This is the second of three posts examining Vice media. The next post will be published on Monday of next week.
“We were a quintessential Gen X magazine, and we are now a quintessential Gen Y company”.
There are a lot of publications that confuse being shocking with being thought provoking, and Vice is certainly no exception. What really sets Vice apart from the rest, however, is their relentless defiance of “political correctness”. I say “political correctness” but of course that’s not actually a real thing at all, but a made-up thing white people complained about in the 90s.* Since 99% of people under 65 would rather have their gums removed than think about PCness ever again, it’s kind of weird that a youth magazine would so enthusiastically try and resurrect the controversy. (Trying so hard here, here, or here. I should mention that Vice has tried to erase all evidence of the last link, but have obviously failed because they’re old they don’t understand that The Internet Is Forever.)
Vice media just feels so old, no matter how many litres of intern blood Shane Smith consumes each morning (seven). From their constant grampa outbursts, to their clunky dated logo, it all comes down to one central problem; they’ve kept their 90s perspective for generation that thinks and acts very differently.
For instance, while Generation Y may be somewhat depressed by their lives and bleak future, they are less so than their Generation X predecessors. The main reason for this is that we Millenials are pretty confident that The Olds (Everyone older than us, but mostly the Baby Boomers and all who serve them) will eventually have to retire/die/relinquish their grip on the levers of power. The belief we will gain demographic dominance allows Millennials the faint hope that we may eventually have access to job advancement, opportunities and conceivably someday, lives with meaning. Note, this tentative hopefulness also allows Millennials to enjoy colourful electric fun, but is interpreted by Gen-Xers as evidence that we are the biggest bunch of soulless mainstreaming sellouts to walk the earth, while Boomers interpret our attitude as “a sense of entitlement”.
Vice’s distinct anti-nerd vibe is another strange hold-over from their alternative 90s brand; strange because Nerdom is everywhere these days. Normal people openly like nerdy things, and nerds openly exist amongst the general population to the point where it’s hard to say where Nerdom begins and ends. As Esquire magazine recently noted, musicians these days “all look like math teachers.”
90s rock isn’t cool anymore, and I’d like to think it’s because the shared trauma of hearing Limp Bizkit as a young girl rendered a whole generation of women incapable of having sex with anyone remotely resembling Fred Durst.
Nerdom’s acceptance into the mainstream is happening for the same reason distinct subcultures are disappearing; information and media is disseminated so quickly, and in such a scattershot fashion, that aesthetic fiefdoms have less and less importance. It’s also the same reason music-genres don’t really exist anymore either. If someone asks you what kind of music something is, it’s usually pretty hard to do without half a dozen different descriptors (which is really annoying for everyone involved, so really just never ask).
All this is to say that branding yourself as counterculture, anti-nerd and brutishly aggressive doesn’t make any sense in this day and age. Millennials are conceptually okay with dressing well, having manners, and reading.
In spite of these tensions, Vice perseveres, and it’s easy to see why; they don’t actually have to successfully appeal to young people at all. Vice’s business model isn’t based on selling magazines at all, or even selling advertising in those magazines. Rather, Vice Media’s bread is buttered by their sister advertising arm, Virtue…. Worldwide. All Vice needs to do is parade their advertising clients around their Potemkin village of an office and convince clueless old people that Vice is plausibly cool enough to ‘get’ the youth (ie. Rupert Murdoch). This is the brilliance of Vice Media, or as CEO Shane Smith explains it:
“Boardrooms of every major media company they are saying, ‘OK we need Gen Y, we need online, we need social, we need mobile, and we don’t have any of that stuff. We need it globally, we need scale and we need to be able to monetise all that.’ So they look around to see who ticks those boxes and eventually they come to us… They think, ‘Yes, we have cracked the internet code!’”
I would imagine that most of Vice’s clients are keen to accept the lie because they desperately want to believe what Vice is selling; nothing fundamental has changed since the rise of the internet and social media. But the rules have changed.
The unfortunate news for boardrooms trying to sell stuff, is that while Millennials are born and bred consumers, they are also very difficult to market to. Here advertisers have become victims of their own success; Millennials have been exposed to so much advertising, at such an early age, that their understanding of nuance and subtext in advertising has far outpaced those stalking their dollars.
This being said, even Millennials’ heightened marketing wariness probably could have been overcome had The Internet not come along. Millennials are uncannily good at avoiding advertising altogether (less a subversive act and more an absolute necessity for basic mental sanity). They will usually avoid getting content from a medium they cannot control and personally curate, which is why they won’t watch TV but will buy Netflix or pay to go see a movie in theatres.
More importantly, Millenials have been able to insulate themselves, firewalled behind carefully selected social networks; the only way advertisers can get behind the fortress is if they are invited in. In this way there really is no ‘internet code’ to crack that can take you back to the good old days of easy-peasy push-advertising. Millenials are far more likely to make consumer decisions based on their vetted social networks than any ad campaign*. Marketing has finally met its Vietnam; in the post-modern Internet age, raw firepower might still lose you the battle.
Check back at the end of next week, October 4th for part 3 of Jackpine’s Guide to Vice.
*Disclaimer: Not everyone at Jackpine agrees with the views expressed in this series.