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On the Trail of the “It” Generation
by Kevin Goetz and Lucille Palmiere

The irresistible and elusive Gen Z continues to be the darling of the research, marketing, and branding worlds. Irresistible since, based on Intelligence Node data, as of 2023 Gen Z occupies 40% of the worldwide consumer population; projected disposable income, well over $360 billion. Elusive because their attitudes and trends are ever-expanding and ever-shifting. The focus here throughout is on exploring what fuels Gen Z and how this goes on to affect their utilization of entertainment and media.

Research organizations (Pew Research Center being one) have begun shifting from all-inclusive labels that may oversimplify differences between groups and embracing the sense that a generation is a lens through which to understand societal change and may take in age groups and shared characteristics on either side of a definition. In this view, a more robust assessment of Gen Z is as an age segment that also takes in the younger or the tail end of millennials (referred to as zennials) and which encompasses the highly desirable media age targets of 18-24 and 25-34. In totality labelled Gen Z+.

As a given, what Gen Z+ has been known to be all about are the digital space and social media, the platforms through which, and by which, they view the world and consume media and entertainment. Salient to come out of a more detailed unearthing of what makes the demographic tick were that this cohort searches for genuine content, authenticity in their connections, and issues they find relevant — all of which dovetail into a huge appetite for something different. The fact that Gen Z has the ability to charge forward in search of the “new,” while also desiring to glance back to the past for comfort was found to be another factor that contributes to their worldview and how they engage. How these factors play into their media choices and consumption is intriguing, and has contributed to movie and TV success stories these past couple of years.

In particular, the Barbie movie, which was nostalgia on steroids, captured the imagination via its backwards glance, but was supported by timely themes, uniqueness, and clever qualities. The resultant Barbenheimer craze fed into the desires for cleverness and “experience,” certainly buoyed by a phenomenal (and unique) marketing push. When we look at Gen Z’s place beyond the American marketplace, Barbie also was able to score in China, cutting through what has lately comprised a hard-sell for American fare.

The fact that a huge swath of this younger demographic plays video games and does so daily cannot help but color what will strike a chord with them. Thus, also hitting the mark in the recent past were The Super Mario Bros. Movie and the series The Last of Us, both of which are based on video games, but, more than that, contained substance and strong execution. The manner of how they were able to break the “videogame movie curse” are factors of which marketing and media should take note.

Subject matter and themes the young audience enjoy (indeed all audiences) are not enough to drive viewership/attendance. Neither are traits and behavior alone, nor marketing by itself. The main takeaway from the research is that all have to come together in support of what, first of all, has to be a satisfying and well-executed property. The dynamics of fitting together all of the pieces are where understanding a group and capitalizing on its essences come into play.