Ad industry ageism is bullshit

It’s time to rethink what you know about consumers in the 21st century. That, I admit, sounds like more ad agency bloviage. But this time, I’m not giving you an opinion, like, what color your logo should be this decade or, how often you should Tweet. 

There’s a market almost twice the size of California that most ad agencies just don’t get. And it’s not way over there on the left side of the continent. It’s all around you; it’s consumers 55 and older. If you want that demographic to snap into focus, all you have to do is realize that they look different now than they used to look.

I was born right at the peak of the Baby Boom. My generation came of age, influenced by the counter-culture and the spirit of revolution. But eventually, we all cut our hair and got jobs; we got married and had kids. We sold our Honda motorcycles and bought Accords.

Even though it was inevitable that we’d grow older, there was a big part of us that refused to grow up. The Boomers never really stopped challenging accepted wisdom. When our kids left home, we bought motorcycles again

The average age of buyers of new motorcycles in the U.S. is 52.

The average age of buyers of new motorcycles in the U.S. is 52.

This unwillingness to ‘think’ our age isn’t just true for Boomers. If anything, Gen Xers — the first of them are now approaching 50 — are even less willing to make their self-image conform to their chronological age. 

On it’s own, this phenomenon is just another cultural change for marketers to adapt to... The problem is that ever since guys like Don Draper wrote the book on brand strategy, marketers have believed that the time to build strong brand loyalties is when consumers are young — before they become set in their ways. 

In 1986, tobacco companies paid a 200 billion-dollar settlement,    and agreed they’d stop using cartoon characters to imprint their brands on children.

In 1986, tobacco companies paid a 200 billion-dollar settlement, and agreed they’d stop using cartoon characters to imprint their brands on children.

Whether you're a brand manager on the client side or a planner on the agency side, the next time you sit in on a creative presentation, take a look at the people responsible for doing the work. Yeah. One of your problems is that the people responsible for executing your strategy learned all they know about strategy on their X-Box. (Want to know why almost all ED drug ads are cringeworthy? Because they're conceived by kids whose biggest turnoff is imagining their parents having sex.)

So we have an overwhelming cultural fact — that a huge chunk of the population is aging differently than any previous cohort. And that fact has collided with an entrenched belief — more than that, an entire advertising industry structured on the premise — that it’s a waste of time to market to anyone to old to conform to Nielsen's 18-44 demo. Ad agency creative departments are youth cults — to the point that, usually, they’re not just trying to reach young consumers, they’re actively alienating everyone else.

Big. Mistake

The first baby boomers just hit what for any previous generation, was a ripe old retirement age. Guess what? They’re not retiring. Some of that, I admit, is because after 2008, their retirement funds no longer offer the promise of comfortable retirement. But it’s mostly explained by the fact that they’re not tired. How often have you heard that 70’s the new 50, or 60’s the new 40? Redefine themselves? Sure. Maybe even full-on reinvent their lives. But retire? Not yet.

As for those buying habits that were going to be formed in youth and carried on until old age... Yeah, the facts are in. Over the last 20 years, Young & Rubicam — ironically one of the big ad agencies that promulgated the youth cult — has spent millions of dollars interviewing tens of thousands of consumers for its Brand Asset Valuator study.

What have they found? That over their study period, the number of brands consumers rate as ‘trusted’ has fallen by half.

Trust. Cut. In half.

It’s not as if all brands lost out equally over that period. Some — Apple and Red Bull leap to mind — built huge equity. So actually, the losers lost even more.

I’m reminded of George Carlin, who quipped, “You know how stupid the average person is?    Well, half of them are even stupider than that.”

I’m reminded of George Carlin, who quipped, “You know how stupid the average person is? Well, half of them are even stupider than that.”

The first thing I take from that statistic (the Brand Asset Valuator’s, not Carlin’s) is that the idea that brand loyalties formed in youth would become unbreakable lifelong purchasing habits was obviously crap. What interests me even more however, is that when the number of brands people trusted fell by half, the amount of spending didn’t fall with it. In fact, spending’s as high as it’s ever been. 

This suggests that consumers — including middle-aged ones — are more than capable of changing their minds. You can confirm this with direct observation. The second half of the Baby Boom — my generation — grew up knowing that American cars were under-engineered gas guzzlers and bought Toyotas and Hondas their whole lives.  Yet people my age just resurrected the American car industry. Trader Joe’s — a company that I’ve studied from the inside and which has a devoted following of customers over 55 — but the chain hardly existed when those people were forming their grocery-buying habits.

While Boomers lag behind Millennials in SM use, their rates of adoption are higher. There are now so many parents and grandparents on Facebook that they're presenting the company with a strategic challenge; younger users are dropping off FB, because they don't want mom and dad seeing all their posts.

What we know, now, is that consumers who are 55, 65, or even 75+ years old are doing a lot more than rethinking retirement. They’re redefining purchasing habits and brand preferences. They’re ready to try your brand, again or for the first time. And you’re welcome to keep selling to their kids, but if you ignore the parents (or even grandparents) you’re leaving money — a lot of money — on the table.

So now what do you do? You could tell your creative department to rethink that old strategy. But look at them. Can they connect with consumers who are twice their age? Not without some expert coaching. It's almost as if you need a special kind of creative director — someone you could bring in to work in parallel with your existing team, either to ensure that your 'A audience' message to millennials isn't alienating your 'B audience' of Boomers; or even to create a complementary campaign that calibrates your brand message specifically for mature consumers — you may already be doing something like this to leverage brand strength in the Latino community, for example.

If you think it’s time to rethink your attitude towards that market that’s twice the size of California, you'll want to bookmark this site, because over the next few months, I'll be presenting some object lessons from brands and agencies that get it and (sadly, the majority) who still don't.

Or, if you're in bigger hurry, you could just call and set up a meeting.