A vulgar joke dragged up from boyhood days perfectly illustrates
how some expansive thinking is going to make a fortune for those clients
who can get their pride and prejudices out of the way and wake up to
what’s really going to happen in the UK from now on.
A trainee in a general store watches as his boss manages to sell a
screwdriver to a customer who came in only for some rawlplugs. Inspired,
the boy sells a garden shed, lawn mower and complete set of garden tools
to a man who came in only for a box of Tampax for his wife.
’How did you do it?’ gasps the boss. ’Simple’, smirks the boy. ’I told
him that since his weekend was ruined he might as well do some
The over-50s are standing there, money in their pockets, time on their
hands, a lifetime of stored-up experimentation, fun and hedonism, just
waiting to be sold to. But for three peculiarly perverse reasons,
they’re being allowed to walk out of the store with only the things they
came in for. Meanwhile the sales assistants fawn and flutter round the
customer standing behind them, a teenager who has only one tenth of
Received wisdom has it that advertising should be youthfully oriented
’because all older people really want to be young’. If this weren’t so
arrogant it would be comical. It’s a piece of intellectual laziness.
While it’s true that it would be fatal to create advertising that
bellows ’Hey you, old fart, we’re shouting at you’, the fact is no real
effort is being put into figuring out how this market should be
addressed because within agencies very few are interested in addressing
Yes, older people see virtues and pleasures in being young, but that
doesn’t mean they want to be young. In fact many will compensate the
other way, terrified of appearing as mutton dressed as lamb. We can all
envy lifestyles we momentarily glimpse or experience but that doesn’t
make us bitter and twisted that we can’t live them all year round. Most
of us, for example, would probably like to be wealthy enough not to have
to work, but that doesn’t lead us into denial about who and what we
really are. And there’s a huge number of older people who feel more
comfortable at a life stage where they finally know who they are and
have given up the constant neurotic strain of trying to be something
The second reason is that older people, allegedly, don’t switch brands,
which leads to the compounding folly, ’you’ve got to get ’em young’.
This is a strongly held view, which is equally strongly out of date. The
truth is that until now older people didn’t swap brands because they
never had the opportunity to get into the habit. They’d never been
choosers because there’d been almost no choices to make or the money
with which to exercise choice. My parents’ generation had the Depression
and then years of war and post-war rationing, followed by 50s austerity.
But the new generation of fiftysomethings have been promiscuous since
they first got money in their pockets - the mid-60s - when economic
freedom coincided with a product and brand explosion. And there’s every
indication that they’re going to carry on being so.
Another reason given for ’going for youth’ - because a market’s older
and keeps dying - is equally absurd. Most markets are dying in the sense
that the customer eventually disappears; the nappy market is constantly
losing its customers. But new entrants are continually replenishing
So if you have a product for the 45-plus - a whisky, for example - why
advertise it to 25-year-olds just because your current crop of customers
will eventually die? Where is the sense in not talking to the very
people who are most likely to buy your product while spending on those
who probably won’t even like it?
The third misconception is that their horizons as consumers are limited
to ’old people’s products’. Grasp this point and there’s a fortune to be
made. They will buy anything. When St Paul wrote to the Corinthians ’Now
I am a man I have put away childish things’ he hadn’t heard of
Or Adventure Holidays. Or Harley-Davidson. Before this boom generation,
all older people were expected to put away childish things and totter
into the proscribed life of pipe and slippers, crochet, the occasional
coach trip to a country garden and the armchair in the corner from which
they could shout the occasional embarrassing non sequitur.
But now they have the money, the inclination, the economic majority and
the time to choose and buy and enjoy all the toys and baubles they’ve
been enjoying all their lives, and they’re already doing it. They don’t
see themselves as old in the traditional sense of the word. Being 50 now
is utterly different from being 50 as recently as 30 years ago and
they’re infinitely more valuable to marketers.
As an example, who is most likely to buy an expensive camera - a
30-year-old with a middle-management salary, a mortgage, a child and
another on the way, or a recently retired bank manager, with kids all
gone, a pension and the freedom to enjoy a new hobby? And while you’re
about it, like the lawnmower salesman, sell him an entire dark room too
- he’s got all the time in the world to do his own developing and
The problem is, almost no one is thinking like that. But there’s only
one thing you can say with any certainty about what will happen if you
don’t ask people to buy things from you. They won’t.