While last year I wrote about how the Oscar’s didn’t market to me as a millennial (and why that was ok), this year completely resonated with me and tapped into a trope that I think is unique to millennials. It all started with this:
Jennifer Lawrence tripped on the way to accept her best actress award. What a way to start off a once-in-a-lifetime moment in front of a million viewers! Instead of letting mortification ruin her night, Jennifer Lawrence called her slip out in her speech by saying “You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell and that’s really embarrassing.” She then went on to completely charm everyone in her press conference and post-win interviews. She owned her awkwardness, and that ownership made her Oscar’s darling.
It’s not just Jennifer Lawrence–awkward is making a comeback. Don’t believe me? Check out this Google Trends Map of searches with the word “awkward”.
*Letters represent news with “awkward” in the headline
If you’re trying to tap into the millennial market, awkward is the new cool–and understanding why isn’t something marketers can afford to miss.
The New Kind of Awkward
Socially awkward characters have long been a part of pop culture landscape in the form of tropes. Don’t be scared of the English major term–a trope is just a common character attribute or pattern in a story that conveys information to the audience (definition adapted from Feminist Frequency). One awkward trope is the Fish-Out-Of-Water where a character experiences awkwardness due to an unfamiliar environment or culture (think Jeannie of I Dream of Jeannie, Mork of Mork & Mindy or The Beverly Hillbillies). Screech was the butt of every joke on Saved By The Bell and no one can forget classic “Did I Do That? moments from Urkel on Family Matters–both examples of the Socially Oblivious trope. Finally, we have the Unaware Genius trope, where a character’s intelligence or skill set makes tunes them out to social norms, perfectly embodied by Dr. House of House or Sherlock Holmes. In fact, there are so many tropes attributed to lack of social skills that it earned its own archive on TVTropes. Heck, Jane Austen was writing about navigating social niceties back in the early 1800s!
There’s a reason awkward characters have stuck around for a while–they help people identify with their own social anxiety. Someone doesn’t have to be geeky, nerdy, or hipster-y to be awkward. And as I’m sure Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts, would want me to point out, social anxiety doesn’t mean introverted or shy either. Awkwardness is uncertainty in a social situations and it’s pretty darn universal, regardless of generation of age.
There is no argument though that awkwardness especially resonates with teens and twentysomethings. When teens and young adults are still struggling to figure out what image they want to present to the world, awkwardness is almost guaranteed to ensue–as countless haircut experiments, music choices and friend group shifts can attest to.
What makes millennials special is the introduction of a never-seen-before awkward pattern:
The Awkward & Aware Trope
Millennials resonate with heros that are not only socially uncertain, but acknowledge and own their awkwardness as part of their identity by re-claiming deprecating terms.
Millennials are relating to perfectly normal people in everyday situations proudly proclaiming their awkwardness. This isn’t awkwardness as the butt of the joke (Screech/Urkel), a fish-out-of-water comedic device (Jeannie/Mort), an unfortunate side effect of genius (Sherlock Holmes/Monk/House) or any of the other frequently used awkward tropes. Instead, self-referential awkwardness is an attribute millennials seek out in their heroes, relate to and publicly attribute to themselves.
Let’s take books first. Everyone knows about the youth heavy hitters like Harry Potter, Twilight, or The Hunger Games. But what 2011’s No. 1 kids author not only displaced Twilight on the charts, but also started $500 million franchise with his book? Jeff Kinney of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.
Would any pre-teen in the eighties or nineties be caught dead reading a cartoon diary of a professed wimp? I don’t think so.
But it’s not just the middle school kiddies. Look at the success of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. The best-selling young adult novel went on to become a film starring Emma Watson that Rotten Tomatoes calls “a modern classic”.
What makes these books and their popularity remarkable isn’t that they feature characters who don’t know how to react in certain social situations, but the characters identify openly and directly with their awkwardness and choosing less than flattering words to do so. Unlike the humor of the obliviously awkward Lucy of I Love Lucy, Greg Heffley of The Diary of A Wimpy Kid is painfully aware of his social anxiety and makes it part of his narrative identity–he openly calls himself a wimp. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a bit more gritty tale of “Charlie” (the narrator uses an alias) as he faces issues like suicide, homosexuality, drug use and molestation. Charlie reminds me of a millennial’s take on Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye. But while Holden’s story is named after his ideal self, what role does Charlie relate to? Wallflower. Awkwardness.
When you turn your attention to tv shows directed at a millennial audience, the meta awkward archetype is even more pronounced. Here the genre expands to include twentysomethings who identify with people who tell everyone how awkward they are. HBO’s Girls tackles a more, ahem, adult version of social anxiety by diving head first into the world of all things awkward, including sex. I know Lena Durham is probably a post all in her own, but I think millennials relate to her not only because she doesn’t have any aspect of her life together (career, boys, friends–the whole nine yards are all a mess), but because she admits it so openly. Just read how she describes the relationship she wants with Adam in Season 1–basically that she doesn’t want a boyfriend because she likes him too much and feels uncomfortable. That’s a whole lot of social insecurity she’s announcing to the world. Talk about awkward. But she owns it, so we love her for it.
And of course, this post wouldn’t be complete without a tip of the hat to Zooey Deschannel’s New Girl. Not only has the actress made a career of awkward roles, but she embodies the twentysomething meta awkward persona by embracing an off-the-beaten path approach to social interactions. I could write more, but I think this gif sums it up for me.
Can you imagine Bob Newhart announcing he’s weird and proud of it? Or Sabrina the Teenage Witch telling Harvey that she likes him, but doesn’t want to date him because it’s too awkward? Me neither. This is a new trend and it’s specific to millennials.
I do love New Girl and all, but where I’m really interested in diving in is MTV’s Awkward. This show catalogues the angst and woes of high schooler Jenna Hamilton, who repeatedly gets thrust in the spotlight when she doesn’t mean to. She details her thoughts and insecurities on a blog, which sometimes exacerbates her problem. Not only does this show perfectly illustrate my theory on how this new meta-awkwardness resonates with millennials (it’s is the show’s title after all), but it speaks to MTV’s audience as well. The show’s second season premiere grossed 3.8 million viewers, ranked higher than a Jersey Shore spin-off, and was praised by The New York Times for it’s accurate feel. Not bad for another high school teen drama.
Parts of Jenna Hamiliton’s story seem strange–you wouldn’t think that teenagers talking about how awkward they feel on the internet would be a thing. But then you have videos like this.
*This inclusion isn’t hating on LeighBirdwell. I think you poem is beautiful, love sci-fi too and, as a fellow Bostonian, will assist you in kicking the ass of anyone dissing the Bruins. Keep it up Leigh–you’re awesome.
There are approximately 331,000 YouTube videos with the word “awkward”; I’m betting you Leigh’s video isn’t the only one like it out there. This feeling isn’t something millennials just relate to in tv, books or celebrities–they broadcast it themselves online. They take ownership of that feeling. Cool used to mean navigating effortlessly (or appearing to) through murky social situations. Now? Awkward is the new cool and adolescents and twentysomethings aren’t afraid to claim it.
Doing Awkward Right: Channel Jennifer Lawrence and Be “Flawesome”
Awkwardness is obviously an important part of the millennial psyche right now, and there is tremendous opportunity for marketers to cash in on this new trope. But how do brands capitalize on that awkwardness without, well, alienating people? Doing awkward wrong can be patronizing to millennials and just get the wrong tone. And that’s where it all comes back to Jennifer Lawrence.
Jennifer Lawrence’s admission of her own awkwardness made her the darling of the Oscar’s–despite falling on stage. Jennifer Lawrence become “flawesome”, or awesome in light of her showcased imperfections. In fact, I’d say her ownership of her flaws makes us love her even more as it embodies the Awkward & Aware persona millennials resonate with so strongly today.
Brands can win over the hearts of millennials with awkwardness, but only if they own it. Millennials may give themselves a lot of leeway to be awkward, but they are pretty tough on brands and actors who they think aren’t depicting emotions honestly. Just like Holden would tell you in 1951, nobody likes phonies. But today, what is most phony are people who don’t accept their own awkwardness. It’s why we love characters who name books after their own weirdness or proclaim it on camera for the world to see. It’s a new age of awkward and it’s up to brands now to own it. For inspiration on the brands embodying the Awkward & Aware persona and being “flawesome”, check out this post on PointSmith.
Thanks all for reading. Please let me know if you see any examples of brands using awkward messaging in their advertisements–I’m officially on the lookout. Lindsey Kirchoff.