Rise Of The Olds: Advertising Catches Up With A New Demographic

The perennially ignored over-60 demographic is silent no more. From music videos to film, older people are everywhere. And now even the ad industry can’t ignore them.

Rise Of The Olds: Advertising Catches Up With A New Demographic

Advertising is by and for cool, young people. Always has been, always will b… Record scratch. Cue the Grandma DJ.


For decades, advertising has been aimed mainly at the coveted 18-49 demo. The creative industry has strained to keep its finger on the pulse of the ever-shifting members of that age group (and often embarrassed itself in its efforts to appeal to the youngsters). Mention old folks and ad people would have run screaming. Only no one ever really mentioned them.

That’s changing. The ad industry, like other sectors, is being forced into the present by the awesome reality of the numbers. Right now, seniors control nearly a third of total U.S. net wealth, according to a study by Leo Burnett Group. There are 72+ million boomers, the oldest of which turned 65 last year and another 50-odd million people in the older or “silent” generation. And, their growth is outpacing every other demographic group. In fact, by 2030 one in five Americans will be 65 or older. When it comes to broadcast media, the oldening of audiences is profound–the average network TV viewer is over 50. And it’s not just America; across many developed Western markets there is a similar picture. Yet, traditionally, only 5% of worldwide advertising budgets have been geared toward older consumers while 80% is spent trying to reach 18-34-year-olds.

But some advertisers are rethinking the math and are finally getting over their gerontophobia. More brands are catching on to the wider trend in popular culture that has given us the following:

The Nintendo-playing great grandma who “doesn’t feel a day over 80″:

Grandpa Shuffelin’:


Grandmas shotgunning beers at a football game:

A touching video about the very end of life from a young indie band, Clock Opera:

The older demographic is even making its presence known in the ultimate youth-obsessed world–Hollywood. From the inescapable Betty White phenomenon (at 90, she has a new show Off Their Rockers, a kind of old-on-young Punk’d) to the 2010 actioner Red, older people just seem more present.

And, at last, the ad industry has realized that it needs to learn how to talk to this demographic–and in a way that reflects some modicum of reality.


Last year Toyota made ads for its Venza model poking fun at the perception the younger generation has of their older parents. In the ads, created by Saatchi & Saatchi LA, empty-nesters are seen outdoors leading active lives while their grown-up children sit indoors obsessing about them.

Of course, if you’re selling to olds, you’re going to feature olds in your ads. After years of largely being absent, it’s now okay to have gray hair in a commercial that isn’t for a stairchair. Aged 74, Jane Fonda sells L’Oreal skin cream to women much younger than her. And, according to Neilsen the U.K.’s “most liked” ad of 2011 was a quirky little spot for discount supermarket Aldi, by McCann Manchester, featuring an elderly lady, who, after explaining which teas she buys for her husband, shares with us: “I don’t like tea. I like gin.”

Even when ads aren’t expressly aimed at seniors (or exclusively at seniors), agencies seem more willing to just acknowledge their existence. Witness this ad for KFC from Ogilvy South Africa:


And this Chevy Camaro spot.

And let’s not overlook the fact that the most-talked-about ad of the 2012 Super Bowl starred a reassuringly capable-looking 81-year-old Clint Eastwood.

But who is a senior? Someone gray-haired and concerned about goiters? Or someone who Skypes with their grandkids and shares their vacation snaps on Facebook? Maybe a later-in-life parent to teenaged twins? Or a devotee of yoga, marathon running and Botox? It seems harder to avoid cliche than ever–how to portray older people without resorting to housebound cranks on one hand or, well, Grandma DJs on the other?

The answer is that +65-year-olds aren’t anywhere near being the homogeneous demographic they were viewed as being 20 years ago. And marketers are waking up to the fact that what used to be dubbed the “gray dollar” is a lucrative market for more than just cruise ship vacations, heart meds, and Depends. In 2010, people over 50 spent $87 billion on cars (versus $70 billion spent by those under that age) according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2010, Nielsen reported that boomers represented 40% of (paid) wireless customers and 41% of those buying Apple products.

SapientNitro creative director Malc Poynton says advertising is having to change the way it talks to “olds” because they don’t even think of themselves as being old. “For those brands that have been curious enough to explore the fact that this demographic behaves differently to 10 years ago, there’s the conundrum that they don’t readily embrace the image of aging–instead they appear attracted to an altogether younger tone of voice and lifestyle,” he says.


It makes perfect sense–people whose lives encompassed the births of flower power, the Civil Rights movement, and punk rock aren’t about to kick back in a deluxe recliner and concern themselves primarily with sourcing the best denture adhesive. Throw into that cultural mix better health care and generally easier lifestyles than their parents had and it’s no wonder that people are regularly declaring that 60 is the new 40.

Saatchi & Saatchi L.A. creative director Margaret Keene says: “As marketers, we need to be careful not to create or perpetuate stereotypes of this incredibly powerful and unique group of people. It doesn’t make sense that Cialis and Lipitor ads are the only reflection of who they are and what their lives are about now. The Venza campaign is a commentary on the fact that there is a general ignorance about their vitality and sense of relevance. Just as any other age group, they want advertising that speaks to them in an authentic way, so the Venza ads touched on those passion points in their honor.”

But not many are getting it right. Leo Burnett chief strategy officer Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, referring to findings in the group’s Forgotten Seniors research study, says: “Seniors don’t feel they are being taken seriously or respected and they don’t think that brands are speaking to them anymore. They feel like they have been forgotten.”

Hahn-Griffiths believes there is a huge opportunity here and that those brands that make an effort and reach out to seniors–in the right way–will disproportionately earn credibility and respect.

He cites Oxo Good Grips as an example of a brand that has cleverly identified what seniors are looking for and made it applicable to the mass market. The range of kitchen tools, originally designed for those with difficulty in manipulating or gripping implements was adopted by up-scale seniors and has now morphed, Hahn-Griffiths says, into a cool, dynamic brand for the broader population.

Though some brands are making inroads there is still much to learn and it will mean fundamental changes. “You have to recalibrate your mind to truly get under the skin of the way they live and it will cause us to re-educate ourselves as an industry,” says Hahn-Griffiths.


About the author

Louise Jack is a London-based journalist, writer and editor with a background in advertising and marketing. She has written for several titles including Marketing Week, Campaign and The Independent.