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Why marketing to seniors is so terrible

Ads geared toward older consumers tend to be condescending at best, offensive at worst. Here’s why marketers get seniors wrong. Plus, a look at the brands that are getting it right, from Mercedes to Covergirl.

Why marketing to seniors is so terrible
[Photos: bowie15/iStock, LightFieldStudios/iStock, GregorBister/Getty Images]

Honest question: When was the last time you saw anyone over 55 in a decent ad? The world of oldsvertising is a hellscape full of reverse mortgages, erectile dysfunction pills, and bathtubs that won’t kill you.

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If you took your entire view of the human race from primetime advertising alone, you’d see a society without old people. They don’t work, they don’t drink beer, they don’t drive cars. They don’t exist. According to Havas Group, only about 5% of U.S. advertising is even aimed at people over 50.

And yet by 2020, the world will have more 55-year-olds than 5-year-olds, and older people are expected to generate half of all urban consumption growth between 2015 and 2030. The U.S. Census Bureau has pegged 2035 as the year older adults will outnumber chil­dren for the first time in U.S. history. By 2060 in China, one in three people–or 487 million–will be over 60. As far as brands are concerned, that’s a lot of potential sales.

But forget about balancing between Instagram and “I’ve fallen but I can’t get up.” These statistics, along with more recent studies around how consumers want to see different generations depicted and reflected in culture, are starting to shift how some marketers try to lure different age groups.

So why is marketing to older people so bad?

Major brand marketers over the years have demonstrated a distinct obsession with age. People are segmented off into age ranges like 18 to 34, 35 to 50, and over-55, as if our buying patterns, motivation, and lifestyles are homogenous and based primarily on how many years we’ve been alive. Life stage and age have been decoupling over the past generation, with milestones like education, marriage, kids, career, and retirement becoming unmoored from traditional age constraints. A 2018 study conducted by McCann and The Paley Center for Media asked people of all ages when you’re too old to do things like go back to school, start your own business, or date romantically, and an overwhelming majority of respondents said you’re never too old for any of it, putting into question the focus on age as a reliable indicator of consumer habits.

However, most advertisers still see the next generation as always the most exciting. Are you sick of gen Z headlines yet? They’re new, they’re different, their disposable income habits are not yet fully formed! When asked about AB InBev’s Super Bowl strategy in 2015, the brewer’s VP of global marketing strategy Jorn Socquet said, “It’s moving towards a different tone of voice. It will be more young, it will be a little more fun-based. So you will definitely see an evolution.” And last year, Tiffany’s chief artistic officer Reed Krakoff told me the brand has been experimenting and pushing itself to find the right balance between leveraging the enormous brand value in its heritage, “while at the same time not letting it become an albatross around its neck, preventing it from attracting newer, younger people into its doors.” The brand’s 2018 “Believe in Dreams” campaign featured both Elle Fanning (then 20) and A$AP Ferg (then 30).

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There is some logic behind the strategy of targeting younger consumers. According to Forrester research, 55% and 54% of those less than 31 and 31-39, respectively, say they “enjoy trying new brands or products.” That number drops to 39% for those aged 54-63 and 31% for the 64-74 set. Forrester analyst Dipanjan Chatterjee says it’s possible that marketers see no quick win here among less promiscuous consumers who are unwilling to switch for quick inducements. “This may also reflect a mind-set among many brands where marketers are rewarded for acquisition after which the customer gets passed on to some other part of the organization,” says Chatterjee. And so the most creative, high-production campaigns tend to focus on the youngest consumers, while marketing aimed at older groups follows mindless formulas and plays into time-worn stereotypes about older people as needy and helpless.

The real opportunity of marketing to older people

But stats like those cited by Forrester can be misleading. On the flipside, Havas Group’s chief insights officer and SVP brand marketing at Vivendi Maria Garrido says talking directly to older people is a huge missed opportunity, not just because of their disposable income, but it’s also a group that is generally more sincere with brands. “They want brands to provide content that’s educational, informative, and more than just entertainment,” says Garrido. “They’re more sincere in that when they have a good experience with a brand, 68% say they share it with other people.”

Havas’s 2018 Meaningful Brands study found massive growth in the online presence of over-55 consumers, with 68% of them also buying something online every month.

Aside from healthcare, luxury is the product segment where Havas has seen more brands actively engaging with older consumers. And for good reason, since Euromonitor reported that 70% of all available U.S. income is owned by those over 55, and, globally, people over 60 will account for $15 trillion in spending power by 2020. “A lot of luxury brands are doing things with older models, showcasing an older target group,” says Garrido. “Part of that is affordability. I was having lunch with someone the other day from Chanel who told me that 80% of their fashion is sold to people over the age of 50. Most people don’t have the accumulated wealth to pay $2,000 for a jacket.”

The rise of multigenerational advertising

 There are brands that are finding ways of reflecting the reality that we live in a–shocker!–multigenerational society. L’Oreal Paris and British Vogue recently partnered to launch “The Non-Issue,” created with McCann London and Paris, a print insert in the May edition of British Vogue. Featuring older women like Jane Fonda and Helen Mirren, the aim was to celebrate women over 50, who feel ignored by the fashion and beauty industries.

Not all brands have completely ignored older consumers. While the bulk of advertising seems to follow an unspoken “No Olds” rule, some brands have managed to create multigenerational ads (either in whom they depict or who the target audience is) that stand out. In 2011, Toyota used a Venza ad to subvert expectations of a less-than thrilling, almost-empty nester lifestyle.

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Nike’s 2016 “Unlimited” campaign put a fun spotlight on then 86-year-old Ironman athlete Sister Madonna Buder, the “Iron Nun.”

Meanwhile, Mercedes’s 2017 “Grow Up” campaign had a distinctly multigenerational bent, with short films ranging from “Get a Job” featuring A$AP Rocky to “Be a Good Parent,” about an aging boomer who manages to appreciate his grown son’s artistic pursuits.

Fashion brand Celine created a media frenzy when it made Joan Didion its poster girl in 2015. And Covergirl’s 2017 “I Am What I Make Up” may have starred Issa Rae, but it also featured 69-year-old model Maye Musk, who continues to be part of the brand’s advertising.

“This is a majority audience and seems to be a point of disruption, but very few brands are doing it,” says Sarah Rabia, global director of cultural strategy for TBWA\Chiat\Day L.A. “I could see two strategies: Either you go more inclusive, don’t define by age, but look at values and similarities between your audience, because there are plenty of things a boomer and a millennial have in common. Or you get laser-focused on this audience, but with a tone that’s upbeat, modern, and progressive.”

Focus on attitudes, not ages

Perhaps focusing on age groups is the wrong approach altogether. The 2018 McCann study “Truth About Age” found that aging is actually something everyone thinks about. Its data showed that people in their 20s fear death the most, those in their 30s think about aging the most, while people in their 70s actually worry about aging the least. The report suggested marketers should shift from age to attitudinal segmentation. So instead of age ranges, it outlined five different attitudes: Ageless Adventurers, Communal Caretakers, Actualizing Adults, Youth Chasers, and Future Fearers.

Nadia Tuma, senior vice president and director of McCann Truth Central (the agency’s research unit), says that even if you just look at one small segment like empty nesters, you’ll get a kaleidoscope of different attitudes toward growing older, from excitement to fear, optimistic to apocalyptic. Similarly, if you filter it through culture, looking at how China compares to France, say, you start to get a very different picture of how different people think about aging. “It’s almost like the demographics that we’ve created are a barrier to us understanding people at a deeper level,” says Tuma.

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The one universal truth about aging

The most surprising finding Tuma and her team discovered was when they asked people to envision an aging utopia–and an aging dystopia. In every single country surveyed, the utopia had generations living together in harmony, learning from each other, and helping one another other. The dystopia, conversely, strictly segregated young and old. Which one do we see most in advertising today?

“The vast majority of people said aging well means spending time with people who are both younger and older than you,” says Tuma. “It’s about intergenerational connections, something much more powerful than just finding a good moisturizer.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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