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AARP Aims to Deliver Message to Marketers

With ads that show older consumers who have been body-bagged or toe-tagged while still living, breathing and trying to shop, AARP today began its latest attempt to convince marketers not to write off consumers over 50 years old.

"These days, doctors don't pronounce you dead," one ad says. "Marketers do."

The campaign is the latest effort to attract new advertisers to the pages of AARP Magazine, which is mailed to 22 million households, and other AARP publications. While it is not the first bid to sweeten Madison Avenue on people it considers seniors - Reader's Digest magazine and CBS have long pointed out that their many older readers and viewers have higher incomes and spend more than younger consumers - it may be the most confrontational.

Yet some marketers said AARP's campaign would be hard-pressed to overcome one of the most important reasons the advertising community swoons in front of 18-to-49 year olds: The younger set is significantly harder to reach with advertising than its elders.

The AARP campaign argues that focused, attentive marketing to older Americans is more important than before. Four million Americans turn 50 each year, while last year consumers over 50 spent nearly $400 billion, said Jim Fishman, group publisher at AARP Publications in New York, the division behind the new campaign. "The time is right," he said.

What could help AARP's marketing message make inroads among those with the advertising purse strings is the erosion of a long-held belief among marketers that older Americans are too set in their ways to change brands.

Ken Dychtwald, president at Age Wave in San Francisco, said, "If that notion were real, I would be sitting here in Thom McCann shoes, have a Chevy Impala parked in my garage, be wearing a Timex watch, have brushed my teeth with Crest and, for a little arthritis in my shoulder, I would have taken St. Joseph aspirin."

"All of which is ridiculous," Mr. Dychtwald said, noting that he drives an Aston Martin and wears a Cartier watch. "There's not one product that I use today that I was using in my late teens."

Still, marketers may resist the idea that they, in effect, have no clue what they are doing and that by pursuing the young just threw away much of the $249.2 billion spent last year on advertising, the estimate from Robert J. Coen of Universal McCann. While acknowledging the aging of the country and the rising wealth of older Americans, some said their priorities were driven simply by the elusiveness of young people.

"The big concern hasn't been reaching the older audience, it's been reaching the younger audience, because they're not just sitting there in front of their televisions," said Andrew Donchin, director for national broadcast at Carat USA, part of the Aegis Group, which buys advertisements for clients including Club Med, Intel and Adidas. Even though seniors are increasingly physically active, they are also watching more television and remain far easier to reach than the young, he said.

"In a lot of cases," Mr. Donchin said, "we feel we're reaching them de facto."

To better compete with that attitude, AARP has revamped and refocused its magazine in recent years. Originally called Modern Maturity and briefly accompanied by a version for baby boomers called My Generation, AARP Magazine now prints three outwardly similar but distinct editions. They are tailored to readers in their 50's, readers in their 60's and those 70 years old or older.

But even with headlines like "Outta the way, punks: older racers are the hot-rod kings," research by the AARP agency of record, GSD&M in Austin, Tex., suggested that the magazine remained a hard sell for young media planners and buyers.

"We wanted to do this in a provocative way," said Maureen Barry, account director at GSD&M, part of the Omnicom Group. "Because media planners are young and relatively jaded, we had to engage them emotionally and try to shock them a bit."

Reader's Digest used a similar strategy last May, when it tried to catch young media executives' eyes with a little titillation. One ad showed a woman in a bathrobe and the legend read, "If we got any closer to our readers, we'd have to use protection."

The result is not yet clear: ad pages for the later issues in 2003 were off slightly (1.8 percent) compared with the same period in 2002, according to Publishers Information Bureau.

Further installments of the AARP campaign will show a elegantly dressed woman having the time of her life, except for the chalk outline that surrounds her, and other such scenarios as the campaign continues throughout the year.

Direct mail sent to media buyers will include elegant sympathy cards offering "Deepest sympathies on your loss . . . and for missing out on over $400 billion of disposable income." And the campaign will pursue executives into office elevators in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, New York and San Francisco, where the ads will appear on electronic screens.

Some agency executives agreed that the youth of media planners and buyers could be a problem. "It's an age-old challenge in the business - people who do a lot of the planning work are in their 20's and creeping into their 30's," said Larry Orell, executive vice president and general manager in the Northeast for Initiative, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies. "What you need to do is get on their consideration list, and that's what this whole campaign is probably about."

But Mr. Orell and Mr. Donchin, the Carat executive, defended their media teams.

"One of the greatest requirements of media planners is to look beyond themselves and New York and Los Angeles," Mr. Donchin said. "I would hope they do. I think they do; here they do."

The shock value of the ads is only an attention-grabbing beginning, AARP concedes, after which they must coax marketers out of certain attitudes or to look at them in new ways. An example is fear among advertisers that pitching to seniors will tar their brands with geriatric associations and alienate young consumers.

"Marketers don't want people to see them marketing to the 50-plus market," said Mr. Fishman, the AARP group publisher. But that should work in favor of AARP Magazine precisely because it has no young readers to see what products are advertised there, he said.

The arguments of the AARP campaign are not unique to magazines. Although CBS, which is owned by Viacom Inc., attracts the most overall viewers and has gained many younger viewers with shows like "Survivor," NBC, a unit of the General Electric Company, has maintained its image as a magnet for the young.

If marketers still refuse to prioritize older consumers, said a consultant focused on aging issues, AARP is partly responsible.

"AARP is in an interesting paradox because they have built a lot of their character and political clout based on the proposition that older adults were frail and needed protection because they were powerless," said Mr. Dychtwald, of Age Wave.

Mr. Fishman called that misleading. "Essentially what AARP is trying to do is help everyone over 50 live a better life," he said. "Some of that has to do with helping people who have very real needs, but there are also people who want to enjoy the benefits of their longer, healthier lives."

Posted on aef.com: January 15, 2004


Nat Ives, New York Times. January 12, 2004

Copyright © 2004 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.