By Jonathan Burton, MarketWatch
Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection
Youth-obsessed advertising is wasted on the young.
If you’re over 50 in America, you might feel that corporate America is ignoring you — and you’d be right. Major brands and most advertising don’t target older people. Instead, their message is that being young is beautiful, hopeful, colorful and virile. Old and gray is, well, old and gray.
What corporate America should know by now is that older people live longer — and have long memories. Companies overlook this group at their own peril, and at a cost to profits. That’s because older people have most of the money and buying power — not just for themselves but for their children and grandchildren.
Ken Dychtwald is a psychologist and expert on aging and life transitions who is strongly critical of the rampant ageism in America — and age segregation in particular. Ageism, such as is prevalent in advertising and marketing, perpetuates stereotypes and myths, pushes people to the margins, and for companies and their investors reflects extremely poor business sense.
Instead, Dychtwald argues for generations to interact, in social settings and in the workplace. Dychtwald, co-author of the recently published “What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age,” wants to see a society where young learn from their elders and vice versa, especially now that so many generations are alive at the same time.
In this recent interview with MarketWatch, Dychtwald addresses these pressing concerns and bluntly lays out a hard truth that advertisers and marketers would have us forget: America is getting older. People over 50 increasingly are what the United States sees when it looks in the mirror. The aging face of the U.S. population is something that advertisers and marketers simply and unavoidably must face if they want their pitches and products to stay current and relevant.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MarketWatch: Ageism is getting old. People are living longer and experiencing life for longer. These people are tired of being treated like the stereotypical senior citizen of yore. What do you see when you look at older generations’ behaviors and goals?
Dytchwald: People over the age of 50 today are completely different than previous generations at that age. They are far more likely to be open to trying new products, new software, new technology, new automobiles, new places to live — even new relationships.
That’s partly because of a modern spirit but also it defines the boomer generation: They were more likely to change majors in college, were more likely than any previous generation to change spouses and partners, were more likely than any previous generation to change jobs, and even more likely than any previous generation to change religions. Boomers are not a stick-to-your-knitting group to begin with, and they remain curious and exploratory and adventuresome with regard to products and services.
People over 50 hold 70% of all the wealth in America.
Second, equally important, boomers have money. People over 50 hold 70% of all the wealth in America. People over 50 are massive, disproportionate consumers, whether it's automotive or technology or travel or leisure or health care or personal care or spa services. And they’re not frugal or tight-fisted. They’ve lived their lives not in the shadow of a Depression but in a time of great affluence, which has made them active and experienced consumers (but may ultimately be to their detriment because they have been far more comfortable spending than they are saving.)
When you reach 50 or 60 these days, you’re not in the bottom of the ninth inning. You may have another 30 years of life in front of you. Last year, I went to see the Rolling Stones and while they looked really wrinkly, they were terrific and they seemed to be having the time of their life up on the stage. We’ve currently got two men in their eighth decade of life running for president. All around us are examples of interesting and vital people who are not winding down, but instead are embarking on a whole new chapter in their lives, and that’s the way many of us are thinking. People 50 and older don’t think they’re immortal, that they’re going to live to 100 necessarily, but they know they still have a decade or two or even three in front of them, so there's plenty of time for trying new things and reinventing themselves.
MarketWatch: Older Americans hold most of the national wealth. That’s not a secret. Yet corporate advertisers and the agencies that create advertising and marketing seem to have little respect for this. What are they missing, and why?
Dychtwald: The advertising industry’s job is to master and manage the marketing and the messaging of all the available products and services. So here you’ve got a segment of the population, people over 50, who have largely been ignored or have been weirdly portrayed. They represent more than 50% of all consumer purchasing, yet only about 15% of all the ads that you see on TV or on the radio or in print are geared to them or even treat them with respect. Maybe it’s because the average age of people who work in the advertising industry is only about 34 years old.
And the advertising industry itself is made up of young people who may be masterfully creative and brilliant, but they’ve never been 55 or 70 or 90 and I’ve noticed that they often get these life stages all confused. If you're 60, in some industries, such as law or medicine or literature, you're coming into your power, but in the advertising industry, you're shown the door; they toss out older people faster than any other industry. It's one of the most ageist industry sectors in America, the advertising industry. You don’t see a lot of 50-, 60-, and 70-year-old people sitting around the brainstorming and cooking up the ideas. They're gone, and instead you’ve got a bunch of kids, who may be wonderfully talented, but who’ve never been older and probably don’t really understand what it is to be a 50- or 70-year-old woman or an 80-year-old man.
The biggest new thing going on in the world right now is longevity.
Ironically, the biggest new thing in the world right now is longevity, and worldwide there are now one billion people over 60. But they — I should say we — are not aging the way our grandmas and grandpas did. It's a whole different species of mature person emerging. One other critical aspect of this generation are women, who are better educated and more powerful than any previous cohort of women ever. Rather than fading away as they age, women are more inclined to be rising up. This is not a group you want to disrespect.
MarketWatch: Companies that continue to marginalize older people potentially risk a backlash for their brands. What should advertisers be doing to make themselves relevant to older consumers and to show respect?
Dychtwald: The idea of business is to increase shareholder as well as stakeholder value, so that means your workers, your investors, your communities, your customers. If you turn your back on what could be half of your potential buyers because of prejudice, bias or ignorance, that’s just plain dumb.
For example, before COVID-19, I did a briefing for senior executives at Amazon /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -0.45% . I pointed out to them that with Alexa, which is a brilliant technology, if you went to Amazon’s website you would have found 30 to 40 videos of all the ways in which people could use this technology to make their lives better. But nobody in those videos was over the age of 40.
I'm not saying you should only market to older people, but to leave out what could be half of your buying audience, and by the way, not only buying for themselves but for their parents, their children and their grandchildren, they could be your biggest consumer group. To snub them like Amazon was doing with their promotions of Alexa was foolish, and they’re not alone. Thankfully, Amazon heard the message and on its website there are now videos with people of all ages.
Here’s another example: Many years ago, my firm consulted with a company called Centrum, and Centrum wanted to know if they should create a Geritol-type product. They saw that there was an age wave coming, there were going to be more and more older people. And, if you're in the vitamin business, 50-, 60-, 70- and 80-year-olds are your key buyers.
I had just been doing some homework for a different company on what were then called Cycle dog foods. It was determined that you should formulate nutrients and fiber for dogs that are puppies different than if they're old dogs just like you’d differentiate for small dogs differently than for big dogs. That was smart market segmentation.
So, we said to the folks at Centrum, you know, 50-year-olds, 60-year-olds have different nutrient requirements than 25-year-olds. Why don’t you come out with a line of vitamin supplements that would be geared to older people’s specialized needs? But here’s another challenge: In our ageist and gerontophobic culture, older people don’t want to be thought of as older people. So we thought, well, let’s do it euphemistically. Centrum Silver became a blockbuster billion-dollar product within a year.
MarketWatch: As superficial as it sounds, people of all ages nonetheless look to advertising for guidance and guidelines on how to live well. How can companies break with the longstanding practice of glorifying youth and deliver an inclusive, non-ageist message?
Dychtwald: We now have six generations alive in America, six generations of consumers and five generations of workers. If you're narrow-minded, prejudiced or ageist, you'll say let’s pick one of those to be our workers and one to be our clients. Yet if my interest is increasing stakeholder value — and I don’t care if it's a perfume company, a housing development or a pet shop, I’d say, OK, not only do you have diversity in terms of people’s lifestyle and their fashion interest and their racial or ethnic backgrounds, we now have diversity in terms of generations and their ages and life stages.
Marketers and entrepreneurs who are really looking to maximize stakeholder value will think about how to gear their offerings to as many people as possible. To do this, you want to understand how open people are to what you're offering, to communicate with them in a way that will make them feel respected and turned on to what you're offering. What you should not do is treat them with disrespect.
We have become an age-segregated society.
Unfortunately, we have become an age-segregated society. If you ask most people to make a list of their five closest friends, their birthdays are probably all going to be within a couple of years. We just don’t know a lot about people outside of our age. We can say, I'm 35 so I know how to market to 20-year-olds because I was that age once. But if you’ve never been 60 or 70 you need to bring older folks into the discussions and communications planning. I've been in thousands of meetings where somebody will say, oh yes, I understand older adults — my grandma. You know, they have a sample of one and it's usually a grandma, and that’s not to say that grandmas and grandpas aren’t wonderful human beings, but that’s not exactly sophisticated market research.
Today’s older people are increasingly offended that they can’t find themselves in the ads. Instead when they turn on their TV or laptop, they see a lot of young people using that new software or having fun at that resort, or driving cool cars. As an older woman or man, you don’t see yourself, and you realize that you have been erased, and that is surely not a way to win over a customer. Enough is enough.
Ken Dychtwald is a psychologist, gerontologist and founder and CEO of Age Wave, a think-tank that conducts field research and provides consulting services to corporations and non-profit organizations worldwide on aging and longevity-related issues. He is the author of 17 books including the recently published “What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age (Wiley, 2020)” co-authored with Robert Morison.