Once upon a time members of Generation X were a dark, mysterious puzzle that everyone—parents, marketers, journalists—wanted to solve. Who were these nonchalant products of broken homes, with their grungy ripped jeans, their devotion to MTV, their angst? Who did they admire? What did they care about? Then Generation X grew up, trading alienation for 30-year fixed mortgages and Kurt Cobain for Baby Einstein. And with conventionality, marketers thought, came transparency: Now we get you. Now we can target you.

Not so fast. Today’s marketers are notorious for targeting Generation X, but the true influence its members wield—not only on each other but on the shopping and lifestyle habits of those younger and older—continues to elude many chief marketing officers. This influence can be as overt as baby boomer parents seeking their Gen X-children’s advice before buying a cell phone or choosing a restaurant. Or maybe it’s as restrained as Burton Snowboards’ War Games-inspired jacket, which pays homage to a generation of Atari-playing children—now grown up and carrying significantly hefty wallets. “For us to continue to be successful, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring any demographic,” says Bryan Johnston, Burton’s VP of global marketing. “And Gen X is a huge one. We will continue to target them in very subtle ways.”

“Most companies today aren’t [harnessing Gen X-ers’ influence] well,” says Ann Fishman, president of New Orleans-based Generational-Targeted Marketing. “If you don’t get the way that Gen X-ers shop, the way they buy, the way they can influence their younger siblings, then you’re not understanding the new-style American market.”

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