Marketers, These Eye-Popping Stats Will Make You Stop Chasing Youth, Start Courting Boomers

Baby boomers control 70% of American's disposable income, yet only 5% of advertising is geared toward their age group. Why? Read on for more compelling numbers, and the ideas behind them.

In 1963, Pepsi-Cola kicked off a TV, radio, print, and billboard campaign that made advertising history.

Pepsi showed young people motorcycling, skiing, surfboarding, flirting. The product itself was barely described except as the choice of “livelier, active people,” with “the young view of things.” The campaign’s tagline: “Come alive! You’re in the Pepsi generation!”

The campaign didn’t just speak to a generation. It defined the generation: a rebuff of the past, a shared project of youthful freedom and fun. The Encyclopedia of Major Marketing Campaigns, puts it this way: “In a stunning reversal of conventional advertising wisdom, Pepsi made the consumer--not the product--the hero of its ads and, in the process, sold viewers this portrait of themselves.”

It came at the right time, just as the first baby boomers were entering their teenage years. Twenty years later, the boomers would comprise history’s largest middle class, and Pepsi would be marketing to their kids. In 1984, for generation X, it was Michael Jackson and “the choice of a new generation.”

The brand world learned its lesson. The idea of a generation mattered. Young people cared about product features and pricing, but even more they cared about their friends, their aspirations, their identity.

Lifestyle marketing to successive generations has only become more sophisticated. But while chasing today’s youth, brands too often forget that baby boomers still have a lifestyle. In fact, they’re the same people today as when they were teenagers, only older. That makes them experts on youth and where it leads.

The Middle Class at Play

Baby boomers by the millions grew up in circumstances that previous generations couldn’t have imagined. They played in spacious backyards of detached suburban houses with mortgages subsidized by the G.I. Bill. They completed secondary education and entered college in greater numbers than ever before. They spent summer vacations riding in family station wagons over newly completed interstate highways. They were the first kids to grow up watching TV.

In short, they were the heirs to something brand-new--a modern middle class with the means and freedom to achieve unprecedented self-determination. Writing about the “Pepsi Generation,” journalist Robert Klara notes it was always about “a state of mind more than a date of birth.”

A State of Mind

These characteristics make baby boomers remarkably like today’s young people, despite our efforts to identify the features that distinguish gen-Xers, Millennials, gen-Zers, and other categories. And there’s so much age-neutral interaction among shoppers today, at home and online, that it pays to have authoritative advocates of any age.

Seeing the Opportunity

According to a Nielsen study of “Marketing’s Most Valuable Generation,” consumers over 50 years of age represent 44% of the U.S. population, control 70% of disposable income, and account for 49% of all spending on consumer packaged goods.

But less than 5% of advertising is geared specifically toward this age group, which means many brands are simply not seeing the opportunity. But the opportunity isn’t just about age. Some trends are easy to predict. Boomers will be buying more health-care products, seeking financial and retirement advice, moving into condominiums, playing more golf. But these don’t tell the whole story. Consider, for example:

Boomers are online and mobile. According to MarketingCharts, boomers make up 40% of the total spending for wireless services; more than half are on Facebook; and they spend far more money online than any other age group.

Boomers connect with youth. Many boomers are now grandparents, and, according to Brent Green, author of Generation Reinvention, “They don’t want to just be the weathered old people sitting on the front porch passively watching their grandchildren play in the front yard. They want to be there with them.”

Boomers are adventurous. The generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s practically invented road trips, fitness running, backpacking in exotic locales, ecotourism, adrenaline sports--basically, the whole concept of adventure for its own sake. Now, boomers have more time and money than ever to pursue new experiences.

Boomers are self-reliant. Sometime in the late 1960s, many young boomers, possibly borrowing from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” adopted the motto “Do your thing.” Echoes of that ethic can be seen in today’s DIY movements--from home pickling, to selling craftwork on Etsy, to starting new businesses on Kickstarter.

The Young View of Things

The fact that boomers collectively possess a lot of wealth is reason enough to get beyond the stereotypes and learn what they really think, want, and need. But the true value of taking a closer look is that they’re really quite like younger generations.

Baby boomers--and the brands that recognized their potential--literally created the idea of youth culture more than 40 years ago. Every generation, from the baby boomers on down, began as “generation Youth.” And they’ll cling to that identity (rightly!) even as they follow the path boomers have been on for decades. We all want to hold onto “the young view of things,” in the words of the old Pepsi campaign. To “Come Alive!”

Baby boomers understand that need like no one else. They’ve endured, and they intend to keep at it. Brands that want to do the same might learn from their experience.

--Lor Gold is global chief creative officer for SGK, a leading global brand development, activation, and deployment company. Gold joined SGK in 2011, with 25 years of experience in brand-building, branded promotions, and multichannel retail experiences that helped define the practice of shopper marketing.

[Image: Flickr user Gabor Balogh]

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  • ©Dave ℗ Rickmers®

    Boomers made the world conform to their sensibilities. The radio stopped yelling and playing bad music. The cars shrank. The TV stopped exploiting women. Money was given its proper place in society and greed was eschewed. This lasted until Reagan decided to turn the country into a Capitalist Wonderland, and the radio is again yelling and the TV is again exploiting women.

  • RyanGensel

    Nosybear and Greysweatshirt raise extremely valid points on why marketers focus on youth.

    Babyboomers have years of resistance that have either entrenched beloved brands or ingrained a cynicism towards brands that 'waste' what could be savings passed on to the consumer, trying to court new customers that simply don't recognize value. Advertising is more effective than not advertising, and the most vulnerable and long-term targets are the impressionable and socially mobile youth market.

  • Chuck Nyren

    Good to see this piece.  Brent Green's first business book Marketing to leading edge Baby Boomers was published in 2003.  Mine, Advertising to Baby Boomers, in 2005.  More blogs/books/consultations/seminars around the world have featured Matt Thornhill, Carol Orsborn, Marti Barletta, Kevin Lavery, Dick Stroud, Kevin Lavery and others (search for them).  The interest in targeting this demo has waxed and waned throughout the last decade.  Now it's time to take it seriously.

  • Chuck Nyren

    Good to see this piece.  Brent Green's first business book Marketing to leading edge Baby Boomers was published in 2003.  Mine, Advertising to Baby Boomers, in 2005.  More blogs/books/consultations/seminars around the world have featured Matt Thornhill, Carol Orsborn, Marti Barletta, Kevin Lavery, Dick Stroud, Kevin Lavery and others (search for them).  The interest in targeting this demo has waxed and waned throughout the last decade.  Now it's time to take it seriously.

  • Mickey

    The idea that marketers are somehow 'overlooking' Baby Boomers has become popular urban legend. The reasoning behind such an assertion is the acceptance of the idea that unless a commercial includes some gray hair and wrinkles, Baby Boomers won't notice it and react to it. 

    That's total nonsense. And can be proven by looking at the spots that score well with Baby Boomers (VW's 'Mini Vader' spot, for instance). More on this here: 

    Not targeting Boomers with media choice is another matter, though I've yet to see proof that major brands have neglected them in their buys. 

    It could be argued that the idea that marketers are 'ignoring' Boomers is another way of painting them with a very broad brush.

  • Nosybear

    Uh, because most of us are old enough we smell a marketing pitch about the time the pitchman opens their mouth?  Marketing to us isn't that effective, it's far easier to get a 20-something to believe Tide is better than Great Value or Glidden is better than Behr.  We have learned what we like and what we don't.  Marketing to us generally means informing us of the value your product or service brings, not tricking us into thinking that Coors is somehow good because you freeze your tastebuds to drink it and the can turns blue.  We can be convinced but not tricked and that is what foils the average marketeer.

  • Suzie Mitchell

    As a communications consultant in the Boomer market, primarily dealing in digital health care devices, I can tell you there is no brand loyalty with the Boomer market.  They are willing to switch on a dime, if their friends refer them to another product, which is why social media campaigns targeted to Boomers are so important.

  • Anthony Reardon

    Very interesting Lor,

    I would agree in general. However, I might also suggest most of the advertising I have seen is targeted to baby boomers, just not specifically their age demographic. Generationally they were labeled by the precedent generation, but I think it was more important for them to define their own identity- both collectively and individually.

    This stood out as different because it used to be the cultural message promoted was prescribed by tradition. The precedent generation had been strongly nationalized by the war effort, and industrialization tended to push expectations for conformity in everything from product to scale, to workplace modalities, to consumer messaging.

    Baby boomers grew up in an era of broadly biased social conflict ranging across sex, drugs, rock & roll, civil rights, Vietnam, fallibility of government, nuclear proliferation, the Cold War, etc, etc. So in most respects, it was a conflict either for or against the status quo. Virtually no matter what you did, you were taking sides, and subsequently labeled. I think this matured into a sharper consciousness of and attention to identity.

    So I'm not sure if Baby Boomers want to be called as such, or even specifically marketed to on that basis. However, they probably do want to be marketed to for who they want to be, how they want to feel, and according to how they relate to the world. I think they care more about their own brands, and they respond more to those brand messages that resonate to that end.

    With the web, devices, and social media, I think you see an acceleration and amplification of these preferences. Brands need to think more about how they support the brands of their target markets. This involves everything from design, presentation, delivery, and follow through. In simple terms it is consumer orientation.

    It's something I think you can learn from the experience of that generation. It behooves companies to focus in on what people want and be that for them. It's also interesting that technology culture is more attributed from and to younger generations. Baby boomers probably don't like being the status quo, the next generations probably don't care, so there are new dynamics in play. I also think technology utilization was more the purview of younger generations because the older generations were too busy working. As it all becomes more commercialized and business oriented, you are seeing older generations coming on board big time.

    Younger generations probably forget why these people were called "Baby Boomers", but where popularity rules, nothing quite speaks to that as much as population, and the majority of these people are about to have a lot of free time on their hands... that is, if you still believe retirement is even possible, let alone preferable, lol!

    Best, Anthony  

  • Greysweatshirt

    Good article with valid points. But it misses a big argument for advertising for this generation's (or last generation or next generation) youth -- they're counting on when the generation they are currently targeting grows up, they'll already know their brand and be loyal customers. Marketing for today's youth today plants the seed of identification and association for long term customers.

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