So Immature

Boomers, forever young and free-spending, dominate at the cash registers. Yet marketers are only concerned with reaching a few broke kids. What gives, man?

By David Hayes, Report on Business Magazine, June 2004

A few weeks ago, I was flipping through 50Plus magazine and realized, to my horror, that I was interested in some of the articles. Especially one on aging and sleep, since I don’t get enough of the latter. Then, someone walked into my doctor’s waiting room, so I quickly put the magazine down and returned to my New Yorker.

I’d felt embarrassed to be seen reading 50Plus, the way I might have felt if someone had nearly caught me looking at Playboy. . .40 years ago. Like many baby boomers, I’m more sensitive about age than sex. At 51, I’m part of the 50Plus target market, but I certainly don’t feel it. If they ever ask me to participate in a focus group, I’ll tell them to change the name.

I should have mentioned it to Jane Bradley, the director of sales and marketing for 50Plus, when I was talking to her the other day, but we were too busy discussing the difficulty her magazine has attracting advertising. “People in the ad industry are very young,” she says. “They find it difficult to think about the mature market. For them, the world stops at 49. There’s a perception that the members of the 50-plus target group are set in their ways, rigidly brand loyal, that they don’t have money and that they’re old-looking.”

50Plus is published on behalf of Canada’s Association for the 50-Plus (formerly the Canadian Association of Retired Persons), and Bradley draws on both internal and external research when she talks about how only 5% to 10% of media spending is directed at the 50-plus demographic, even though its members are free-spending consumers who represent nearly half of the Canadian population (a proportion that is steadily growing). When Bradley—who, at 43, is a trailing-edge boomer—meets with media planners, most of whom are in their 20s or early 30s, she is more schoolteacher than businesswoman.

Using a PowerPoint presentation, she begins by showing them rock stars like Mick Jagger, who is 60, and Cher, who is in her late 50s, and asks them to guess the ages of three beautiful women—Kim Basinger, Christie Brinkley and Kate Capshaw—all of whom recently turned 50. Then she asks how many think they’ll be using the same brands of fragrance, toothpaste or cellphone in 10 years. None does, at which point Bradley explains that they’ll be just as selective when they reach their parents’ age—except they’ll have a lot more money.

“That’s usually when they start talking about how their 55-year-old parents just bought a new SUV or are going on adventure travel trips to Asia, and they suddenly get it,” says Bradley.

The more that little light bulb clicks on in the heads of marketing and advertising folks, the more they’ll wonder why they’re so preoccupied with 18- to 34-year-olds—a small, relatively unmoneyed slice of the demographic pie—when they could be mining for old gold. We boomers not only don’t dress like our parents did when they were over 50, we also don’t spend money like our parents did—we spend more of it, and more hedonistically. Also, as children of the ’60s, we’re proud of our skepticism of advertising, while at the same time we’re no less likely to be suckers for a good product and the right pitch than our predecessors in earlier generations. In other words, we’re available but you really need to romance us.

In 1996, the first boomers started to turn 50. Every 81/2 seconds or so, another 50th birthday is celebrated in North America. By 2008, this entire generation will be over 50, making it the largest and most powerful demographic category in our society. (By 2010, spending by people 45 and up will be a trillion dollars higher than spending by people between 18 and 44.) Yet the marketing business still acts as if the Adam Sandler Fan Club occupies the commanding heights of commerce.

This despite advice from the likes of Ken Dychtwald, a San Francisco-based psychologist and gerontologist, who invented the term “age wave.” Being a boomer, hence entrepreneurial, he became a consultant and founded a think tank to broadcast his idea. His clients include American Express, AT&T, Ford, PepsiCo and the Retail Council of Canada.

The age wave refers to the transforming effect that boomers are having on culture today, as they’ve had on each stage of life they’ve passed through. The most indulged generation in history, boomers grew up fiercely independent and challenged the status quo. They’re highly educated, healthy, relatively wealthy and accustomed to shaping the world around them.

According to Dychtwald, boomers are rewriting the traditional stages of life—the march from childhood through education and jobs, ending, finally, in retirement and a life of leisure. “In its place,” Dychtwald has written, “a new ‘cyclic life’ paradigm is emerging, whereby education, work and leisure are interspersed repeatedly throughout the life span. …[The boomers’] vast influence over the economy, social policy and culture in general will transform America into a gerontocracy.” Not one to leave a phrase uncoined, Dychtwald also talks of “middlescence,” a greatly extended middle period of life that stretches from 40 to 60 and even beyond.

It’s clear to me that the future lies not in journalism but in consulting on the boomer market. Gail Sheehy’s Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, published in 1976, spawned the genre, and Dychtwald’s is but one of many recent books on the subject. One in particular stands out. Last year, David Wolfe, a marketing consultant, and Robert Snyder, an expert in “mature markets,” published Ageless Marketing: Strategies for Reaching the Hearts & Minds of the New Customer Majority. They draw heavily upon the late psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs,” which has, at its base, essentials like oxygen, water, food and security, followed by a need for relationships and community. At the top of the pyramid, Maslow placed the need to fulfill our potential and become “self-actualized”—having strong ethical and compassionate qualities, being able to accept ourselves and others. Weaving in a host of psychological and sociological theories throughout the book, Wolfe and Snyder argue that the corporate world’s obsession with a population under 50 is linked to an antagonism toward aging in North American culture, and represents a missed opportunity to make millions.

They got that right. Here we are, the largest and wealthiest demographic in history, and we’re being ignored, misunderstood or condescended to in favour of the slender 18- to 34-year-old demographic. Okay, I admit that it’s more than a little ironic that people like me, accustomed to being the centre of marketing and advertising attention throughout our lives and obsessed with remaining young, are annoyed to find that, as we near or reach our 50s, attention is often focused not on us but on, of all things, young people. But back to the issue at hand.

One reason for the marketing world’s indifference toward older target groups is the decades-old conviction that brand preferences are established when we’re young, and that the older we get, the less willing we are to abandon familiar products or try new ones. If that was ever true—in a bygone era, when older people may have been more hidebound and less sophisticated as consumers, and there were far fewer product choices and marketing avenues, and the life of so many consumer goods was longer—it certainly isn’t today. I don’t still wear a Timex, drink Black Tower or eat Post Alpha-Bits, although they were my brands of choice when I was 21.

Then there’s my Hewlett-Packard printer. I’ve owned it for many years and have been very happy with it, but now that I’m thinking of replacing it, I’m researching the various brands and models from scratch, and will purchase the one I feel best suits my needs. I’ve switched toothpaste and dishwashing soaps half a dozen times in as many years, a phenomenon common to friends my age, according to a highly unscientific survey. As boomers, we grew up immersed in advertising and media, and are perfectly comfortable picking and choosing among a vast universe of products and services.

Fortunately, there’s also empirical evidence to support the anecdotal. According to a study by ACNielsen, the market research giant, 70% of female boomers were likely to try a new brand even if it was contrary to their customary buying habits, making them more likely to switch brands than their 18- to 34-year-old counterparts. A 1999 survey conducted by Research 100, a Princeton, N.J.-based market research firm, concluded that people over 55 are “neither frugal nor set in their ways,” and spend more time than other demographic groups considering new products and brands. (They also spend three times as much money shopping on the internet as the average internet shopper.) And a study conducted in 2002 for the American Association of Retired Persons found that consumers over 45 and those under 45 were equally willing to try new brands (both groups agreed that “in today’s marketplace, it doesn’t pay to be loyal to one brand”). Moreover, those over 45 were “always looking for better products.” So much for older people being ossified in brand loyalty.

Then there’s the argument that the marketing world has to chase 18- to 34-year-olds because they’re relatively small in number and, given their mobility and almost limitless leisure pursuits, hard to reach. There’s a certain economic logic to this—if people want something that is scarce, it’s assigned a higher value. But, as New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki put it, this logic dictates advertisers ought to pay top dollar to reach sheepherders in Uzbekistan.

Another reason for the industry’s indifference is the one that Jane Bradley of 50Plus confronts at her presentations: the youth of ad-agency media planners and creative teams. It’s a fast-paced profession with a high turnover. The average age of mid-level staffers is mid-20s to late-30s, and the prevailing aesthetic is cutting-edge cool. (One 45-year-old former ad executive, now a marketing consultant, says he notices that at agency meetings he’s usually the oldest person in the room. And that the creative presentations have a “younger tonality, drawing on pop culture,” often regardless of the product.) Boomers are at least partly to blame for this—as they are, let’s face it, for almost everything. The youth revolution of the ’60s sparked a creative revolution in advertising that catered to the huge, young boomer target group in a style and language that would appeal to them, and the ad business has worshipped a cult of youth ever since.


For years, market research has been dominated by demographics, a system of classifying consumers by age, income, education, occupation and other easily quantified measurements. (As a wag in U.S. market research once said, “two-point-one children, 90% married, with three-quarters of a dog.”) Demographics provides useful data, although its weakness is obvious. Among individuals between the ages of 35 and 44 who have a university degree, earn between $40,000 and $60,000 a year and own a house in an urban geographic area, there are people who love and hate hockey, always wear running shoes and rarely do, travel a lot and seldom, like Celine Dion and abhor her, and support and oppose the new Conservative Party of Canada.

Somewhat more precise is the quasi-science of psychographics, which collects qualitative data about attitudes, values and behaviour patterns—everything from opinions on gay marriage, political views and musical tastes to self-image—in an effort to further refine demographic information. There are competing systems of psychographics, but they all divide consumers into categories with colourful names like “band leaders,” “balanced breadwinners,” “Renaissance women” and “early adopters.” In the end, it’s all about identifying the risk-takers who will be the first to experiment with something new; the confident but more analytical types who will try something new once they’ve had a chance to observe the risk-takers; and the conformists who resist change until virtually everyone else around them has changed. (That’s why, despite the demographic differences, a psychographic profile might analyze me—a downtown-dwelling, middle-aged, childless, Caucasian, male freelance writer—and a 30-year-old Asian female with a newborn who lives in a suburb and works as an accountant, and conclude that we’re both potential Mazda Proteg{Zcaron} 5 buyers.)

Psychographics is so sexy that a school of thought has emerged suggesting that demographics has outlived its usefulness, that merely knowing age, gender, income, education level and so on is hopelessly vague. Not so, argues David Foot, among the world’s leading experts on demographics. Foot, who is the co-author of the best-selling Boom, Bust & Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift and a professor of economics at the University of Toronto, says: “Start with demographics and you’re two-thirds of the way there. Age is a very, very good first marker. Get the age segments roughly right to begin with and you’ve got a strong foundation. That said, it’s a great place to start but it may not be the best place to finish. Additional information will be relevant too.

“I can tell you that people buy their luxury automobile in their 50s. That’s always been true, but I can’t tell you which luxury automobile they’ll buy. Psychographics is supposed to answer that, but psychographics will put the 50-year-old with the 25-year-old and say they’re both ‘early adopters,’ or whatever, who would buy an Acura. Fine, but a 25-year-old can’t afford to buy a luxury automobile.”

In keeping with his belief in the importance of age, Foot dismisses the idea of broad categories, such as lumping everyone over 50 into one group. “I try to break the population into five-year segments if I can. If there isn’t the data available, then I’ll go to 10-year segments. And that doesn’t end at 50. I’ll look at 45 to 54, 55 to 64, 65 to 74, 75 to 84 and 85-plus.”

For example, Foot points out that the health data for people 65 and older looks dire because of strokes, heart attacks and the like. But when the segments are broken down, it’s one category—the mid-range seniors, 75 to 84—that are responsible for the majority of deaths. How to put this. . .it’s natural selection; those who are alive past their 84th birthday are generally healthy and active. With great certainty, Foot tells me: “I find the whole ‘50-plus marketing’ to be a generic term that’s useless.”

Keith Hillmer came to the same conclusion. He’s a 58-year-old advertising veteran who worked at a succession of big agencies, among them McCann Erickson, BBDO Canada and Saatchi & Saatchi Canada, where he was creative director until the mid-’90s. While preparing to launch his own agency, he recognized that boomers represented an underserved market and, what’s more, that there was no agency in Canada focused on it. (Around the world, there are a handful of small firms specializing in the 50-plus target groups, and only one large concern—Paris-based Senioragency, a seven-country network founded by Jean-Paul Tr{Zcaron}guer, who believes in “generational marketing.”)

But when Hillmer shopped around the idea of a boutique agency dedicated to reaching the boomer market, none of the big agencies he approached were interested. In the end, Boom Communications found a home as an affiliate of Padulo Integrated, a mid-sized shop where Hillmer and his colleague, David Cravit, show me their research.

“I saw the largest target group getting larger and larger, yet it was ignored,” says Hillmer, a heavy-set man with a grey beard and mustache. Picking up on the theme, the short, stocky Cravit says, “Keith and I believe the word ‘seniors’ will disappear, because the boomers are literally redefining aging. But people in the advertising world don’t get it at all. They’re clueless.”

“The Age of Disconnect” is a term coined by Hillmer to capture the misunderstood truth about boomers. “I’m 51 but I act 40,” Cravit explains. “Yet I’ve got 11 more years of experience than the 40-year-olds. I’ve made more purchases, bought more cars, flipped more houses, been through more recessions. I’m tougher, savvier, more cynical. I’ve got knowledge and experience appropriate to my chronological age, but psychologically I’m much younger. It’s like a split personality. That’s what we define as the disconnect.”

Sometimes marketers get it half right, but overlook potential strategic opportunities. One of Hillmer’s advisers is Peter Elwood, among the country’s most renowned marketers during his long career at Unilever Canada, where he served as president of Lever Bros. and Lipton. Today, retired and living in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., Elwood’s a childless 55-year-old with short-cropped hair and a grey beard who wears jeans, T-shirts and old runners. He may look like a man in his early 40s, but he says he feels like he’s in his 20s. He’s healthy, active and, as he puts it, “I have lots of disposable income and I spend it.”

Elwood drives a racing-green Mini Cooper. “It’s the perfect car for those of us who feel environmentally conscious and believe it’s hard to get around the urban sprawl in a big vehicle,” he explains. “It’s sometimes called the “poor man’s Porsche,” which is almost perfect positioning. I’m not poor, but I’m too poor to own a Porsche, or I don’t choose to own one, and I like the reverse snobbery of the Mini. But have I seen one ad directed at me? It’s all directed at twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, yet there’s a whole group of people who, when they were teenagers in the ’60s, drove Minis or at least liked them. I know that most of the people who are buying Minis are young people, but I think BMW [which makes the Mini] is missing greater penetration by not focusing on my target group. And we’d all pay cash.

“Given that there are millions of us out there, you’d think the makers of so many products and services that we use and can afford would want to talk to us. It might only need to be an emphasis, the style of talent, the copy used, the media selection. Yet it’s hard to find that kind of marketing. It’s a missed opportunity.”

There are examples of marketers who get it right—Lexus, for example, which overtook Cadillac and Lincoln in the luxury car market by targeting boomers. (On the other hand, when Cadillac used Led Zeppelin in a bid to reach boomers, the result was both silly and ineffective, as it is whenever companies try to reach the 50-plus cohort by resorting to stereotypes.) Or take Harley-Davidson, which reinvented itself the day that its executives realized most of the people buying its motorcycles were in their 40s and 50s, and retooled its advertising accordingly. Or the Gap, which over the years has perfected the art of straddling generations with ads showing its casual clothing worn by everyone from teenagers to 80-year-olds. When the retailer lost its way two years ago and came out with a much younger line, its boomer customers backed off and sales plummeted. A year later, it launched its “For Every Generation” ad campaign that featured the likes of septuagenarian singer-songwriter Willie Nelson alongside 29-year-old alt-rocker Ryan Adams, artists who share space in my CD player.

One day I decided that I would look for that stodgy target group, the one that is resistant to change and out of step with contemporary culture. I used demographics, then psychographics. Finally I looked by profession. And then I found them, those stodgies—they’re the young people working in the nation’s marketing departments and advertising agencies.

SIDEBAR: Gettiing it Right, Part 1: Viagra

When Toronto ad agency Taxi won the Viagra account at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Canada, it faced a delicate challenge. Pfizer wanted to increase the public’s comfort level with the subject of erectile dysfunction. Most people associate ED with aging, and the connection was reinforced when Viagra launched in the U.S. in 1999 using Bob Dole, then in his mid-70s, as the celebrity spokesperson.

In fact, although ED often affects men as they age, many younger men suffer from it as well. The challenge was to sell a product that skewed old, but not as old as the public’s perception of it. How to tell boomer men that suffering from ED didn’t signal the onset of decrepitude?

Complicating matters for Taxi were Canada’s Byzantine drug advertising regulations, which permit a health condition to be discussed so long as a specific product isn’t associated with it. Alternatively, a product may be advertised as long as there’s no specific reference to the condition it’s designed for. “There was brand awareness even before Pfizer started advertising here,” says Maxine Thomas, Taxi’s creative planner on the Viagra account. “But it was positioned as an old person’s problem, and a nudge-nudge, wink-wink product.”

Taxi decided to run “condition” ads—ones that addressed the health problems—followed by “branded” ones. The first ad showed a man, who appeared to be around 40, sitting in his doctor’s office, unable to bring up the secret that was plaguing him. It was aired extensively in early 2001 on, among other programs, Hockey Night in Canada, and the voiceover spoke directly about the condition, urging sufferers to talk to their doctors and referring them to a website. No mention of the brand was made.

Later, a new series of commercials aired, featuring men of various ages dancing gleefully around a neighbourhood. (The music used was Good Morning, from the Singin’ in the Rain soundtrack, and Queen’s We Are the Champions, a boomer anthem.) The Viagra logo appeared at the end with the tagline “Talk to your doctor.”

“We decided to demonstrate the aftereffects,” explains Thomas. “Our Good Morning gentleman was clearly having a good morning because he’d had a good night. His demeanour spoke to him having put his problem behind him.”

Age was an important consideration for Thomas. From research studies, she knew that people see themselves as younger than they are, so a viewer aged 50 would look at an actor in his late 30s or early 40s and identify with him. “There’s a real fluidity around what it means to be 50 or 60,” she says. “I’m 40, and there are days when I wake up surprised that I’m not going off to a university class.” But there was another level to the Viagra spots. “The message is, if it can affect people so much younger than me, then it’s not just an older guy’s condition,” Thomas explains. “It normalizes ED, makes it more mainstream.”

SIDEBAR: Getting It Right, Part II: New Balance

Jim Davis, CEO of New Balance Athletic Shoe, Inc., would never claim he can read the future. Nevertheless, beginning back in the late ’70s, he realized that his customers were older rather than younger, and there were more important things than being the hippest running-shoe company on the block. Since he was the only running-shoe company executive who seemed to think so, New Balance prospered. Today, Davis appears to be a genius. New Balance is still a favourite among middle-aged, and older, customers, but those customers are now the most generous-spending demographic in history—the baby boomers.

What mattered was that Davis stuck to his strategy long enough for demographics to favour him. The strategy was counterintuitive. Instead of the industry norm of offering three widths, he offered five, which catered to an older population’s flattening feet. Unlike competitors Nike and Reebok, which advertise on prime-time TV, New Balance spends a fraction of the other firms’ promotional budgets by focusing on running magazines and devoting a lot of time to the care and feeding of its retailers. For example, New Balance launches fewer products than its competitors, since the boomer market cares more about performance and function than fashion. Happy side effect: Retailers don’t have to discount inventory as quickly to keep up with new products.

Another industry standard in the running-shoe market is celebrity spokespeople, but New Balance has made greater use of podiatrists and word-of-mouth marketing than high-priced star athletes preaching the virtues of competition and victory. (Sample Nike slogan: “I can.” Sample New Balance slogan: “The shortest distance between two points is not the point.”) As one industry observer noted, New Balance’s customers “are incredibly passionate about sports, but it’s not high intensity. Whether you win or lose is neither here nor there. At 50, that’s just not as important as it used to be.”

Over the past five years, New Balance, which boasts $1.3 billion (U.S.) in annual sales, has had an annual sales growth rate of 25%, while Nike’s growth has been flat. It’s the third-largest athletic footwear company in the U.S. (behind Nike and Reebok), and has the strongest customer loyalty in the business. And oddly enough, the company’s trail running shoes have become highly desirable status symbols for teenagers, a fact that may reflect reverse snobbery or may just be one of the many unexplainable mysteries of fashion. In any event, New Balance has succeeded by doing something that boomers, with their proudly antiestablishment roots, can appreciate: It looked at what the competition was doing and did the opposite.