Call it mature mojo. The growing ranks of Americans over age 50 don't think they're old and aren't inclined to act like it.
Johnny Cash, William Shatner and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld embody a new "elder cool," says Modern Maturity magazine.
Pro golf's over-50 Senior Tour is becoming the Champions Tour because, "Nobody considers themselves seniors anymore," says PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem.
Folks over 50 are being hailed as the new yuppies - about one-third of the U.S. population but controlling three-fourths of the wealth. They wield $1.7 trillion in annual buying power, according to mature-consumer consultants Age Wave Impact. They have a stranglehold over certain industries: 80% of luxury travel purchases, 48% of luxury auto sales, 41% of all new car and truck sales, 77% of prescription drug sales and 61% of over-the-counter drug sales.
And their numbers are poised to explode: one of the 77 million baby boomers reaches the big 5-0 every seven seconds, according to Age Wave. The over-50 group is already 79 million strong - 28% of the U.S. population. By 2020, it will be 36%, the Census Bureau says.
So why does Madison Avenue largely ignore these consumers? For ad pros, the 18-to-49 age group has been the Holy Grail since the 1950s. Consumers drop off their radar at 50 as a result of decades-old assumptions about spending habits and brand loyalties. As evidence mounts that these stereotypes are no longer true - if they ever were - the $245 billion ad industry still gears only 10% of ads toward 50-plus consumers. And those consumers' frustration is mounting.
Kathleen DeMott, a 52-year-old teacher from Torrance, Calif., feels "ignored" by Madison Avenue. "The only times they target us are for medical things. I don't know why they target younger groups so much. Maybe it's easier to write ads for them?"
Beverly Calvert, owner of Calvert's Restaurant in Augusta, Ga., who just turned 50, says, "All you see is teeny-bopper models, although I know some darn good-looking 50- and 60-year-olds. I look at marketing like politics: It's all a little tainted."
Calvert's not alone. Three of four mature consumers are dissatisfied with marketing aimed at them, according to the Center for Mature Consumer Studies. People ages 55 to 64 are more likely to be offended by ads and less likely to enjoy them. And 31% of people 55 and up avoid products in ads they think stereotype people.
When the ad industry isn't ignoring them, it angers them. Take the TV spot created by Cliff Freeman and Partners, New York that showed an elderly woman at a Midas repair shop. Impressed by Midas' "lifetime guarantee" that will keep her car good as new, she rips open her blouse and asks: "So what can you do with these?" Consumers were irate, and Midas hastily pulled the ad from the airwaves.
"You're talking about a huge amount of people with money - and the time to spend it," says Sen. John Breaux, D-La., chairman of the Special Committee on Aging, who recently held hearings on ageism in ads, entertainment and media. "But they're insulted by most of the ads."
Beyond insults, this attitude by marketing pros has serious implications for consumers and pop culture.
Depicting mature consumers as "greedy geezers" or old coots in mass media poses health risks for the elderly and could even shorten life spans. Older consumers with "positive" perceptions of aging live seven years longer than those constantly exposed to negative images, according to the results of a 20-year study presented at the Senate hearings. "Extolling youthfulness while demeaning the old helps to generate images that, as our research suggests, may have devastating consequences," testified Becca Levy, an epidemiologist at Yale University.
The relentless pursuit of the 18-to-49 group (and often just 18-to-34) by ad agency media buyers motivates ad-selling media companies to gear most TV shows and even movies (as promotion partners and product placement rise in importance) to appeal to that audience. Meanwhile, an older audience with leisure time to enjoy finds little to watch. Consumers 65 and over make up 13% of the population but account for only 2% of the characters on prime-time TV.
So why does the ad business seem to be wearing blinders?
For one thing, Madison Avenue is mostly staffed by urban twentysomethings, dressed in black, cell phones to their ears.
"They've never walked in the shoes of older consumers, so they don't understand the target," says Robert Snyder, senior partner of the Mature Market Group of agency J. Walter Thompson Worldwide, who testified at the Senate hearings. "So what happens? They write condescending or insulting copy."
The answer, Snyder says, is for companies and agencies to create "ageless" marketing that reaches across age lines, such as recent campaigns from Harley-Davidson and Gap. Breaux suggests that agencies hire more 50-plus workers to get their viewpoint.
But marketers and ad agencies are going after mature consumers, "We just don't want to talk about it," says Cheryl Berman, chief creative officer of Leo Burnett, at the American Association of Advertising Agencies Creative Conference in San Francisco last week. The fear is that the products will be seen as too old. "We'll see more of this secret targeting," she says.
The biggest hurdle for Madison Avenue is its belief in five key assumptions about mature consumers - some dating to the days of I Love Lucy - despite mounting research to the contrary:
- Myth 1: Mature consumers are brand loyal. This is the single-biggest myth, experts say. Consumers 45 and over are just as likely as younger consumers to experiment with or switch brands, according to a study by AARP and RoperASW.
"Marketers who abandon this stereotype will find themselves rewarded," says Jim Fishman, publisher at AARP Publications.
- Myth 2: Mature consumers care only about price. Consumers 45 and up are more likely to buy higher-priced brands and less likely to change brands just to get a cheaper price than people younger than 45, says Stephen Frost, research director of AARP Publications. "These consumers are not eating cat food on limited budgets."
More than 60% of them say "quality" is the most important factor in choosing a brand. Take John Bohl, 73, a retired teacher from Brooklyn, N.Y. He just dropped more than $20,000 for a new Toyota RAV4 without blinking - but not before careful research. "I read Consumer Reports," he says.
- Myth 3: Mature consumers don't shop the Web. The image of technophobic old fogies dies hard. The numbers tell a different story: Roughly half of 50-plus consumers own personal computers, and 70% have Internet access, according to the Senate committee. About 92% of those PC owners have shopped online; 78% have made purchases.
- Myth 4: Mature consumers think alike. AARP says marketers must speak to at least three groups: leading-edge boomers, 45 to 56, still in their peak earning years; the gap generation, 57 to 65, who are planning work and lifestyle changes; and consumers 66 and up, entering retirement years.
- Myth 5: Marketerscan reach mature consumers as "spillover" by advertising to younger consumers. Marketing is becoming so segmented that mature consumers need their own messages, Frost says. "Very soon, the 45-plus market will represent half the population, and the traditional target of consumers aged 25 to 44 years old will shrink."
Ad agency executives counter that there's good reason to focus on youth. Scott Gilbert, chief executive officer of ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, Los Angeles, says older consumers want to see young faces in ads.
"People don't want to see who they really are. They want to see who they want to be," says Gilbert, citing studies that indicate consumers mentally picture themselves 15 years younger or more. "It's a sign of the times. Most people aspire to be younger than they really are. They don't want to grow up. Or grow old."
The ad business also sees younger consumers as long-term investments, says Monica Karo, managing director of OMD West in Los Angeles, which buys advertising for Nissan. "Eighteen- to 34-year-olds are living on their own for the first time, buying a house for the first time and making a lot of brand choices for the first time. Marketers want to bring them in young and keep them for many years."
Rick Boyko, chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather, wants to know what products are supposed to be aimed at mature consumers outside of health, financial services, luxury autos and travel. "We have the disposable dollars. But as hard as it is to admit, we don't set the trends anymore," says Boyko, 54, about his generation.
Turning the ad industry is like turning a ship, but some marketers are already taking the lead.
Shatner, the 71-year-old actor of Star Trek fame and endorser for Priceline.com, is the last pitchman standing from the dot-com wars. "Bill put us on the map," says Brett Keller, chief marketing officer of the travel service.
In beauty care, L'Oreal is using fiftysomething model Dayle Haddon to pitch its new Age Perfect line of skin-care products for women ages 50 to 70.
In the financial services sector, 80-year-old actor Steven Hill is going strong for online investing firm TD Waterhouse.
And Toyota is getting strong reaction to new ads with Sir Edmund Hillary, the 83-year-old conqueror of Mount Everest. "He's the real deal," Gilbert says.
Mature consumers are also moving targets because their own definition of "old age" keeps changing. On average, mature consumers now consider "old age" to start at 72, not 65, according to research by RoperASW. The older they get, the older "old" seems: Consumers younger than 50 say "old age" starts at 68; those older than 50 say it starts a decade later at 78, according to research.
The "spillover" strategy is a pretty smart move when going after mature consumers who are young at heart. DeMott recently dropped $1,200 on an iMac because it "looks young and modern looking." Her daughter teases her about dressing like a kid.
"I'm 52, but I still feel young," DeMott says. "I have a hard time believing I'm that old."
Michael McCarthy, USA TODAY. November 19, 2002
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