Twenty-two years after people 40 and older became the adult majority marketers everywhere are finally paying rapt attention to aging markets. But there seems to be a dearth of consistency in how marketers view these markets.
A sizeable consensus does exist on one point: aging is a problem that can be solved by changing how people think about it. That’s how Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council of Active Aging, sees it. He wants to “re-brand aging from burden to opportunity.”
Others have come at the “problem” of aging in similar fashion, coining such terms as “creative aging,” “productive aging,” “vital aging,” and positive aging.” But putting a smiley face on aging has never seemed to me to be a very authentic way of viewing older markets. It masks the darker realities of aging which reinforces the deep-seated antipathy against aging that pervades our society.
As the name of this blog indicates, I have offered up the idea of “ageless marketing.” Instead of “active aging, how about “active living?” Or “creative living” in lieu of “creative aging.” Why do we feel compelled to promote advanced age as a great time of life by implicitly by invoking the values of youth?
Old age can be mercilessly hard to endure. Most people over 70 have five or more chronic conditions. Ceaseless pain in some part of the body is not uncommon. Many evolve into terminal conditions. The pharmaceutical industry certainly views old age as a time of proliferating health problems. This is apparent in their dominance of advertising on the nightly network news shows.
Of course, marketers never talk about “old age.” Old age people don’t exist on Madison Avenue. This pretend game rests on the myth that showing younger people using products that are consumed at a much higher per capita rate by older people will make the products more attractive to older people who after all have a few hundred billion to spend each year.
So, when marketers talk about the “over-50 market” they generally mean the 50 to 65 market – people who have fewer health constraints and who are jogging along with only a modest rate of decline in physical and cognitive abilities. After 65, older markets start getting complicated. Coping with the vicissitudes of later life becomes a more important focus for growing numbers than lifestyle modality. Why do we struggle so mightily to ignore that reality?
Marketing writer Thom Forbes questions Milner’s verbal remedy for the “burden” of aging in a recent column, “Do We Need A New Spin On Getting Old.” He acknowledges the power of words in shaping our attitudes on aging, for good or ill, but goes on to say, “… there's nothing quite as convincing as creaky joints, winded lungs and easily fatigued muscles to convince us that we are, indeed, getting old.”
Like Forbes, my issue is not that positive projections of older people have little effect in producing bountiful marketing, but that they are overly done at the expense of representing old age in a more realistic light. This sets up a problem involving authenticity.
Various surveys have shown that most older people feel that marketers don’t represent them accurately in ads. We’re told that authenticity is more important in older markets, yet we represent older people in inauthentic ways. What is the solution for this dilemma? How can we create attractive messages that are authentic in how they represent old age? Are reality and attractiveness of commercial messaging incompatible?