One of the longest-standing criticisms of advertising is its unhealthy fascination with youth. The majority of campaigns target the under 55s and a disproportionate number of brands focus on the under 35s.

Why are marketers so obsessed with targeting the young when older groups tend to be wealthier? According to the Daily Telegraph the over 50s account for 40% of the population but hold 80% of the wealth. Not only are older groups wealthier but they are also growing in number: data from nVision shows that there are 11m over 65s, an increase of 17% versus 2003.  

Bob Hoffman, one of the most insightful advertising commentators, is scathing: "There is only one type of person confused enough [to ignore the over 50 market] – a marketing person".

So if there's such an unequivocal case for targeting older groups why do advertisers persist in their folly? The pessimistic interpretation is that it's a reflection of the youthfulness of the industry. Agency personnel tend to be younger than the population as a whole, with the IPA 2014 survey estimating the average age of an agency employee at 33.6. The IPA data also shows a distinct lack of over 50s – only 5.9% of agency staff are over this age. This absence could explain why negative stereotypes blossom.

Hoffman, in typically brusque language, says "Marketers think people over 50 are decrepit old farts. Marketers cannot understand that Barack Obama, Jerry Seinfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Bruce Springsteen, Meryl Streep and tens of millions of others are all over 50."

However, recent work by ZenithOptimedia suggests that there may be some justification for targeting younger groups. We surveyed 500 nationally representative consumers to ask whether they had tried new brands in three specified categories in the last year. In order not to bias the study we then excluded anyone who wasn't a category buyer. The results were conclusive. In each category younger consumers were more likely to try new brands. In fact, on average under 55s were twice as likely to have tried a new brand in the categories monitored as the over 55s.

Our findings suggest that younger consumers may be less fixed in their purchasing patterns and therefore, for brands interested in growing their market share, there's a rationale for prioritising them. This may not explain all of advertising's obsession with youth but it certainly shows that there are reasons, beyond incompetence, for targeting the under 35s.