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Improving marketing to over-50s

Opinion, 30 March 2010
Q For years, people have been talking about the importance of the over-50s as a target market, but I don't see much evidence that marketers understand them any better than they did. What practical steps can be taken to improve marketing to older age groups?

 

Kay Scorah, havemorefun.com

A Advertising has always been a young person's business. Back in 1903, Albert Lasker was managing director of Lord and Thomas, aged 23. When I joined my first agency in 1974, hardly anyone was over 40: the managing director was 28 – which, to me, as a callow trainee, seemed immensely grown-up.

One of the strange things I now observe about working in ad agencies is that, even if you do survive there past the age of 40, you continue to be surrounded by people of about 27 – and that meant, for me at least, a persistent illusion that I was still 27 too. I finally emerged blinking at the age of 55 and wondered who all these old people were, who were actually my own age.

So, it didn't need the emergence of new media to create a culture of youth in ad agencies, though this has probably exacerbated it. Latest figures from the IPA show that only 13% of agency employees are in their forties, and a mere 5% over 50. Things are probably similar in marketing departments, where only 10% of marketing directors are over 50. This is very different from other professional profiles: 75% of GPs, for instance, are over 40. Does all this matter? I think it does, because it offers the most obvious explanation for your observation.

Looking back on my own time as a 27-year-old planner, it seems to me now that our picture of the consumer world was strongly influenced by our environment. Our market research samples seldom included anyone over the age of 45, and often stopped well short of even that. Our casual assumption was that anyone over 50 would be too set in their ways to respond to advertising, if not actually gaga. Also, if we were honest, the prospect of interviewing people like our parents or grandparents may have been somewhat intimidating.

I suspect this is still broadly true. For all the data, the articles, the conference papers about 'silver surfers' and all the other catchy names, the world of the older consumer remains remote from the daily experience of most advertising and marketing people. We each tend to construct a view of the world based on what we see around us, the people we spend time with, and the language and mental images that we share with that group. So, while a lot of good sense has been written about marketing to the over-50s, the actual behaviour of agency people remains largely unchanged by what sounds too much like a description of a remote and possibly fictitious tribe.

If this is the problem, can anything be done about it? There is no room here to discuss the interesting questions of why marketing and advertising display such a skewed age profile, or whether this should, or could, be changed. Let's assume that it's unlikely to change, and therefore the question is how to reduce its negative consequences. My proposal is that marketing folk don't need to spend more time trying to understand older consumers – but should put more effort into understanding themselves.

There is a type of inquiry known as reflective practice, increasingly used in fields such as the caring professions, where people have to deal with others. It's based on the idea that our perception of the other – and our relationship with the other – is strongly influenced by the unconscious assumptions or biases we may have about that other person.

In the case of people older than us, how much baggage does each of us bring from past relationships with our parents, our teachers, and from our own fears of aging? To understand them and their world, therefore, we need first to become aware of, and challenge, our own prejudices. This can be done through close observation (of our own behaviour, of the words we use), through dialogue, and practices such as journal keeping or projective writing, while also trying out different behaviours or seeking situations we would normally avoid.

Would marketers or agency folk ever be up for this? It would be a radical move to seek 'insight' by looking inwards, rather than outwards. This kind of work could be challenging, but it might be worth the effort if it helps any of us to remove the blinkers that prevent us from really seeing and hearing the other people we're dealing with.

I wonder whether it might be a better use of time and resources than yet another conference or report.

About the author

I address issues of advertising effectiveness and creativity using not only my thirty years experience in a major ad agency as account planner and trainer, but alternative perspectives such as action research and poetry. My experience is that even 'creative' organisations are generally blocked from achieving their goals by unconscious assumptions and habits which are resistant to change.