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Generation Z

Why The Y’s TV Ad Hits the Mark and Dodge Ram Misses with Gen Z

Two commercials, both promoting a message of community and service. One hits the mark while the other tarnishes its brand. Why it’s important for organizations to promote and convey an authentic voice about serving the community to attract Generation Z.

Both Dodge Ram and the YMCA recently produced commercials that focused on the concept of serving and giving back to the world; a priority that is important to me and a majority of Generation Z. In fact, according to this Time article, which highlighted Peter Drucker's work and a new study of Gen Z teens, it found that 60% of the 14- to 18-year-olds surveyed online said that “having an impact on the world is going to be important to them in their jobs. That’s a sharp increase from the 39% of Millennials who expressed this sentiment in 2010, when they were in the same age range.” This shows that Generation Z is more motivated than previous generations to volunteer and give their time to helping others.

With all of this in mind, only one commercial met the concept of community and volunteering. It was the YMCA’s powerful, tear-jerking commercial that did an incredible job in illustrating the divide between Americans today and the power to serve and fix. So, how come viewers didn’t appreciate Dodge Ram’s commercial like they did the Y’s? Here’s why. First, a bit of background information. The Ram commercial concentrated on a sermon, given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. titled “The Drum Major Instinct”, on the idea that “Everybody can be great” and “you only need a heart full of grace” to serve. While this is an amazing message I think everyone should hear, the commercial did not deliver it in the correct context. In other words, using civil rights revolutionaries to sell cars is just plain wrong.

Ironically, when looking into the history of King’s speech (something I wonder if the producers researched), I discovered that in a different part of the same speech, King mocks car advertisements. He describes the producers as “gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion” that “have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying...And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. …I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America.” Basically, I’m guessing either Ram figured that people wouldn’t remember the context of King’s speech and what he really thought about car advertisements, or they thought that people hadn’t been taught his full speech in history classes; which they were right. In fact, without the magical power of Google, I would’ve never known that his speech was taken out of context for the use of a manipulative advertisement.

Even though I have no interest in cars, I can say that my opinion of Ram has changed, and I don’t think I would ever want to buy any of their products after this incident. Because the speech the commercial used was incorrectly quoted and inappropriately used, it was, understandably not well received by viewers.

In contrast, the YMCA made a revolutionarily inspiring commercial that perfectly highlights the dilemmas our society faces every day. I think it is amazing that companies and nonprofits, like the YMCA, are recognizing the problems in the world such as racism, terrorism, gender inequality, and cyberbullying. I also think, and many Gen Zers will agree, that every company should put the same foot forward when it comes to making the change they wish to see in the world. Doing this will make their organizations more attractive in recruiting young talent because, as the study mentioned above in the Time article, having an impact on the world is important to my generation.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Anna Sladek

When she’s not preparing speeches or arguments for her high school speech and debate team, Anna Sladek is writing about the major issues facing her generation -- Generation Z. Inspired to create positive change and bring the youth voice to national and global issues, she contributes to XYZ University’s research projects and is a featured blogger.

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