Breaking through the Clutter: Advertising that Works with Gen-Z & Millennials (Part 1)

By nature the digital world is a fractured ecosystem. The proliferation of screens, rise of social media, and creation of new digital media outlets have converged to create unprecedented stimulation. This is acutely felt for gen-Z and millennials

So how do brands break through the clutter? In the hyper-competitive landscape of screens and messages, how do they stand out and win with young Americans. This is the question at the core of Breaking through the Clutter, the latest work unveiled at our executive roundtables, co-hosted by Google and A+E Networks.


To tackle such a broad topic, we had to do something special. Many believe that cognitive questions (think brand favorability and purchase intent) don’t properly capture ad effectiveness.

In order to test at a deeper level, we conducted tests built around pre- and post- advertising with emotional / implicit features. We measured respondents’ unfiltered reactions by tracking their micro-expressions through their webcams as they watched the ads.

To do this, we embedded facial expression tacking technology from Affectica into our survey platform. These unfiltered responses allow us to quantify unhindered and honest reactions to advertising. This allows for measuring ad effectiveness in another way.

Harder to Engage

The assumption based on the cluttered media landscape is that younger generations are harder to engage. To test this idea, we looked at the aggregate expression metrics across our ad-test universe. We found that gen-Z and millennials were less likely to react in an unfiltered, emotionally expressive way.

Aggregate expression metrics by traditional generation chart

Gen-Z and millennials were less likely to display both the negative  and positive expressions, than older generations. This is despite the fact that all generations paid attention to the advertisements at equal rates.

We found that this cool reception to advertisements also directly translates to more commonly used brand effect metrics. Throughout testing we found:

  • Gen-Z are less likely to think others will like the ad
  • Gen-Z are much less likely to share the ad
  • Gen-Z and millennials are less likely to see lift in brand favorability
  • Gen-Z and millennials have significantly lower rates of unaided recall

The clutter is real. Not only is it harder to get the unfiltered, emotional expression from younger generations, it’s harder to get them to do anything with it.

Stay tuned for part 2 of our findings, including the guidance on the use of emotions, humor, and content types.

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