Why the release of Friends on Netflix shows how culture and attitudes have changed, and how lazy and inaccurate it is to use terms like “Millennial”.
For a generation of people, Friends was a cultural soundtrack, an omni-present totem of nineties life. It pervaded pop culture in terms of comedy (using ‘real-life’ and a group rather than a single character was mould-breaking at the time), music (unusually for a sitcom, the theme tune became an anthem of the time) language (“How you doin'”, “Oh.My.God” and “We were on a break” became regularly used refrains) and even haircuts (“The Rachel” became a popular style amongst females at the time). It was something of a constant for many people growing up and the ending of the series was mourned worldwide, with it’s finale being the fourth most watched finale ever, behind only MASH, Cheers and Seinfeld. As a side note, I ran a bar at the time, and the normally bustling town of Kingston in South West London was eerily deserted on the night of the finale’s airing.
At midnight of New Year’s Eve just gone, Netflix made the entire series available, a full twenty-four years after the pilot was originally aired. As January went on, stories and content started appearing, focusing on Millennials being ‘outraged’ by some of the problematic story lines, and disappointed by some of the cultural attitudes the characters displayed. Being positively allergic to the word millennial, and annoyed by the lack of human understanding in grouping an entire age group into one attitude, we delved a little deeper, and analysed thousands of conversations across social media, message boards and comments on articles to look for the nuance that this narrative was missing.
The appearance of Friends on Netflix was initially greeted with a burst of nostalgia, something we see a lot from the particular generation who grew up in that era, whether it be for music, movies or television (another cultural phenomenon we’ll be investigating). The overwhelming sentiment across all the conversations we analysed was positive. The term binge was one of the most commonly associated words, as people spent early January watching episode after episode, and people talked about the fashion, the hair and the style with warm nostalgia.
However, it also exposed it to a new, younger, audience, some of whom viewed it less positively. As more people binged the show simultaneously, they seemed to reach uncomfortable moments in the show at the same time, initially around Ross’s behaviour towards Rachel. What was originally portrayed as an unlucky in love Ross, was reframed by today’s culture, and he came across as controlling and obsessive. The homophobic-tinged jokes that Chandler often quipped, and the sexist attitude of Joey all seemed dated, and were called out as such by the younger, more politically progressive that were viewing it for the first time. There seemed to a general acceptance that the show, and it’s humour, hadn’t aged particularly well.
Enter the media.
In mid-January, LBC posted the above on twitter. It got quite a reaction, and despite asking the question “How have our values changed over the last 15 years?” the volume of negativity towards “Millennials”, including from people from the same generation made it clear that grouping people by age is a lazy and inaccurate approach.
We saw three different types of attitudes emerge. The positive nostalgia from the generation who grew up with Friends. Some negativity from a small group of younger viewers, around some of the more problematic and no longer culturally-appropriate, jokes and story-lines. These tended to originate from London and the South-East. This attitude was followed by a much larger negative conversation, that transcended age, and included so-called “Millennials” taking aim at the small group of younger viewers who found the show to be problematic. These conversations focused on a culture of being offended, a lack of sense of humour, and ultimately moved the conversation away from the show itself, and framed it as a political one, which then multiplied the conversation ten-fold.
Essentially, the reaction to Friends on Netflix demonstrated a common thread we are now seeing when analysing human attitudes. Attitudes are increasingly tribal, and more and more they follow the fractured fault-lines of political support, across geographies, across affluence and certainly across age groups. We have seen similar examples when delving into attitudes towards products as diverse as Easter Eggs, Gas and Electricity and Online Grocery Shopping, which follow distinct lines of geographical voting behaviour.
In our increasingly fractured society, the conversation around Friends, and what it says about current culture, shines a light on how lazy and inaccurate it is to group people by age, rather than attitudes. It’s a lesson brands and agencies alike should heed, if they want to create strategies that put human insight at their heart, and ultimately resonate more powerfully with people.