It’s not easy being Gen Z.
On one hand, young adults aged 12-24 are anxious, lonely, depressed and even suicidal, according to a study by ViacomCBS’ in-house branded content agency, Viacom Velocity. But at the same time, they are also hopeful, entrepreneurial, unique and unapologetic. It’s a lot to feel all at once.
As a result, this generation has developed some interesting coping techniques that they largely express on social media, and more specifically, on TikTok, said ViacomCBS’ Lydia Daly, senior vice president of creative strategy and cultural intelligence, and Mary Kate Cullen, senior director of creative strategy and cultural intelligence during Promax Connect virtual session on Thursday sponsored by Definition 6.
“The key to understanding Gen Z is through their emotions,” said Daly. “This can be decoded entirely by the way they speak online.”
The three main windows into the emotions of Gen Z are angst, trust or lack thereof, and confidence. Oddly, this generation tends to be both very anxious and very confident at the same time.
Daly and Cullen broke this down further, creating three categories into which the ways Gen Z expresses themselves fall: Playful Nihilism, DIY Devotion and Radical Realness.
It sounds counterintuitive for someone to be both playful and nihilistic, but scroll through a TikTok feed and you’ll see GenZers doing it all day long.
“Some 79% of this cohort has trouble blocking out bad news,” said Cullen. “They are dealing with their angst and overwhelm with coping mechanisms that are light, absurd and nonsensical. They embrace the absurd.”
Since Gen Z tends to be anxious and depressed after spending three hours a day on social media and constantly hearing about school shootings, instead of fighting that anxiety they have begun to just embrace it.
“Gen Z appropriates anxiety and makes it cool,” said Cullen.
They also tend to make jokes about death and dying and they’ve even created something called “scornstars,” in which they take to social media to perform their dark realities. In one example, a girl danced to an abusive voicemail from her ex-boyfriend berating her about how she dresses at school. In another, siblings do a skit about how they have nowhere to quarantine because their dorm closed and their family home burned down.
“Gen Zers are mentally exhausted and looking for ways to escape. They are often looking for meaningless, mindless pleasures,” said Cullen.
For brands, trying to reach Gen Z in this way can be tricky because their sense of humor is hard to match without being appropriative.
“Brands need to determine whether they want to help Gen Z check into these feelings or check out of them,” said Cullen. If they want to help them check in, they need to address taboo topics and celebrate painful triumphs, Cullen said. If they want to help them check out, they need to create new moments for escape and remix both nostalgic and futuristic formats.
While Gen Z can be cynical and depressed, they also are looking to find trust and truth in an uncertain world, said Cullen. That’s where DIY Devotion comes in.
Gen Z isn’t particularly attracted to traditional religion but they are interested in spirituality and self-care, so they are looking for ways to cobble those things together for themselves.
“It’s a sort of mix-and-match spirituality,” said Cullen. “It’s about finding your own truth through trial and error and also through a combination of traditional and non-traditional approaches.”
This can be things like Rage Yoga or the Co-Star app, in which you download an app that tells you what to do based on your astrological sign.
“There’s a reinvention of rituals and a finding of new rituals,” said Cullen. For example, stress-baking is a ritual that has popped up during the pandemic to help people find peace during a time of stress.
“Religion is starting to be upgraded to be a bit more culturally forward, more accepting across the board,” said Cullen.
For brands, this means promoting self-love; celebrating impact, not necessarily icons; creating new moments to celebrate; and providing access to this DIY spirituality.
For example, the meditation app Headspace partnered with Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) to give New Yorkers at the epicenter of the pandemic free access. Underwear brand Thinx partnered with Broad City’s Illeana Grazer to do a self-love campaign, while T-Mobile created its #GiveThanksNotPranks campaign in lieu of April Fool’s Day to raise money for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Finally, just being authentic is not enough for Gen Z—they instead prefer radical realness. This means going far beyond being honest but also being literally naked, glorifying bad behavior (such as face tattoos—Google Post Malone to learn more) and making fails into wins. Radical realness is all about being absolutely confident, while also being absolutely vulnerable.
What this means for brands is that they also need to adopt bold, unapologetic and fearless attitudes. For example, when the brand Harmless Coconut Water was criticized for being expensive, it leaned into that criticism, going so far as to put that into its messaging. Harmless Coconut Water is fair trade and organic and does not exploit its workers, it said, and that’s why it’s expensive.
And while Gen Z definitely still engages with influencers, sometimes they prefer something much more authentic. That’s why it resonated recently when Coca-Cola turned over its social handles to public health experts during the pandemic to allow them to post relevant information to Coke’s millions of followers.
Gen Z is young but they are already having a huge impact on the culture, Daly said.
“Whichever generation is coming into power and setting the trends, older generations always pick up on that eventually—[including] the uptake of a brand new platform, TikTok, that has entirely come from Gen Z.”
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