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Where are all the wrinklies?

If you based your view of the world on advertising, you’d assume the only people who ever bought anything were under the age of 40. 

Andrew Lewis

Almost like a consumer Logan’s Run, we show a world ruled by the young that’s largely free of old people – except those with erectile dysfunction, who are still surprisingly visible and well-represented in this youthful media landscape.

The way media buying works supports this visual depiction. Looking through the last 10 media schedules we’ve received, only one targets, even in part, anyone over the age of 44. This would all make total sense if young people actually bought the stuff we are selling. But in reality, they don’t.

Women 40 years and older account for 80 percent of all consumer household purchases; 72 percent of all disposable income in the US is held by over 45s; and even when we look across our own core client base, be it cars, insurance, premium grocery items or lottery games, core category buyers almost always tend to be over 45, with a huge chunk sitting in the over 55s.

So why do we insist on depicting 20-year-olds buying expensive cars, suffering from ‘digestive heaviness’ or wearing Gucci, when the truth is their parents are more likely to be buying it? The accepted argument is that it’s seen as being aspirational to oldies, because they respond better to an offer when a younger, slimmer version of themselves is shown using it.

While this may be true at some fundamental level, the problem is this lack of immediate visual connection in advertising has a significant, negative impact on our ability to grab the attention of older consumers.

Across a huge amount of studies, we see the same thing repeated: people largely only pay attention when it’s immediately obvious the ad is trying to talk to them.

Take the example in the graph below for a leading New Zealand services company. Branded cut-through for the campaign falls away enormously as we pass the magic 45-50 years marker. They are simply not ‘getting’ who the ad is for, despite being the core buyer for the product.

Measures of engagement with advertising constantly reinforce this finding as well. In a recent study, 61 percent of over 55s complained that advertising never features people like them; a third of over 55s in the UK say advertising has no effect on them vs. only 13 percent of 18-34s; and across almost all our own studies of advertising, over 55s are almost always the least likely to ‘like’ advertising they see.

The cold truth is that people aren’t often sitting attentively, waiting to digest advertising on mental ‘full beam’. And the idea they will switch on when the young and beautiful appear in front of them on ads is simply not true, because they don’t care enough to muster the attention required for those deeper connections.

There is something wrong with our thinking in this space and no-one seems to be questioning why we are spending millions depicting and targeting the wrong people in our marketing. The arguments for a roundabout form of connection with the old via the young don’t seem to hold.

Perhaps the darker truth in this misjudgement is that we, as generally quite youthful marketers and advertisers, don’t really understand or relate to older audiences; that our work perhaps reflects best our own desires and motivations, rather than theirs. 

Perhaps its time for more grey hairs on this side of the television. The result might be much stronger ROI.

Andrew Lewis is managing partner at The Research Agency.

Originally published in NZ Marketing magazine, November/December 2011.