BOB GARFIELD: Commercial television is about the purest expression of democracy this country has to offer. Programming decisions are made by what is very nearly a direct referendum in which all of America votes every day with its eyeballs. But here's the strange thing -- in TV democracy for all practical purposes if you are 35 years old or more, your vote doesn't count. This we have learned from the latest late night controversy in which ABC is wooing David Letterman to replace Ted Koppel's Nightline -not because Letterman has a bigger audience -he doesn't - but because he has a younger audience, prized by advertisers. The Nightline debacle is the latest and most vivid evidence of Madison Avenue's strange obsession with the demographic group, 64 million strong, of 18 to 34's.
SEEMA NYAR: There are basically two reasons why this 18 to 34 year olds are this coveted demographic.
BOB GARFIELD: Seema Nyar is editor of American Demographics Magazine.
SEEMA NYAR: From a brand loyalty standpoint they're less loyal to a particular product and more willing to try new products, or so the thinking goes, and then they're generally thought of as just more susceptible to advertising. The other reason this demo is so coveted is what marketers call its lifelong value proposition.
BOB GARFIELD:In English that means seeking out the brand-unloyal for advertisers to mold in their own images. David Verklin, CEO of Cara International, a media buying company that spends 4 and a half billion dollars a year on advertising explains the concept.
DAVID VERKLIN: They haven't made all their brand choices, particularly the younger side of that spectrum, and if you could reach them and get them to be users of your brand at an early age, you'll have them for a lifetime.
BOB GARFIELD:Beyond that, Verklin says, targeting younger consumers is a good way to aim for the middle - between Baby Boomers on the one end and teenagers on the other. Furthermore, he says, the youth market is so attractive because it so vastly influences the entire consumer population's buying behavior, just as inner city black teenagers are on the vanguard of what eventually will be shopping mall culture.
DAVID VERKLIN: Let's talk about, you know, the rap culture's influence on, on really suburban youth, or let's talk about Nike and its belief that the basketball court on West 4th Street is the epicenter of the Nike brand. I, I think it's a pretty well accepted proposition that you have, you know, circles of influence that emanate from a central point.
BOB GARFIELD:Anyway, that's the theory. Almost none of this is supported by empirical evidence. Even Verklin calls the brand loyalty rationale an old chestnut, but these behavioral assumptions generate huge premiums to reach a demographic of viewers whose median income is 35 percent less than Baby Boomers and who represent 38 percent less of the population.
BETSY CARTER: I'm not sure that in a lot of this stuff is grounded in anything but people's kind of wispy theories.
BOB GARFIELD: Betsy Carter is editor of My Generation, a new magazine distributed by the American Association of Retired Persons to four million Baby Boomer households.
BETSY CARTER: If Madison Avenue is about money and about business, there's some disconnect here, and it's sort of the business logic. If you're going to follow the money, the money is with this generation.
BOB GARFIELD:The is hard pressed to understand why Madison Avenue is obsessed with 18 to 34's to the exclusion of Boomers -- the wealthiest demographic segment in the history of commerce. For instance there are 104 million Americans aged 35 to 64 versus only 64 million in the magic 18 to 34 cohort, and they have a lot more money. American Demographic's Seema Nyar.
SEEMA NYAR: Today there are 25 million households under the age of 35. The total aggregate income of those under the age of 35 is 1.3 trillion dollars, whereas there are 46 million households between the ages of 35 to 54 today, and they have an aggregate income of 3 trillion dollars. So you have almost double the number of households in the older group and almost triple the amount of aggregate income. So really, which group do you want to target -- the 25 million households with a trillion dollars worth of income or the 46 million households with 3 trillion in income?
BOB GARFIELD: As for the supposition that 18 to 34's are more likely to experiment with advertised brands, she says:
SEEMA NYAR:As far as, as I know, it's just based on a hunch. It's based on this old idea of, you know, the younger, cooler 18 to 34 demographic as being, the, you know the hot demo to be in.
BOB GARFIELD:That's what makes magazine editor Betsy Carter so frustrated: not only advertising and programming's preoccupation with younger audiences, but the fashion industry, which designs pricey clothes for young people she says can't afford to wear them and presumes she will wear the house in nude hosiery and sensible brown shoes.
BETSY CARTER: Even if we're going to wake up tomorrow and wear nude hose and sensible shoes, we've got to get the shoes someplace.
BOB GARFIELD: That's why she believes 18-to-34 mania will not stand. At some point, the way she figures it, advertisers will have to put their mouths where the money is.
BETSY CARTER: It's a question of who's going to break through and who's going to advertise to this market, and who's going to break through and say, "This market is important to us, and we're going to court them and we're going to advertise." And they're going to make a whole lot of money when they do it.
BOB GARFIELD: Or not. Scott Donaton, editor of Advertising Age and my boss, recalls not long ago when CBS tried to position its relatively geriatric audience as the well-to-do advertiser's Valhalla.
SCOTT DONATON: CBS in about the mid- to late-1990s found itself with the oldest demographic of any of the leading TV networks. NBC had friends, and they were getting a young audience, and CBS' hit show was "Murder, She Wrote." So, CBS basically set about trying to convince advertisers that this audience was a great audience, had more spending power. But advertisers didn't buy it, and in the end, CBS put "Survivor" on the air and went back to the younger audience.
BOB GARFIELD: So marketers and programmers continue to chase the children of the Carter administration, not because there are so many of them, but, strangely enough, because there are so few. In the sort of logic that scans only on Madison Avenue, the very difficulty of getting a critical mass of young adults to put down their snowboards and laptops long enough to watch some TV makes a program that attracts them disproportionately valuable. David Letterman's audience averages only four years younger than Ted Koppel's and is, on average, ten percent smaller. But a 30-second commercial on "The Late Show" fetches 38 percent more.