙂 Also a few words, to keep things PG-13.

This response isn’t universal across all of Totinos’s ads, though. Sometimes–more often recently–they get it right and people remark how they’re “getting closer to Denny’s.” This is because anyone, of any age, who hangs around memeing communities long enough will pick up the aesthetic and the sense of humor. But it takes a while.


The easiest way to go about it is to hire some college grad who needs to pay off student loans, and have them turn out memes for you. You don’t need to have a degree to be good at this job, but it helps your chances of snagging one if they’re a little desperate to find work because they have bills to pay. Don’t go straight for the marketing majors, they’ll demand more salary than… let’s say, a half-stunned English major who walks into your interview with a brown belt and black shoes and dark circles under his eyes. If he responds to an awkward silence by giving you finger guns and a worried smile, that’s the kind of person you’re looking for.

That brings me to my last point.


If you’re trying to appeal to the 18-24 year old audience, hire some. At least several of them. There’s probably a college or two nearby, just go grab as much of an assortment as you can by bribing them with money and donuts. There’s always some department in every college that’s trying to get the students hired, so just find yourself a few interns and ask them to improve your targeted ads. And then let them.

You folks could be doing so much better, in terms of quality and in terms of the response you’re receiving. No, your old tactics aren’t working any more. But you’re adaptable. I know you can do better.


Your targeted customer



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