Why rational appeals engage older audiences

06 January 2017

NEW YORK: Older consumers demonstrate a clear preference for rational, rather than emotional, marketing appeals, according to a study published in the Journal of Advertising Research (JAR).

Why Older Adults Show Preference for Rational Over Emotional Advertising Appeals: A UK Brand Study Challenges the Applicability of Socioemotional Selectivity Theory to Advertising featured in a special section of JAR covering "Hard to Reach Target Audiences".

Strains of socioemotional-selectivity theory, the paper asserts, suggest that when people age – and begin to perceive time as limited – they tend to pursue emotionally-orientated, rather than knowledge-focused, goals.

But when authors Lynn Sudbury-Riley, from the University of Liverpool, and Lisa Edgar, of Big Window Consulting Ltd, tested this theory among 2,550 adults between 19 and 90 years of age, they came up with some new lessons in this area.

More specifically, their results demonstrated that, contrary to expectations and much prior socioemotional-selectivity research, older adults have a clear preference for rational over emotional appeals.

In fact, the paper argues, "Almost the same number of people under the age of 50 preferred the rational advertisement (49.7%), compared to the emotional advertisement (50.3%). In contrast, and contrary to expectations, 63% of over-50s preferred the rational advertisement".

For marketers, the findings have a number of practical applications, the authors propose: "An understanding of the advertising context is crucial: if the objective is to communicate emotional brand values, advertisers perhaps should use an emotional appeal when targeting older adults.

"If, however, the overall campaign objective is to drive home a specific and practical product-related message and encourage specific consumer action – such as to visit a store – or even publicize a well-known brand, then perhaps a rational appeal should be used.

"While this makes perfect sense intuitively, it challenges socioemotional-selectivity theory, which advises emotional appeals."

Data sourced from Journal of Advertising Research; additional content by Warc staff