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Not Getting Older, Just More Scrutinized

Baby Boomers are a mass of contradictions.

They spend freely but love bargains. They don’t identify with young models, but resent being called senior or elder and hate expressions like “golden years.” They have little loyalty to the brands of their youth but prefer products with well-known names.

As a group, boomers — the 78 million people born between 1946 and 1964 — are rapidly aging out of the 18-49 demographic that had become advertising’s holy grail simply because so many people fell within the category. Their sheer number and spending power dictate that companies keep them in their sights.

But so far, no one seems to have figured out a way to reach them as a group. And brand managers — many of them boomers — are increasingly seeking outside help.

Perhaps inevitably, a number of consulting firms has sprung up, purporting to offer the key.

Matt Thornhill, a former advertising executive, for example, runs a consulting company, the Boomer Project. And Ken Dychtwald, a gerontologist, operates Age Wave, a firm to help companies understand boomers and to translate that understanding into profit.

Even AARP, that venerable spokesman for the over-50 crowd, has teamed with the Kantar Group, the research arm of WPP, to form Focalyst, a research firm that has signed up 11 Fortune 100 clients by promising a steady stream of insights into boomers.

“Companies still need to find out how the different generations feel about product placements in shows, about celebrity endorsements, about how their use of the Internet meshes with their use of traditional media like magazines,” said Kathy Sheehan, senior vice president of GfK Roper Consulting, which has been inundated with requests for boomer polls.

Most consultants are still amassing data but all are unanimous on one thing: The boomers thrive on change and reinvention. They did not grow up with the Internet, but they readily go online to plot out vacations and seek bargains. They grew up with television, but they have embraced TiVo and VCR’s and other technologies that let them scoot past commercials. They may not like rap music, but they’ll listen to their own music on the same types of iPods that their children use.

They have no use for nostalgia, yet they relate wonderfully to the icons of their past. Marketers say, for example, that Aleve hit a home run when it showed Leonard Nimoy, Mr. Spock of Star Trek, having trouble making the “Live Long and Prosper” sign with arthritic hands. Why? “It wasn’t a trip down nostalgia lane,” Mr. Thornhill said. “It was using a boomer icon talking about a present and future problem.”

•Actually, the Boomer Memory Lane is littered with milestones. This generation saw the birth of computing and the Space Age. It saw the rise of laws barring discrimination, and it embraced organic goods, fitness seminars and anti-aging pills and potions (and yes, Botox injections.)

That has given rise to another contradiction: The older boomers get, the younger they seem to feel. Boomers under 50, when asked “how old is old?” in a recent Roper survey, answered 68. Boomers over 50 said old age set in at 78.

JoAnn R. Hines, a packaging consultant who has developed a subspecialty in packaging to boomers, counsels her clients that “boomers of all ages still see themselves as 30” — even though their aging eyes need packages with larger, clearer print.

Consultants say clients are lapping up such tips, and clamoring for more. Focalyst recently sent 16-page questionnaires to 250,000 people between 42 and 87, asking them how they shop, how they use the Internet, how they deal with medical needs, how they plan to spend retirement — pretty much about every aspect of their lives. Focalyst is still processing the 30,000 responses it received, but it hopes eventually to spot patterns that companies can use to tailor products and campaigns.

“Companies are overwhelmed, because they know that age is only one factor in this generation’s buying decisions,” the president of Focalyst, Mike Irwin, said.

He gets no argument from Michael L. Johnson, vice president for brand management and advertising at the Hartford Financial Services Group. Hartford signed up with Focalyst despite having seven full-time gerontologists on staff.

“The boomers expect to live longer than their parents, they don’t expect the government to take care of them, and they see retirement not as an end but as just another stage in life,” Mr. Johnson said. “We just can’t assume that we have all the insights at our fingertips.”•Pulte Homes feels the same way. It recently asked Harris Interactive to find out what sorts of expectations boomers — particularly those now in their 40’s — have for their retirement. The responses showed that many expected to work well past normal retirement age. So Pulte’s Del Webb unit, which has done well by building adult communities far out in the countryside, is planning retirement villages much closer to business centers.

“The boomers are healthy, they haven’t saved a lot of money, they expect Social Security will run into problems,” said Steven A. Burch, national vice president for strategic marketing for Pulte. “So we want to let them live the Del Webb lifestyle and still work outside the home.”

Those homes better have a lot of extra bedrooms — if not for aging parents, then for cash-strapped adult children, or even for infants. The boomers simply do not hold with the idea of age dictating life events.

“Their parents led linear lives — get educated, get married, get a job, have kids, retire, take bus tours,” Mr. Thornhill said. “Boomers get married, get divorced, start a career, go back to college, start a second career, start a second family.” The concept of age-appropriate behavior — and thus, of age-related buying habits — is simply alien to them.

“My brother’s an empty nester at 49; I’m 46, with a 16-month-old,” Mr. Thornhill said. “And David Letterman is the father of a toddler, and he’s 59.”


Claudia H. Deutsch, The New York Times. October 11, 2006

Copyright © 2006 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.