For Millennials, Happy is the New Edgy
May 20, 2014 | By Neil Howe
This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.
Three months into hosting The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon is riding high. His show has been averaging around 4 million viewers and regularly tops his main rivals in ratings share of viewers ages 18 to 49. He’s also handily beating his predecessor: Last week, Fallon’s ratings among this demo were up 20% versus the same time last year. His success has lifted spirits at NBC, where executives originally expected him to score only about half of the ratings he’s drawing. In April, NBCUniversal president Stephen Burke gushed to reporters that Fallon’s brand of “optimistic, enthusiastic, not snarky” comedy is “exactly what America was looking for.”
Burke’s comments speak to the rise of likeability, which has in recent years has become a basic standard for branding of all kinds. Whether it’s selling a show or a product, a positive tone has become the must-have quality needed to win over younger audiences.
Fallon has brought to Tonight the same boyish enthusiasm that defined his stint on Late Night. Though himself a late-wave Xer (born 1974), his show—which makes social media a central focus—targets Millennials. Unlike his competitors, Fallon has never thrived on delivering jokes monologue-style. Instead, his most energetic bits are group-oriented: silly games with celebrities, riffing with The Roots, or slow-jamming the news with public officials. He’s up for anything—unless it’s mean-spirited. As he told New York Magazine, “I never do anything sneaky or try to make guests look bad or try to trick them.”
This “cheers, not jeers” approach isn’t limited to late-night. In fact, it was in full force during the biggest TV event of the year: the Super Bowl. The New York Times observedthat advertisers swapped the traditional crude gags for “rainbows and roses.” They showcased adorable animals and patriotic salutes, peppered with hashtags like #AmericatheBeautiful and #KissForPeace. And it paid off: Fully 61% of Millennial respondents in a Thumb poll named Budweiser’s heartwarming “Best Buds” their top commercial.
The ad world is beginning to mirror the Super Bowl as more brands move away from messages that provoke or transgress. Consider the once-hotshot agency Crispin, Porter, & Bogusky, which shot to fame in the early-naughties with ads featuring garter-clad chickens and “topless” BMW Minis. According to Advertising Age, the agency’s fortunes have reversed as its old clients have moved on.
These changes are forming a landscape where nice guys increasingly finish first. Sales at Abercrombie & Fitch, which built its brand on exclusion, have collapsed since 2009. Top-40 music has mellowed to the point where songs like “Happy,” “Same Love,” and “Best Day of My Life” represent hip-hop and rock. The titans of bombastic political media are experiencing sagging ratings and timeslot demotions. Even the campaigners behind contentious political issues are replacing arguments emphasizing “rights” with appeals to empathy and fairness.
Not all of America, of course, has undergone a sincerity makeover. It’s easy to point to institutions that have become increasingly coarse, from endlessly grim TV dramas to taunts and insults hurled in Congress. Nor does this trend mean that “nice” is the only element that resonates with consumers. But edgy content is increasingly limited to venues that target narrow segments of older viewers. On all-ages-welcome primetime, the civil and the wholesome trump all. We want brands and celebrities to be our friends.
In part, the economic downturn has contributed to this shift. Historically, Americans have turned towards the positive to help them through hard times. A similar tonal shift took place during the Great Depression as the G.I. Generation was coming of age. Back then, people looked towards entertainers like Shirley Temple, Irving Berlin, and Frank Capra to lift their spirits.
Generational preferences are also playing a major role. For Boomers and Xers, this tone is what they want for their children—though not necessarily for themselves. The adults who fueled the rise of scorched-earth politics and boundary-pushing entertainment are now determined to keep it away from their kids and grandkids. For Xers in particular, there’s a clear separation between what “family” does together and what individuals do on their own. The parents read Clifford to their kids upstairs and watch limbs fly on The Walking Dead downstairs.
Millennials, by contrast, are leading the charge towards civility. In explaining Abercrombie’s struggles, a University of Michigan professor noted that the “cool-kid” vibe that hooked yesterday’s teens just doesn’t appeal anymore. Though it’s been claimed that Millennials are living in an “age of irony,” young adults remain famously optimistic. What they consider irony—like a clever Colbert Report sketch—often seems inanely inoffensive by their parents’ standards.
But some see a darker side to all this good cheer. In November, an announcement by Internet behemoth Buzzfeed that it would publish positive-only reviews brought out critics decrying “the cult of nice.” Writer Tom Scocca argued that this environment could even discourage people from speaking truth to power. Others labeled the decision a consequence of an online culture where nastiness has been supplanted with “Likes.” Similar criticisms have long dogged the “everyone gets a trophy” mindset that bloomed with Millennial kids.
The convergence of these forces raises some interesting questions about Fallon’s future. Though he’s a hit with Millennials, executives wonder whether he’ll able to retain Tonight's older following in the long run. Under Jay Leno, Tonight drew a median age of 58—an audience dominated by Boomers (and plenty of over-70 Silent holdovers from the Johnny Carson era). To those used to the acerbic conventions of late-night, the ever-happy Fallon may generate the same dismay that young Boomers once directed at the ever-smiling Lawrence Welk. Indeed, discerning older viewers may see in Fallon’s style traces of the two hosts who preceded Carson: Steve Allen and Jack Paar, both of the G.I. Generation.
My advice: Fallon should ignore the doubters. With his ratings high in the clouds, he’ll be just fine. Let some Boomers keep complaining that he doesn’t get their sardonic counter-culture vibe. His growing throng of young Millennial fans don’t get it either.