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Marketing Intelligence / Joanna L. Krotz
Have boomers lost marketing sex appeal?

It's not as if Madison Avenue hasn't heard. The power and sheer number of consumers age 50 and older have dominated advertising panels, TV programs, marketing symposiums, government reports and scores of industry journals for at least a decade.

So how come the vast majority of businesses still don't make much effort to target older consumers? Beats me.

The facts:

  • Americans are aging. Right now, almost 76 million Americans are 50 or older, says the AARP. Starting in 1996, 4 million more turn 50 every year. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that nearly 35 million Americans were 65 or older in 2000.

  • And living longer lives. People turning 50 today may have almost half their lives ahead of them. Since 1990, the number of centenarians has doubled, reaching about 68,000. By 2050, more than a million Americans are expected to be 100 or older.

  • These folks can afford to spend. For starters, the net worth for Americans 50 and older rose a hefty 38% between 1983 and 1998. Various surveys show they dine out four or five times a week, account for the lion's share of spending in leisure travel, purchase gobs of gifts, clothes and financial services, are keen for online banking and generally are acknowledged as the nation's most-affluent consumer segment.

"Seniors buy everything that everyone else does," says sales consultant Gary Onks of Sold on Seniors in Fredericksburg, Va., and author of "Sold on Seniors: How You Can Reach and Sell the $20 Trillion Senior Marketplace." "The only difference is that seniors have more birthdays."

The idea that marketers are simply indifferent to the lucrative older market seems like speculation. But anecdotes about media ageism often surface. Frequently, you hear that media buyers are determinedly young, hip and disinterested in older demographics. "Cool" is their mantra. When TV networks become identified with older viewers, their bottom line goes into freefall. CBS has been trying to get over its graying image for several seasons. NBC's median viewer age rose from 41 to 45 a year or so back, and consternation reigned. Why? Money, natch. Some industry sources report that while TV time per thousand viewers costs buyers $25 or so for ages 18 to 35, the price plummets to about $10 for viewers over 35.

"The amount of disposable income for people over 50 is much greater than most marketers and media buyers realize," says Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the Harris Poll in New York. "And even if they do know, the assumption is that older people with disposable income are close-minded, not susceptible to advertising and not willing to try new things. But many studies have shown that's not true."

In these tight times, boosting business by bumping up the age of your target clientele might be just the ticket. But don't bet on one homogeneous market. According to the AARP's "Report on Economic Security" released last spring, Americans over 50 are in many respects a microcosm of the nation as a whole. That includes diverse races, ethnicity, income, health, professions and family structures. Mirroring younger generations, divorce rates have doubled for the 50+, as have those with college degrees compared to 20 years ago. One in five Americans over 50 belongs to a minority group.

This generation also defies received wisdom about the older population's interests and pursuits. One study from the American Society on Aging found that Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) believe they will need more money than their parents' generation to live comfortably. Boomers also think their generation is more self-indulgent than their parents'.

Beyond all those nuances, the older market further segments into three distinct age groups, each with differing needs:

  1. Pre-retirees (50 61). This group is still in the workforce and is likely to keep working past the conventional retirement age of 62, if only part-time. Typically, children are grown and mortgages are paid off, so pre-retirees have more discretionary dollars than Generation X families.

  2. Retirees (62 74). This group, more active and healthier than previous generations, adopts special interests and travels frequently. "They usually take expensive trips and spend money to stay in high-priced hotels," says Taylor.

  3. Older retirees or seniors (75+). This group, says Onks, is obviously more concerned with health-care products and services, but still buys everything from houses to toothpaste. "Don't put them in a box of age-related products," he says.

Important: Don't make the mistake of thinking older consumers aren't Web savvy. It's just a matter of a little time. Right now, according to the "Wired Seniors" report from the Pew Internet & American Life, fully 81% of people who say they definitely will not go online are over 50. But when you delve into those numbers, you find that more than five out of every 10 people aged 50 to 54 are online, and that four out of 10 of those aged 50 to 59 also log on, says Susannah Fox, director of research at Pew. "Older women are among the fastest growing group of online users," she says.

Among seniors online, top interests include:

  • E-mail (93%)
  • Hobby information (58%)
  • News (55%)
  • Health and medical information (53%)
  • Surfing for fun (53%)
  • Checking weather (53%)

Of course, every generation tends to get fixed sensibilities by ages 14 to 20. Tastes and emotional triggers in music, culture and values are set by the events and trends of those years. That's why you hear so many Beatles and Joni Mitchell songs in advertisements these days boomers are the objective. Take advantage of that emotional coloring and chronology when marketing to older Americans. When choosing images or models, remember that everyone sees himself 10 to 15 years younger than his true age.

The message, of course, is that boomers and seniors are prime targets for pretty much anything everyone sells. No matter what you're marketing, there's profit to be gained from older consumers, assuming the right spin.


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