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Youth advertising? Just cool it

Advertisers have always found it difficult to target 16- to 24- year-olds - but where Levi's has led, others are now following. Meg Carter reports
A violent storm lashes the bows of a tiny fishing boat. Pitched into the sea, our semi-naked hero sinks to the seabed. Suddenly, three beautiful mermaids surround him, examining his body, kissing and caressing him. Noticing the red tab on his jeans, they try to tug them off. Just in time, he regains consciousness and swims to the surface. The commercial, which broke on ITV last week, is the latest from the world's leading youth marketer: Levi's.

Winning over the 16- to 24 year-old age group is, arguably, the advertising world's greatest challenge. Every young generation believes it is misunderstood by its parents' generation and today's Generation X is no different. Which is why other advertisers eager to appeal to younger consumers observe each new instalment in Levi's multi-million-pound advertising campaign with awe. The sign of a true master, you see, is - while not appearing young or cool - defining the very essence of cool itself.

"Young people today will see around 140,000 different ads between the ages of four and 18," says Joe Staton, futures director at Ammirati Puris Lintas, the agency behind Peperami's "It's a little bit of an animal" campaign. "Yet Advertising Association research shows interest in advertising is at an all-time low."

Young people are being bombarded with an ever-increasing array of media choices. Do-it-yourself culture proliferates. And traditional trust in and reverence for media owners is in dramatic decline.

Advertising alone just doesn't work any more, Staton concedes. "Brand idea" is what really counts. Get this right and you can exploit it in a wide variety of ways. Which is why, as well as Peperami advertising, there's an Internet site (content includes "vegetable porn"), a Peperami computer game, a dance record and a range of merchandising, even Peperami sausage perfume.

Such an approach is also championed by HHCL. You may have seen its ads for Tango. A recent one for Lemon Tango featured "the cult of Jim" whose chanting "worshippers" appear with toy dogs mounting their legs. Pot Noodle's current "camcorder-style" advertising campaign features Terry, a Welshman campaigning against the brand, and Ned, who dresses up as a Pot Noodle.

But did you know you've only seen one-tenth of the iceberg? Thousands have rung Tango telephone lines used as part of the campaign; others have bought limited-edition Orange Man toys.

Meanwhile, a range of Ned-inspired promotional products has been launched by the agency, along with a fan club for Terry called the League Against Fibrous Lies. A membership pack and campaign materials have been distributed to hundreds of students.

Today's youth are connoisseurs rather than mere recipients of communications, Staton believes. "If it's bollocks - they'll spot it instantly." Get it right, however, and they'll keep coming back for more: sales of alcopop Hooper's Hooch, for example, reached 2 million units a day within a couple of months of the launch.

Tone and style are critical. But pity the advertiser who thinks this means cashing in on the latest style or cultural trend. "Marketing and advertising is primarily run by baby-boomers, but Generation X grew up in a different time, they can see through it if you pretend to be one of them," Bednash warns.

Not everyone, however, is convinced. "We don't trust what industry research tells us young people are watching on TV," Bednash says. "Their viewing habits change so quickly." Take soap operas: which do you think is currently the hottest among 16 to 24s?

"Our findings suggest Emmerdale - despite it having the lowest total TV ratings of the big four."

It's a tricky balancing act. Try and ride the contemporary cultural wave too soon, and you'll find it hard to persuade an advertiser to part with its money - for fear of getting it wrong. Catch it too late and you are passe even before you hit the TV screenn