Being "of a certain age" is deeply unfashionable. Whatever that age is. It's what you feel, how you act, that defines you. Forget being aged between 18 and 34, you're now a "timeless wanderer" or a "worth seeker".
While there is much to be said for knocking the conventions of using age to help understand your target audience, it still underpins pretty much all research, even when that research sets out to define consumers in terms of behaviour rather than age.
But the researchers have been let loose and it's wild out there. The growth of psychological analysis from the 80s has spawned a generation of non-linear thinkers. Eschewing age groups, they have introduced complex ways of looking at a target audience. There are new lifestages: "fledglings", "nest builders", "hotel parents". Then there's the off-age zone of spiritual identities: "adapters", "self-seekers", "thrill-seekers".
TGI data has been used by the ad industry for more than 35 years. Despite layering all sorts of information into its research, it was only two-and-a-half years ago that it began using life stages and not just the usual age segmentation. Where before there was one lump of 15- to 34-year-olds, there is now the possibility of choosing from no fewer than seven categories, including "playschool parents" and "flown the nest".
"There are more life stages and they are much more meaningful than they were before," Richard Bedwell, a marketing consultant at TGI, says. Clearly, there are huge social shifts to justify this statement. Rising divorce rates, increasing numbers of over-60s, student debt and parents starting families later have all affected the way we live our lives and have blurred the distinction between generations.
Not content with dividing the world into life stages, TGI is also working with Millward Brown on a new segmentation tool in another dimension. The model sorts people into the more conservative versus the more adventurous, or independent thinkers as opposed to those who follow the crowd. "It looks at people's values and what they hold dear," Graham Page, the director of research and development at Millward Brown, explains. "It's a useful way of targeting people, rather more useful than age or life stage is."
Of course, "you can't get away from the fact that age is still a very key, fundamental reference point," Bedwell says. "The lifestage classification was put together with age as the single demographic."
Think-tanks such as the Future Foundation still define consumers by age to report on social trends.
However, defining largely by age has proved to be a demon to advertisers.
Harley-Davidson is one brand that identified that many of its buyers were getting on a bit, but then alienated some of their aspirational target audience by running ads which showed ageing bikers.
At the direct marketing agency Watson Philips Norman, the planning partner, Todd Norman, has worked closely on the growing over-50s market. Defining people as over-50s is trite, he says, and cites three broad lifestages: the "pre-wars", the "matures" and the "baby boomers". While the "pre-wars" are comfortable with a hard sell, "boomers" are more sensitive and hate the idea of growing old gracefully.
"Age can be a useful tool," Norman says. "But it needn't be the lead tool when you're talking to older people. There are huge differences."
Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy handles the P&O account. According to the planning director, Helen Weavers, as the market leader in the cruise market, P&O chose not to reflect the majority of its consumers, who are aged 50 and over. "It needed to move the perception on and use the spirit of travel," she says. The ads focus on places, rather than people, with the strapline: "There's a world out there." The agency's ads for Travelocity, starring Alan Whicker, also actively set out to target travel aficionados of any age and not to show the sort of young, affluent consumers who have tended to be the ones who bought travel online.
Transcending age is an aspiration for advertisers. Gap is one brand that has succeeded to appeal across the board. Recent campaigns showing people of different ages wearing its clothes appealed not just to a younger demographic, but to people across generations.
To achieve the Holy Grail, advertisers are clearly prepared to think off script. The rise in research models using psychological data has, in part, been responsible for a surge in new agencies offering different ways of identifying your consumer. Tree is a customer insight consultancy that uses new models combining qualitative and analytical data to reveal a brand's consumer. Steve Mattey, the managing director of Tree, believes even big brands are still going wrong by not knowing their consumer.
He points to Coca-Cola's disastrous launch of Dasani, its purified water brand, as one example. Allegations of contamination aside, Coke's bid to market tap water as a designer product did not go down well at all, he says.
But let us say that you are an advertiser that has managed to find a common spirit among its target audience. How do you go about finding the right media to fit that carefully identified consumer mindset?
While print advertising can offer a more subtle, narrow-cast target audience, if you're looking for broadcast it gets a bit tricky. At Initiative Futures, the managing director, Sue Moseley, is convinced about the value of building consumer profiles beyond demographics, but knows that TV airtime is sold by age. "The negotiating currency will be men aged 16 to 34 or adults aged 16 to 34. I'm not aware of anybody selling anything other than age," she says.
Media planners will research individual programmes to see if the viewer profile matches the target audience, but cherry-picking programmes is a very costly way of buying airtime. So the conventions of selling by age still rule.
"It's such a blunt instrument," John Grant, the author of The New Marketing Manifesto, says. He is squarely on the side of spirit, not age. "It does provide a certain amount of accountability and client comfort," he adds.
As a founding partner of St Luke's Communications, he took age off the creative brief. "Age is a red herring," he declares.