Close-Up: Why the golden age for advertising begins at 40

Advertisers are misguided when they ignore older consumers, who are often the smartest and wealthiest, Paul Kitcatt says.

When my father was in his sixties, he was able, for the first time in his life, to afford a new car. Up to then, he had always bought a used car. He was not unusual in this: most buyers of new cars are over 50.

All he had to do was decide what he wanted. Naturally, he started to pay attention to car advertising.

He was completely bamboozled. Half the ads on TV made no sense to him at all. Often he couldn't tell they were for cars until they were over. Even if he could, they had so little information that he was left none the wiser. And all of them were meant for badly shaved young men, flirtatious girls, or both.

Print ads were better as they usually showed a picture of the car, but the copy was so ridiculous and fanciful that they put him off.

My father had a first-class degree from Cambridge and had just retired from a senior position in the Treasury, but the advertising made him feel stupid and, worse, as if no-one wanted his money.

He wasn't stupid, he was just old. The stupid ones were the people who made and paid for the ads, who were so in love with their own ideas they forgot the point of what they were doing, which was to sell cars, and never even considered who might be able to buy them.

The old ones are the best

Yes, he was old, and in our society, we know what that means.

Past it, out of touch, losing his marbles, someone you can ignore. And because those are the prevailing opinions, our ageing population is routinely described as an impending disaster. There are 21 million over-50s in the UK - a third of the population. Well, that would be a disaster if it were true that older people are a mere burden upon the earth. But what if it were discovered that the human brain performs better between the ages of 40 and 68 than it does in its twenties and thirties? What if, in our sixties, we are mentally able to do more, and do it better, than younger people? And what if analysis of the brain showed that mental decline after 70 is not inevitable, but is much less likely to happen if you are well educated and continue to learn throughout your life?

These ideas run so counter to our youth-obsessed culture that they sound utterly ridiculous. But they are the findings of neuroscientists studying the ageing process and the brain's performance and physiology. These findings, and many more, are described in The Secret Life Of The Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents Of The Middle-Aged Mind, by Barbara Strauch.

Read the book if you're over 40, and find out why you can expect to make better decisions, be more optimistic and deal with problems more confidently as you age. If you're in your fifties, you will be pleased to discover why you feel more intelligent than ever: you are. If you're older still, read it to remind yourself that experience is a valuable asset and there is no shortcut to it. And if you're still young, read it and see what you can look forward to. Don't worry, it's not too hard to understand - even a 35-year-old could manage it.

All of this is profoundly important for marketers. My father's experience when trying to buy a new car was not unusual. Advertising, in all its forms, seems to be made by young people for young people. Or by people who imagine themselves to be young, for young people as they are imagined to be. Nobody these days seems interested in older people as they actually are.

Too often, we assume that the outer signs of ageing are paralleled within - as our skin sags, so do our minds. Our culture supports this view, and we fear that as we age, we will essentially be a deteriorating version of what we are now.

The latest research says this is wrong, and so too does our own experience of ageing, if we pay attention to it. I used to think that when I reached 50, I would be, in most respects, the same as I was at 40, or 30, or 20. More experienced, of course. Fatter, probably. Creaky and wrinkly, maybe. Less bendy in the middle, and probably paying the price for some of the things I did when I was younger.

What I did not expect was to feel like quite a different person inside my head. But I do. It didn't happen suddenly, of course, but I am aware now of seeing the world in a different light.

Information overload

I asked a friend who is 72 if she felt the same. She agreed she was different from her younger self, and there had been a watershed at around 50. One change in particular may explain why advertising fails to connect with older people.

She has come to dislike anyone who speaks too fast and says too much. Not because she has any difficulty understanding them - she understands them perfectly well - but because she now pays a great deal of attention to the way in which things are said, as well as to what is said.

If the person speaking to her tries to overload her with information, she will only attend to the style of their communication, not the content. Her impression is often that such a person is not interested in her, but only in him or herself. And thus she will dismiss them. As for whatever it is they might be trying to tell her, she hasn't heard it, and is no longer interested in it.

As a description of what advertising does a lot of the time, talking too fast and saying too much seems pretty fair. And as my friend concludes: "People who talk like that - they are not really saying anything anyway."

What my friend is describing is a deeper way of listening. More complex, more perceptive and, one might conclude, wiser.

You could say she has not only an acute bullshit detector, but an equally sharp bullshitter detector. Which means she spots bullshitters even when they're not bullshitting. A useful talent.

The challenge for advertising - in all media and all forms - is clear. You need to find a way to communicate with people over 50 that is good enough - intelligent enough and respectful enough - to make them want to listen. You also have to not just avoid bullshit, but not be a bullshitter in the first place. That may be quite difficult.

The prize, however, is worth winning. In my friend's case, anyone who does engage her attention has it fully. She doesn't look away to see if anyone more interesting has wandered into view. She does not glance at her mobile to check for texts, or, God forbid, take a call. She doesn't push the conversation towards a different subject that is more interesting to her. She does not, in effect, say: "That's enough about you. Now, what about me then?"

That kind of attention is golden, especially if you are trying to sell something to someone who can afford what you are selling and is in the market for it.

- Paul Kitcatt is the creative partner at Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw.