Acton Institute Powerblog

Mass Marketing to Millennials: A Marxist Paradigm?

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A recent Boston Globe headline reads: “Marketing to millennials can be a tough sell.” The article relates the differing approaches of Campell’s, Lindt USA, and GE when it comes to marketing to Millennials, highlighting a general skepticism and indifference toward advertising in the target demographic:

For instance, marketing materials for GE’s Artistry series of low-end appliances featuring retro design touches, due out this fall, says it focuses on “the needs of today’s generation of millennials and their desire to uniquely express themselves.”

Lindt USA recently introduced a line of chocolates — they include Berry Affair and Coconut Love flavors — that are wrapped in vibrant packaging and are being promoted through social media.

And packaging for Campbell’s Go Soup, which comes in microwavable pouches with ingredients such as chickpeas, quinoa, and smoked Gouda, features photos of young people with thought bubbles. The sayings include cutesy snippets like “Make your momma proud” and “What’s kickin’?”

The idea is to hook millennials now and remain connected with them as they progress to bigger and more expensive products.

But marketing specialists and consumers like Volain question the effectiveness of that approach.

“My immediate reaction to targeted marketing is to picture a bunch of people sitting around in a room saying, ‘How can we get these people to buy these products?’” [Anna] Volain [a millennial] said.

While I am sympathetic to Volain’s sentiment here, I think something deeper is at work. There is an erroneous anthropological assumption that people of a particular, generic group must be homogeneous enough that all one needs to do is figure out the perfect calculus for appealing to their sensibilities, and they will be hooked on a brand for life. In particular, I think the problem is ultimately a Marxist error: assuming that one can perfectly categorize a whole group of people and then act on their behalf.

Critiquing the errors of radical individualism on the one hand and collectivism on the other, the Russian Orthodox philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (d. 1900) sums up the latter error well, writing,

[T]hinkers who are under the spell of collectivism take the life of humanity to be simply an interplay of human masses, and regard the individual as an insignificant and transient element of society, who has no rights of his own, and may be left out of account for the sake of the so-called common good. But what are we to make of a society consisting of moral zeros, of rightless and non-individual creatures? Would it be human society? Where would its dignity and inner value of its existence spring from, and wherein would it lie? And how could such a society hold together? It is clear that this is nothing but a sad and empty dream, which neither could nor ought to be realized.

Millennials are, of course, a real and meaningful demographic — I do not mean to promote the opposite error of isolated individualism — but the idea that one can market simply to “Millennials,” without any further qualifications, betrays an impoverished anthropology. Millennials, just as all other mass groups, are neither faceless nor homogenous.

This latter point regarding homogeneity reminds me of a contention of the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck in his work The Christian Family (1912), aimed particularly against the Marxist notion of the “masses” of society:

The history of the last half century has brought to light so clearly that nothing is as dangerous as generalizing and lumping everything together. There is not a single law that governs the entire development of society; there is not simply one theory that fits all the facts of reality; all events do not move along a single straight line. Just as in previous centuries, society exhibits the richest diversity; that diversity itself has increased to a large extent through the progress of science and technology, of agricultural industry, of trade and traffic. It is not the case that two classes stand in opposition against each other—the rich and the poor, entrepreneurs and employees, the rulers and the oppressed. Instead, life is infinitely varied. In every enterprise, there are large and small, strong and weak, between whom again there exists not a gap but differences of degree…. Modern society is no different in principle from previous ones and will not differ radically from the society of the future.

He does not mean to eschew the importance of any group, saying, “The distinctions between men and women, parents and children, government and citizens, employers and employees, rich and poor, healthy and sick, will always exist.” However, his basic point applies here as well.

I cannot say how many times at this point I have read about how Millennials are supposedly “more educated” or “less religious” or “more tech savvy” and so on. Some such assertions may be based upon solid research, but some are only supported by slim majorities if at all, at best leaving out substantial minorities who do not conveniently fit the mold. Furthermore, every generation has its diversity. To slightly alter Bavinck’s statement, the Millennial generation “is no different in principle from previous ones and will not differ radically from [generations] of the future.”

I hear all the time about how we are less traditional in X, Y, and Z ways, and then I see a film about hippies dropping acid and dancing naked at Woodstock in 1969 and remember that perhaps we are simply young and otherwise not so different from other generations when they were the same age. Of course all generations are shaped by their contexts and ours has its own unique features, but yet we have our fair share of religious adherents and atheists, social liberals and conservatives, closed and open-minded people, narcissistic and self-sacrificing persons, and so on, just like any other generation.

Certainly, generations are important demographic groups that ought to be considered in any marketing campaign, but to reduce whole generations to one easily classifiable mass will surely fail. Marketers can do better. Such a conception does not accord with reality, and worse yet, it runs the risk of diminishing a whole generation’s “dignity and inner value,” which is no small risk indeed.

Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.


  • Curt Day

    This article causes questions to float in my mind. First, why is what is described as a Marxist error associated with Marx?

    Second, should we assume Bavinck’s statement claiming that there is no in principle between generations to be true? Basically, in what ways could Bavinck’s analysis be wrong and could they be significant?

    • Dylan Pahman

      The error is associated with Marxism in general not Marx specifically, but regarding the latter, for example, the basic framework of the Communist Manifesto is extremely reductionistic in precisely this manner, beginning, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” It then goes on to describe all of human history in near Manichean terms, an eternal struggle between only two groups in any particular context: “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord
      and serf, guild-master and
      journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed….” The result being a tendency to downplay any degrees or diversity that contradict this paradigm. The irony of the post is that marketers, who as businesspersons would more likely be associated with some form of capitalism, nevertheless are assuming a more Marxist anthropology. It reminds me of a statement of Sergius Bulgakov: “Economic materialism is the reigning philosophy of political economy. In
      practice, economists are Marxists, even if they hate Marxism.” He’s overgeneralizing, of course, but the basic point is one to be cautious about.

      As for Bavinck, he doesn’t claim that there is no principle between generations but rather that there is no *one* principle that explains all of society. The quote is anti-reductionistic. But he would not presume that there are no discernible societal principles, only that “nothing is as dangerous as generalizing and lumping everything together.”

      • Curt Day

        Your criticism of how the Communist Manifesto is reductionistic is correct. I share that criticism. However, that weakness does not imply that class struggle is not a significant reoccurring factor in history. In addition, if you continue to read Marx, I believe there is evidence that he evolved past that legitimate criticism.

        When we get to Bavinck, isn’t there a reductionism implied by stating that there are no significant differences from one generation to another? Here the criteria he uses to state this are rather broad and I believe would be disputed by those who lived through periods of severe oppression.

        • Dylan Pahman

          Bavinck does not say that there are “no significant differences from one generation to another” but that modern society is “no different *in principle*” from previous or future societies. He is talking on the level of principle not context. Each person has a mother and a father, for example. This has been true in polygamist cultures as well as “post-marriage” cultures. The context changes, and that change is not insignificant, but the basic principle remains the same, and that is not insignificant either. This should be an uncontroversial point.

          • Curt Day

            So what, according to Bavinck, would be an example of a principle difference?

          • Dylan Pahman

            Well now, you’d have to read his book for that. ;)

          • Curt Day


            First, thank you for your replies.

            Second, let’s take the statement that you have provided Bavinck. When he says that one cannot reduce society to a single theory that always fits is fine. But when he says that it is not true that two classes do oppose each other, observation will provide plenty of counter examples. Doesn’t American History provide example after example of tribalism whether it is based on race, religion, economic class, or gender?

            I find his statement

            The history of the last half century has brought to light so clearly that nothing is as dangerous as generalizing and lumping everything together

            to be problematic. For there is a difference between generalizing and creating monoliths in absolute terms. The difference is that the former can depend on observation and can be measured quantitatively, the latter can be disproved with a single counterexample. Of course, History has shown that the dangers in lumping individuals together depends on the kinds of groups one is working with.

            Things are complex and don’t move smoothly along a straight line. But general tendencies can sometimes be observed.

            Of course, your point was how some will erroneously assume that they have enough of a handle to hook millenials into buying certain products. But why describe what these marketers are doing as Marxist? Was Marx the inventor, assuming that he is guilty of what you charge him with, of such marketing? Has he been the only one who developed this kind of manipulation?

            Also, why are you comparing radical individualism with collectivism as if they are equally wrong? Why not call the kind of collectivism that forgets that life individual, radical collectivism? Martin Luther King, who was a democratic socialist, said about capitalism that it forgets that social dimensions of life while communism forgets individualism. And so, according to King, we need the best of both worlds here.

            Other than that, my teaching and parenting experiences leads me to disagree with your third to the last paragraph but I do agree with your last two paragraphs.

  • cfisher11

    I would be hesitant to compare any generation to the to the 60s hippies as a model for normal youth behavior. Hypermodernism and the decline of civilization may have reached an outward apex in the 1960s, but we have been on a slow decline for centuries. Will young people be young people, just as boys will be boys? Surely, yes. Yet I still think it’s accurate to say that on the whole the Millennial generation is more nihilistic, more narcissistic, and less wedded to, less tolerant of –heck, even less AWARE of–traditional morality than most previous generations.

    Regardless, as marketing principle, I think you are correct, though many young people expect a quality aesthetic, ease of use, and quick understandability to a degree perhaps higher than previous generations, though I have no research to back that claim, just a hunch (being a Millennial and working with Millennials). However, there are of course many variations within this and as you rightly point out any marketing strategy that ignores variety–one of Kirk’s ten principles of conservatism– is surely doomed to fail.

    • Dylan Pahman

      “I would be hesitant to compare any generation to the to the 60s hippies as a model for normal youth behavior.”

      The mention of Woodstock was meant to be a synecdoche of an anti-traditionalist trend in a previous generation, not to overgeneralize that whole generation or normalize that phenomenon. One could, however point to similar anti-traditionalist trends in the youth of every generation, as well as, for that matter, significant conservative trends. How many youth of the time were just as likely to skip Woodstock but go to a Billy Graham revival or march with Dr. King (or do all three?). The point is that generations — as well as individual persons, for that matter — are not so homogeneous and have an immense diversity that is often overlooked through such simple characterizations, with which I presume you would agree.