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Go on then, sell us something

The market: 'Whiter than white' - forget it. 'It's good to talk' - yuk. So how do advertisers impress today's cynical, media-wise youth? Jane Fitzgerald on the untargetables
Advertising is legalised lying," says H G Wells in bold black and white on the new Guinness poster. ''We don't sell dreams, we sell shoes,'' said Nike in last month's issue of The Face. ''It's not an image, it's a drink,'' says Sprite.

These are trying times for advertisers. In the old days, even in the 1980s, consumers seemed quite happy to be sold the products that everyone else was buying ... the fast car, the whiter than white washing powder. Innocently, they appeared to identify with the pretty girls and handsome men who were supposed to be aspirational projections of themselves. Now that's history. Advertisers have met their match in a new generation of consumers who can spot an attempt to put them in a box a mile off. They no longer like being seduced into a lifestyle and what makes their skin crawl is the feeling that they're being targeted.

The untargetables are cynical, media-wise under-30s. ''They don't watch much TV,'' says John Owen, news editor of Campaign, "they are completely media literate, so it is very easy for ads to be over obvious, trying too hard to be funny and patronising them. Advertisers are far more likely now to say 'we know this is an advertisement, we'll make our point and spend the rest of the time doing something more interesting instead'."

''They know the games that advertisers play and reject them,'' says Steve Henry, of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, an advertising agency (responsible for Tango, Pot Noodle et al), "so you explore humour. The John Smith ad is excellent. The penguins are deliberately irrelevant and an outrageous gimmick and everybody knows it. That's what's funny. If you make the ads interesting, original and entertaining then it's like television and people are waiting to see what happens next.''

Today's under-30s are actually happy with advertising as an idea. They have grown up with it. It's trashy and it's throwaway and, of course, that's A Good Thing. Evidence shows that the under- 30s, when watching recorded television, will fast-forward through most ads, but will stop at the ones they like. And that is mission accomplished for the advertisers.

The under-30s treat advertising like a video game. The sell is level one, but once that is done they want something more challenging. Something off the wall. A perfect example, according to John Owen, is the new Apple Tango ad where a guy is apparently watching a porn film where the unlikely star is a can of Apple Tango when his mother and wife walk in. At the end of the ad there is a phone line. Everyone knows it's a gag but the phone line is like level two, it's something else to do. What is going to happen if you ring up?

Knowing that the untargetables are oversensitive to being patronised, smart advertisers are catching new trends early. Previously they would complacently pick up a youth survey every two or three years . ''Ah-ha,'' they would think. "The kids are into rap music. Let's make a rap song about clean washing.'' Now that this culture changes constantly, this research ''technique'' leaves the advertisers as far adrift in the ocean of cool as say, your Dad at Tribal Gathering 96. So agencies are increasingly employing small, hip teams of researchers who are hired to be in touch with people on the street. One such group is Magic Hat, who started working for McCann Erickson at the beginning of the year. Ed Cotton, director of Magic Hat, explains: ''There's so much more empowerment in the youth sector now. One author made it into the Top 100 best seller list by spraying his Land-Rover with paint and personally selling 20,000 copies of his book. Top ten records are made in people's bedrooms and every young kid has access to a Macintosh and can produce his own magazine. Appealing to the under-30s is not just about advertising, it's about being out in the streets.

The phrase that sums up what advertising ought to be doing is ''word of relevant mouth''. But how do you feed it so that people feel they've discovered your message for themselves? Cotton et al seek out opinion formers among the under-30s: DJs, designers, musicians, and talk to them. ''It's very investigative, very journalistic in its approach,'' Cotton says.

The untargetables squirm at anything that smacks of mass cultural appeal, so finding the next underground thing is essential. ''It's a mutating virus,'' says Richard Benson, editor of The Face, ''the 1990s has seen the death of aspiration. Rather than pick products that are sold to them, the youth market seeks out trash pop culture. Advertising has to work with this. So for example, rather than take part in the orgy of trainer sales, Olympus has been selling underground. That appeals to the antipathy of the enlightened consumer.''

Advertisers also have to look to media other than television for promotion. Sponsoring clubs is particularly popular. But again, overkill it and everyone gets annoyed and buys another brand. A more subversive approach sees advertisers following a circuitous route to youth appeal by producing deliberately shocking advertising (eg the Gossard poster ad with escaped nipple) which attracts middle-aged ASA complaints like bees round a honeypot.

Old-fashioned, non-ironic advertising still sells, however. Lots of people loathe Bob Hoskins in the BT ads trying to persuade us that BT is improving family relations. But the number of calls soars on nights when those ads are screened. Ironically.

Untargetables loathe:

1 1960s mood creations: classic soul tracks accompanying American landscape while cute boy and girl share chewing gum / jeans/ alcohol.

2 Overexposure: any kind is bad, but especially Ruby Wax in the Corsa ad. 'One Friday night it was on every ad break,' moaned one youth consultant.

3 Dad-at-a-disco ads: most embarrassing are usually to do with financial services, eg students talking 'street language' about their bank accounts. 'It's wiiicked!'

4 Deadly serious personal hygiene ads: a friendly girl (just like you) talks about how she's never tried a different towel. The day the first self-referential sanitary towel ad comes to our screens will be a great day for British advertising.

5 Obvious rip offs: taken from any ad that was originally a good idea, eg all fizzy drinks trying to be Tango.

Untargetables like:

1 Levis. Blind-man-in-the-toilet ad. Nothing to do with jeans, just funny.

2 Tango. Leader in post-modern advertising. All the more appropriate because it was such a has-been drink, growing dust on the shelves before it's make-over.

3 Nike. Reduced the sell to just the ubiquitous presence of a tick. No need to say Just Do It, your subconscious will do that for them.

4 Pot Noodle. A perfect double whammy form. It has a distinctly unaspirational Welsh git saying 'it's just gorgeous' and then underlines the fact that it's not that unhealthy either.

5 Guinness. Has managed to turn an old fogey's pint in the corner of the pub to something to drink if you're a bit of an individual - while increasing sales. Now there's irony for you