I turned 60 this year, and just weeks later received my first piece of direct mail advertising from a cemetery in Queens. I don’t live in Queens, and when I do someday meet my demise, I have no desire to be buried there. I’ve been targeted with advertising for incontinence and erectile dysfunction, ailments that I do not suffer from. I’ve also been plastered with ads for dating services, although the marketing algorithms seem to have taken a scattershot approach: I’ve been offered the chance to mingle with “fellow” Christian, Muslim, and Jewish singles.
None of these things could have been triggered by my search history. Instead, my age led marketers to assume that I must be desperate for companionship, struggling with health decline, and ruminating on my own death. Meanwhile, I’ve seen virtually no marketing for the kinds of things I’m interested in, such as great hotels in Rome or beautiful places to hike in upstate New York.
The data suggest that I’m hardly alone. When people in this demographic are shown in ads, they’re often presented in a negative light. Portrayals of those over 50 are negative 28% of the time, compared to only 4% of the time for younger people. Seventy percent of the time, people in this demographic are shown in “isolated situations — often seated, alone, with a partner, or with a medical professional where they were the recipients of care,” the AARP reported. That is, when they’re shown at all: “While 46% of the U.S. adult population is age 50-plus, only 15% of [online] images containing adults include people this age,” a recent AARP study found.
This doesn’t reflect the market power of people over age 50, who are responsible for more than half of consumer spending in the United States. Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, shell out the most each year — more than half a trillion dollars, according to a study by Epsilon. Generation X (which includes some people over 50) was a distant second, followed by millennials, the Silent Generation and Gen Z. Yet to many businesses, people over 50 might as well be invisible. Only an estimated 5 to 10% of marketing budgets are devoted to winning them over. Only 5% of advertising images of people over 50 show them using technology, and even then it’s usually a younger person teaching an older person how to use a device. In fact, for tech companies older generations are where the growth opportunity lies: Pew Research recently reported that “there has been significant growth in tech adoption since 2012 among older generations — particularly Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.” Social media use among younger generations has largely stayed flat since 2012, but the share of boomers and their elders who use social media has increased by 10 percentage points.
The dichotomy between the buying power of older Americans and the scant attention they get from marketers is a problem I’ve long seen from the inside. Across more than three decades in advertising, I worked on all sorts of campaigns for a vast array of products. I can’t recall ever seeing even one person over the age of 45 quoted in a brief or included in a focus group, with the possible exception of a campaign for a dog food aimed at older pet owners.
The lack of interest in going after the older consumer goes hand-in-hand with the notorious ageism that plagues marketing departments and advertising agencies. Many of my colleagues saw their successful careers upended when they approached the half-century mark. At times, it’s done blatantly; at others, subtly. I myself had experiences in which I was informed that my “profile” was “no longer what people are looking for.”
With few employees over 50 helping design marketing campaigns, businesses are unlikely to do more to reach consumers over 50. But there’s a pressing economic need to do so. “Between now and 2030, the 18-49 segment is expected to grow +12%, while the 50+ segment will expand +34%,” Nielsen reports. Businesses make a mistake by thinking only younger generations are their future. Research has found that, contrary to stereotypes, people over 50 are not “set in their ways.” They can be won over by brands that reach out to them.
Marketers should recognize that today’s older consumers “are focused on anti-aging and breaking the mold of what 50 looks like,” researchers at California State University and Southern Connecticut State University wrote in a study published by the Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business. Any companies that tap into this potential stand to gain. In any industry, the first brand to transform its outreach to the 50-plus set could win over millions of consumers — consumers with more money to spend than their children.
(The original article was published in the “Harvard Business Review” on 09 January 2020)