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Warwick Cairns, Strategist,
The Effectiveness Partnership
Hope I buy before I get old.
How, and why, to advertise more effectively to the over-55s
When was the last time you saw anyone over 55 in a decent ad? It’s a hellscape full of reverse mortgages, erectile dysfunction pills, and bathtubs that won’t kill you.
I should start by putting my cards on the table. Or my bus-pass. Because I’ve just passed yet another age milestone, and already my social media feed is filling up with ads for hearing aids that, apparently, are ‘taking Britain by storm.’ And reading-glasses. And, helpfully, funeral plans. Next time I die I’ll definitely bear those in mind.
But it also affects you. Because however old you are right now, or however young, you’re never going to get any younger. You’ve got a one-way ticket, and your train has already left the station. And you’re not alone. Since the middle of the last century, the populations of nations throughout the ‘developed world’ have been steadily ageing. It’s reached the point where nearly half of all UK’s adults are now in their fifties and above. Sooner or later, you’ll be one of them.
One more thing: it affects our industry. A lot. Because, quite frankly, most of the ads targeted at people of my age and above are beyond awful. That would be bad enough if people in their fifties and older didn’t have any money to spend or any interest in spending it. But that’s not the case.
This year, Mullenlowe London published The Invisible Powerhouse, a new report that digs deep into the economics, psychology and brand choices of the Third Age and divides them into seven distinct typologies. The report also looks at the way the youth-obsessed advertising and marketing industries routinely underrepresent, misrepresent and alienate older consumers. It’s essential reading.
Today, there are 52 million adults in Great Britain. Just under half – 47% or 24.6 million – are in their 50s and above. Between them they control assets of over £7.8 trillion, 68.3% of all UK household wealth. They account for well over half of all household expenditure. This is a figure forecast to rise to 63% by 2040. They are fast becoming the biggest spenders in every single category. They’re a group so big, and so important, that you’d imagine that any business, any policymaker, any marketer or any sentient human being would be crazy to overlook them. But you’d be wrong.
Because when it comes to advertising, just 12% of UK ads feature someone over 50 in a leading role. In the US the situation is even worse. According to the Havas Group, only about 5% of US advertising is even aimed at people over 50. And when they do appear in ads, the common way is to caricature them into one of two stereotypes. One is the frail pensioner deserving of pity or help. The other is the inspirational superager. These people do exist. But they’re not representative of their entire generations. Instagram influencer Baddiewinkle isn’t your typical 93-year-old. Skier and alpinist Yūichirō Miura wasn’t your typical 70-year-old when he became the oldest person to reach the summit of Everest. Or when he broke his own record ten years later, at the age of 80. His 55-year-old son Gota Miura, a freestyle skier, isn’t typical of his generation either. People are complex and various.
If you don’t see people like you in advertising, it sends a signal. That signal says, this product isn’t for you. In a recent Gransnet survey, three quarters of over-50s said ‘advertising underrepresents my age group.’ This was seen across all sectors, but felt especially keenly in technology, entertainment and cosmetics. Essentially, older role-models are excluded from anything enjoyable or life-affirming. This lack of representation has implications for the effectiveness of advertising: 49% of over-55s say they actively avoid brands that ignore their age group.
In the advertising and marketing industries we’re big on talking the talk about things like diversity and inclusion. We like to think we’re very aware of discrimination and ‘isms.’ Mostly they’re about various forms of ‘us versus them.’ But the big thing about the way older generations are treated is that them actually is us. Or will be. We all get older, sooner or later. And when we do, we will suffer for it. From a human point of view, it’s a shame and it’s a scandal. From a commercial point of view – from the point of view creating marketing that effectively targets and motivates huge numbers of consumers with money to spend – it’s utterly short-sighted and wrong.
So on a personal level, and on an industry level, we need to do something about this. And the biggest thing of all is to make them part of our world. Which means that agencies, and marketing departments, need to get a lot better at recruiting and retaining older talent.
We all need to listen more to older voices. Which is handy, because I’ve just seen a really interesting advert for some remarkable new hearing aids. They say Britain’s seniors are going crazy over them.
First published by Warc.com on 29 March 2022