By Barbara Kollmeyer
Two years into the pandemic, a perfect Christmas for the beleaguered Generation Z seems out of reach again, as the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus threatens the stability achieved thus far.
That oh-so-pricey present we can’t give those born between 1997 and 2012 — now often referred to as the “locked-down generation” — is a normal life, of course. That message is driven home in a holiday video from German discount retailer Penny that’s been viewed nearly 16 million times since its Nov. 11 launch as of Saturday.
The 3½-minute video, titled “The Wish,” opens with a sleepless teenager and his mother sitting at the dining table late at night. He asks her, “So what do you actually want for Christmas?” Her response — that she wants to give him the time and freedom he has lost to the pandemic — is at the heart of a video that has been praised for addressing Gen Z’s pandemic deficits.
“I wish you wouldn’t hang out at home all the time, I wish you would sneak out at night, that we wouldn’t know where you were,” the teen’s mother tells him, as fictional scenes of life without COVID — parties, love, concerts, travel — play out. “I wish you’d secretly throw a party, and that you’d finally tell that girl you love her.”
The video’s release coincided with a new autumn wave of the pandemic in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, triggering surging cases and restrictions across several countries for the second year in a row. While Germany’s infection rate has since slowed, fears over the more contagious omicron variant have cast uncertain shadows over the holidays and into the new year.
“The Wish” had actually been in the works since February, according to Christoph Everke, the creative managing partner of Serviceplan Campaign in Munich, which put together the ad for Penny .
“Every year we try to find out a very relevant topic for our clients and for the customers of our clients,” Everke told MarketWatch in a Nov. 25 interview, a day before the world learned of omicron . He said the team kept unearthing articles from psychologists and NGOs discussing the pandemic’s effect on youth and, as a father of three teenagers, recognized it was resonating strongly.
“Then, all of a sudden, everybody who was approached said, ‘Oh, yes, we have to talk about this’, ” he said, noting that included Penny executives who found the topic touched their own families.
The advertisement, directed by Marcus Ibanez and produced by Iconoclast Germany, has been the talk of German social media, viewed in France, the U.K. and even Poland. It debuted in cinemas on Nov. 18.
Judging by the tens of thousands of comments on YouTube, Penny seems to have hit the emotional nail on the head. The responses, often raw and heartbreaking, offer a fresh glimpse at families and individuals mourning for a generation that has lost experiences, opportunities and mental health to the pandemic.
“Even when I watch it for the 10th time my eyes flood wth tears. My son turned 18 yesterday and the video hits me 100% in the heart. Big respect Penny for this sensational, unique statement,” writes user Salexlask. And from user Grape Driver: “I had to cry … after almost two years, my child now needs psychological support. The spot went right through my heart. Thank you for that.”
From near the top of the Generation Z age bracket came this wrenching response from Ela Uria: “Thanks @penny! I’m 22 and I spend my best years in bed and in my room, I cry. I find these current situations so sad, incredibly sad. I hope we can find a solution together and can finally escape these terrible situations … thank you Penny for this touching message behind this video.”
Lost and keep losing
While some personal freedoms may have returned thanks to vaccines as the world embarks on one of the biggest living science experiments in history, evidence of damage to the young has piled up.
“The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses that young people already faced,” said U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, in an early December advisory that stressed how young people urgently needed society’s help to cope.
Murthy cited data showing that, even in pre-pandemic 2019, one in three high-school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an increase of 40% from 2009. For low-income and minority students, there is plenty of evidence of a more worrying situation.
According to a McKinsey study released in July, the pandemic left K-12 students on average five months behind in math and four in reading by the end of the 2020-21 academic year. And the generation unlucky enough to run headlong into a pandemic faces a potential lifetimes earnings loss of $49,000 to $61,000, according to that study.
Meanwhile, a November report from the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, or Eurofound, warned that the region’s lockdowns — Spain’s young people spent six weeks inside their homes — could permanently detach a generation from society unless policy makers actively encourage labor-market participation.
In Germany, youth unemployment numbers are perhaps the envy of Europe, but even those have been dented by COVID, hovering at 6.5% in October from 5.8% in December 2018. At the other extreme the level is 15% in Spain or 14% in Greece. In the U.S, the youth unemployment rate was 8.6% in November, just above where it was in early 2020.
One small step
Helping young people find some sense of normalcy and recapture lost experiences is also a major part of “The Wish” video. This year the retailer is giving away 5,000 “intensive adventures and defining experiences,” via a raffle that will run until Christmas Eve.
Penny is also gifting six internships that include a fully furnished flat in Berlin or Hamburg, living with other trainees to “have a bit of fun and you can party and whatever you want, but you have the job and get money,” said Julia Leibetseder, senior account manager at Serviceplan Campaign .
“It’s really hard to get one now because no one takes [an intern] now because you know every time you get in lockdown, what do you do with them?” she said. The apprenticeships require individuals to put together a small introduction video, but other giveaways are just via a form on Penny’s website.
Among the latter are concert and travel vouchers, such as Interrail tickets, backpacking tickets — “everything they couldn’t experience,” said Leibetseder.
Holger Zschaepitz , senior financial reporter at German news provider Welt, said such heartstrings holiday videos are a tradition in the country. Retailer Edeka “caused a sensation when it addressed the loneliness of older people,” in a past campaign, he said in emailed comments to MarketWatch.
But he notes that Penny video is more striking. “The sheer number of viewers alone shows how strongly it resonates. Many have wondered how a discount store can feel the mood and feelings of so many people better than the chaotic government,” he said.
Everke said their aim wasn’t to make a political statment, but that his client Penny feels a connection with employees, many of whom are young people, in stores located in the heart of German neighborhoods.
He highlights one comment among the thousands the video has prompted, from a social studies teacher for eighth through 10th graders. It read: “I showed them this and we spoke about it. It’s unbelievable as a teacher that we didn’t talk about this beforehand.”