Many models (gender, income, cultural groupings, age) do a great job. Each has a place and each describes an important aspect of the market. But is there room for yet another model or framework that significantly adds to our understanding of the market from an marketing point of view?
There is, and it is known as ‘Generational Theory’ � in other words, understanding and describing the market in terms of ‘generational attitudes’. Generational Theory is a theory of social history that describes and explains changes in public attitudes over time. It was first systematically described by Neil Howe and William Strauss, in their 1991 book, Generations, and further developed in the follow up, The Fourth Turning (they also have an excellent website:
The theory maintains that the era in which a person was born, shapes their early life and creates in them a worldview, one which affects the way they perceive and interact with the world around them. This worldview or value system, is largely affected by environmental conditions when the person is a child. It follows then that as people grow up in different eras, we can expect their value systems to differ according to when they were born. This theory is not intended to replace all other approaches to segmenting the population, but it does add a different and very useful perspective.
Research by Codrington and Robinson (2002) suggests that the advertising approach prevalent in the early years of an individual’s development also affects their view of advertising and their response to different approaches to marketing and sales. Put another way, in order to connect most effectively with an individual, the style of advertising to be used should be as close to the style of advertising most popular during the first few years of the person’s life. If this sounds too simplistic, well, read on and make up your own mind.

Defining Advertising Literacy

‘Advertising literacy’ refers to the hypothesis of the existence within the population of different levels of ability to ‚process‛ advertising given the different levels of sophistication or complexity (see, for example, Goodyear, and O’Donahoe and Tynan). Therefore, advertisers should understand that different kinds of advertising are more or less appropriate, depending on the advertising literacy of the target audience. Based on this thinking, there is a continuum of increased levels of sophistication in response to advertising � including comprehension, type of overt/covert information required and included, and also the level of straightforward enjoyment possible, depending on the kind of advertising viewed.
Based on a review of international qualitative research, Mary Goodyear (1991) suggests that advertisers recognise a continuum of five commonly encountered levels of advertising literacy. There are a variety of factors that will influence the level attained by an individual, including country of residence, education, socio-economic level, and so on. Our contention is that age (and therefore generation) is one of the most important factors.
It has been hypothesized by Goodyear (1991) that, ‚the advertising in any national culture develops in a predictable way and according to its position on this development curve, it can be described as having either high or low advertising literacy‌.The study of advertising literacy is useful not only for matching advertising from one country to another, but also for predicting how soon a particular country will be ready for a particular type of campaign‛.
According to Goodyear’s article, the rate of development seems to be dependent on a number of factors:

“Degree of exposure to television and film;

“Degree of exposure to advertising;

“Level of industrialisation & consumerisation; and,

“Certain national cultural factors (these can of course vary from location to location).

The development of advertising literacy, like the globalisation process itself, is on a continuum, rather than consisting of separate and discrete steps. The following outline of separate levels is simply to enable a more practical grasp of the thinking. However, there would always be an upper limit to the possible level of literacy within an individual (or group).

Five Levels of Advertising Literacy

The five levels of development are outlined below in terms of the kind of advertising best suited to each level of development. The generational link is also shown under each level.

Level I

At this initial level, the emphasis is on the manufacturer’s description of the product – mostly factual, focussing on product performance and physical attributes.
The tone is likely to be optimistic but also quite rational. There are lots of pack and product shots and lists of product attributes. There is no reference to context, to the user/consumer or to competitors. In fact, there is no indication that competitive products exist at all.
The early days of television (internationally) and old movies included this type of advertising. Early print adverts included small pictures of the product in its packaging, with a lot of textual information about the product attributes below it. This type of advertising was the dominant style in the early parts of the 20th Century. Certain industries continued this approach until the middle of the 20th Century.
The ‘GI generation’ (born 1910s and 1920s) was exposed to this type of advertising throughout their childhood, and still connect best with it to this day. In focus group research, it has been shown that they look for product attributes, even when none are presented in the advert.

Level II

As the continuum of advertising sophistication moves on, the focus remains on the product’s performance and attributes, but an additional awareness of the consumer’s freedom of choice in a market place containing competitive products is introduced.
In other words, there is some sense in which a reason is given for purchasing this product and not another one. This does not imply competitive advertising (either legally banned, or frowned upon anyway), but rather that the advertiser simply places the product within a broader context of consumer experience.
In these communications, the advertiser has to get closer to the consumer as a starting point. The communication encourages the consumer to look at the choice, and then attempts to demonstrate the product’s superiority over the competition. ‚This is the stage in advertising when products wash whiter, smell sweeter, go faster‛ (Goodyear, 1991).
In South Africa, the most well known extended campaign using this level of advertising literacy is the Omo campaign, run over many years during the 1970s, 80s and early 90s on South African TV. The success of this campaign is that it targeted the Silent generation (born 1930s and 40s) perfectly � the slightly older generation of home-based mothers.
Marketing tips for the Silent generation:
“ Silents respect opinions of older experts – hard work, not luck makes things work
“ Highlight your past successes
“ They enjoy reading, but have limited time – correspondence must be to the point but well written – grammar and proper use of language is vital
“ They don’t think of themselves as aging – they are enjoying a “second middle age”. They also have enough money to be able to go SKI-ing (Spending the Kids Inheritance), and are the fastest growing market segment. According to the Economist (Millennium edition), over half of all people who have ever turned 80 are still alive today, and every year the number of people aged 100 or over doubles.
“ They like to help others â€? they are philanthropic and any “bonus” elements that impact the community in an offering will attract them
“ They have a global view – give them a large view
“ They believe in winning – they value strength and achievement, and support strength. They will often take a “wait and see” attitude with new products, and go for the market leader when they do buy
“ They similarly value security and longevity
“ They don’t want to be rushed
“ They value their grandchildren and will invest in the future.

Level III

The emphasis shifts again: from the product and its attributes, to the brand and the consumer benefits. The brand, as an almost separate personality begins to emerge.
The brand is presented in terms of what it can do for consumer. This means that the consumer’s ‚profile‛ in the communication is more significant than previously. The advertiser works from the perspective of both the manufacturer’s and the consumer’s world, with the focus on how the product will enhance the lifestyle of the consumer. Image and status become key motivators in the communication. Often famous people are used as endorsement for the brand. The message is that ‚here is someone whom we both know who can act as an authoritative intermediary between us‛ (Goodyear, 1991).
The focus on brands started in the 1950s and developed during the 1960s and 70s, when ‘Boomers’ (born 1960s and 70s) were young.
Marketing tips for Boomers:
“ Boomers believe that they know better than anyone else. They’re not interested in products endorsed by people from other generations, or in products that are really geared for other generations
“ They are a fanatically self-absorbed generation
“ They distrust authority � so communicate benefits in honest, straightforward ways
“ Yet, they are attracted by celebrity endorsements and image
“ They are very busy – want more, faster, convenient – don’t mind paying
“ The product needs to appeal to conspicuous consumption (e.g. brand labels on the outside) – they want to be seen to be buying class and quality
“ They value people with values
“ They are moralistic – things must be “right”
“ They want to be treated as special
“ Nostalgia is the biggest weapon in the sales armoury
“ Use music that appeals to them � anything written during the 1960s and 70s.Boomers currently dominate the advertising industry, and are in most cases the primary target market for high end products. It’s not surprising therefore, that so much of today’s successful and enduring advertising is pitched at this level of advertising literacy. In South Africa, a great example of an enduring Level III campaign is the VW series of adverts, popular since the 1980s.

Level IV

At this level the advertiser has, ‚given the brand‛ (Goodyear) to the consumer, who becomes acknowledged as a far more active player in the consumer-brand interaction.
There is little acknowledgement of the direct selling function of advertising (i.e. an overt message along the lines of ‚buy this, because it does XYZ‛). Advertiser and consumer are both on the same side in a sense, and the message is often communicated by way of narrative story telling of consumer life-style. The Brand is revealed as having a place in the consumer’s life. Brand values are presumably well known by both consumer and marketer. Knowledge of the extrinsic side of the Brand is assumed to be sufficient for them to be expressed � normally in shorthand form by, for example, a brief glimpse of the pack, or some symbol or other mnemonic device associated with the brand. This is not to say that product attributes and product news are never included, but it is not the primary foundation of the communication. Nor is it the primary ‚reason why‛ the consumer is expected to make the given Brand the one of choice.
This is the primary level of advertising that has dominated the 1980s and 90s � and shaped the advertising literacy of young ‘Generation Xers’ (born 1970s and 80s).
Marketing tips for Generation Xers:
“ They are attracted by the visual, musical and dynamic
“ Give it to them straight – they are smart, savvy
“ They are easily bored – they enjoy “clever” tricks and being surprised by the unexpected
“ They multi-thread – working on multiple levels at once. So, don’t be linear – include mystery and paradox. All your messages must be multi-layered, and should preferably require multiple exposures to appreciate them all.
“ Xers are holistic – very aware of the entire operating environment of the product and companies involved (e.g. Nike “sweat shops”). More of this below (Level VI).
“ They value friendship â€? the “lone ranger” image doesn’t attract
“ They want to be treated as individuals
“ They value options, choices and customisation/personalization. In fact, they are addicted to choice. You cannot offer a ‚one size fits all‛ solution.
“ They are tough and take risks
“ They are never loyal to a product – they will only be loyal to a concept or to an image/lifestyle.
“ They value inter-active media
“ Don’t underestimate the value of family and home to them, especially the “home comforts” made popular by Boomers. But they have a different definition of family values.
“ They have no heroes. Just celebrities.

Level V

At this, the most sophisticated level according to Goodyear (although I suggest there is another level to come � see below), the focus is no longer on either the brand (and what if offers the consumer intrinsically or extrinsically) or the consumer, but the advertising itself.
It is the advert and the way that it has been constructed that is the persuasive force. The advert must be entertainment in and of itself. The advert provides stimulation and entertainment, sometimes with little or no direct reference to the brand � and certainly there is no overt communication of product/brand attributes and consumer benefits. Where the brand does appear, it is usually in a highly symbolic form, and its presence is an integral part of the artistic whole.
In a sense, the aesthetic appeal (of whatever nature) of the communication can seem to be an end in itself. At this stage advertising becomes ‚poetic rather than narrative in form, with a direct and, it is intended, uncensored access to the subconscious‛ (Goodyear, 1991). The ‘Millennials’ (born 1990s to present) appreciate this form of advertising the most.
Marketing tips for the Millennials:
“ They exercise huge influence on family spending, even over big ticket items � don’t underestimate them. Kidz Logistix (a South African research company) estimates they account for R24 billion annual sales in SA. R4 billion is ‚direct spend‛, while R20 billion is the ‚nag spend‛.
“ They are over-protected, which can lead to a certain naivet�. They expect to be guided and helped.
“ Have a positive view of elderly people – look up to them and want to hear from them
“ They are confident – don’t treat them like kids. They are also street smart and know their abilities. But they are so confident they are almost arrogant. They don’t want to be ‘talked-down’ to.
“ They are plugged in – want messages in sound bites on modern media
“ They look for heroes – endorsements will work
“ Time is their most precious commodity, not money. They are prepared to pay for convenience and time saving
“ They are a fairly homogenous group (in contrast to Gen X)
“ They respond to up-to-date language – irreverent, not politically correct, direct, “harsh” and “dark”
“ They are very brand aware
“ They want a “drill down approach” to information – limited info at first, with options to get much more than you think is necessary.

A Possibility: Level VI, Beyond Advertising?

There is a possibility that the trend through the continuum of five phases will continue to its logical next step: beyond advertising.
The current crop of young people, who are very astute, super-empowered, and cynical, do not rely on advertising to make up their minds on product purchasing. In fact, they are less concerned about what is being sold than they are about who is selling it. Brands are judged (and must be managed) holistically.
Yet, people want to believe advertising, and will continue to watch it (especially if it is Level V style entertainment, with Level IV type multi-layers of meaning).
Advertising sticks at level V, but brand building must take one more step. It is now more about the entire organisation, and its full business. It is a systems approach to the organisation, where everything is important, and ‚spin‛ does not work.
Linking the generations to advertising literacy is helpful to advertisers wanting to target their offerings and communications. In the world as it is now, it is likely that advertisers will increasingly use both multiple channels and levels of advertising in order to connect with an increasingly fragmented market of consumers. These 5 (or 6) points in the continuum of advertising literacy may be helpful to pinpoint the various communication options, and make important decisions. This does not replace research or other demographic models, but may be helpful where no clear demographic emerges.


Codrington, Graeme, and Kathryn Robinson. ‚Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow‛. A paper submitted to the South African Market Research Association Convention, 2002. Graeme was awarded Best First Time Presenter for his presentation of the contents of this paper.
Available on-line at
Goodyear, Mary. ‚Why different countries respond to different levels of ad sophistication‛. Admap, March 1991.
O’Donohoe, Stephanie, and Caroline Tynan. ‚Beyond sophistication: dimensions of advertising literacy‛. International Journal of Advertising, nd.

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