It was the word "cappuccino" that had the focus-group members foaming at the mouth. It provided an abrupt reminder of the pitfalls in communicating with Britain's mature market.
Harrison Troughton Wunderman had been road testing a long-copy poster for the M&G financial services group which suggested to 45-plus rail commuters: "If you've just missed your train or it is delayed by ten minutes, why not get yourself a cappuccino - then come back here and find out what makes M&G unique among fund managers."
Bad idea! A cappuccino might be the regular morning pick-me-up among the achingly trendy young things of Soho and Covent Garden. But for the fiftysomethings of Solihull and Welwyn Garden City it represented the froth you buy in Starbucks for a price that would settle the Colombian national debt!
Steve Harrison, HTW's creative director, says: "'Cappuccino' set in motion images of everything these people thought was wrong with the world false values, superficiality and too much money." Their anger was allayed when "cappuccino" was substituted with "cup of tea".
It was a similar story with another M&G poster, which planned to feature a picture of a lugubrious-looking Tony Hancock to back its assertion that investment, like great comedy, relies on timing.
"Middle England rose up as one," Harrison recalls. "We in the agency regarded Hancock as a comic genius. They found him depressing, resented him for walking out on the BBC, thought he had ideas above his station and didn't want to be reminded of how he topped himself in a Sydney hotel room." Just like that, Hancock was replaced with Tommy Cooper.
Harrison tells these tales against himself and the agency not only to show how easy it is to garble the message when communicating with older consumers but also to indicate just how much agencies have become insulated from the reality of a marketplace in which the over-50s now account for 40 per cent of consumer spending. That's worth £145 billion a year.
Gerry Ibbotson, the former head of advertising at the Halifax, remembers the perpetual struggle he had to convince agencies working for the building society-turned-bank that not everybody understood "Soho speak" or aspired to a youth-orientated lifestyle led by a transatlantic ethos.
"Twentysomethings dressed in grunge clothes don't make a creative execution readily identifiable to most of the population. Yet that was frequently the execution suggested by agencies," he says.
But advertisers stand equally accused, particularly car manufacturers.
More than two-thirds of privately bought new cars in Britain are sold to mature consumers but critics claim you'd never know it from the advertising.
Alan Pulham, the franchise dealer director at the Retail Motor Industry Federation, complains that his members often despair of the marketing initiatives they see. "The focus is on the young or the young family, even for point-of-sale material in showrooms," he claims.
The problem is that, while the population ages, the opposite is true in agencies. Of the 14,000 people working in IPA member shops, just less than half are under 30 and less than 20 per cent are over 40. "It's clear we don't have enough people in the business who have an empathy with the older market," Hamish Pringle, the IPA director-general, admits.
It's a similar story among clients where four out of ten marketing directors are under 35 and only one in ten is over 50.
What makes this so serious is that it runs completely counter to what's happening in the country at large. Over-50s in the UK now number 20 million and over the next 40 years that figure will grow by 75 per cent. According to the latest UK census, there are now more over-60s - representing 21 per cent of the population - than there are children under 16.
The extra life expectancy of the post-war Baby Boomers who once proclaimed "hope I die before I get old" has profound social consequences, not least on a creaking NHS facing even greater demand as the number of young taxpayers needed to sustain it declines.
This summer a new study from King's College London spelt out the stark consequences. "Today's older, middle-aged and elderly are becoming the new winners. They made relatively small contributions in tax but now make relatively big claims on the welfare system. Generations born in the past three or four decades face the prospect of handing over more than a third of their lifetime's earnings in taxes to care for them."
The old marketing mantra about "catching 'em young and keeping 'em for life" becomes far more difficult as the young emerge from college with more than £15,000-worth of debts in the form of student loans and credit card bills.
Most of the money they earn will go in paying off what they owe. The rest will go in rent. They won't be able to think about putting money away for a pension and their debts will be a perpetual bar to getting on the property ladder.
Not only are young adults saddled with debt but there are fewer of them across Europe, forcing companies to rethink their marketing strategies.
Each year the adult population across the continent is growing by a mere 2 per cent. Worse, many cash-strapped young people aren't planning to have children for up to ten years and aren't likely to become heavy users of consumer goods for a long time.
Simon Silvester, Young & Rubicam Europe's executive planning director, says: "The model that made consumer goods companies rich in the last century isn't just functioning badly, it's broken."
So why not just redirect marketing budgets to the over-50s? It's not that simple, Silvester argues. Rummage through the CD collections of anybody over 35 and you'll see how it becomes frozen in time - a lot of Greatest Hits of ... but very few new artists. By 35, most people know what they like and are settled in their buying habits, and that makes them much harder to market to.
The good news is that with so few experimental young people at one end of the market and increased life expectancy at the other, long-established brands will enjoy unprecedented levels of loyalty. The bad news is that any company with innovative new products will find their markets increasingly resistant to change.
How well Britain's agencies are coping with the fallout from the demographic time bomb is an open question. Reg Starkey, the creative director of Millennium, one of a handful of shops focusing on the mature market, detects a rise in the kind of advertising to which older consumers can relate.
But he isn't sure whether this is reflective of greater sensitivity or the economic downturn that put an end to the wacky and incomprehensible creative work characterising the dotcom boom.
Some major advertisers such as Coca-Cola have begun reacting to the change.
Kellogg is working with Millennium on promoting its adult health brands.
Avis and Siemens are clients of Senioragency, the French-based specialist network established in eight European countries and which recently linked with Mitchell Patterson Grime Mitchell in the UK.
In its domestic market, Senioragency has been a notable success. It has already made 50 commercials this year and claims to have a bigger presence on daytime TV in France than any other agency.
But don't specialist agencies merely make things worse by consigning the over-50s to "special needs" status and alienate older consumers still further from mainstream advertising?
Jean-Paul Treguer, Senioragency's founder, claims there'd be no need for operations such as his were agencies not so obsessed by youth. "I'm 47 and I expect to be a very old man before agencies specialising in the market aren't a necessity," he predicts.
The serious disadvantages facing mainstream agencies in trying to chase the grey pound suggest Treguer is right. For one thing, the industry's margins are under enormous pressure from clients, forcing it to hire disproportionately large numbers of young people because they're cheap. For another, clients are often unwilling to pay for the strategic advice the most experienced agency people are best equipped to provide.
As a result, many managers aged over 35 turn to consultancy. This may help them achieve a better work-life balance but is severely restricting the amount of added value agencies can offer clients.
Another reason agencies are so youth orientated is the difficulty in teaching old dogs new tricks. As one former agency chief puts it: "Senior directors in their 40s tend to be partial in their view of the world. They barely know anything about things like web design or sponsorship. They lack the big picture."
What's clear from all this is that the grey issue can no longer be swept under the carpet and that advertising in future will have to be much more inclusive if it's to succeed. Bruce Haines, the IPA president, put creativity at the top of his agenda. Perhaps his successor might consider making the reduction of the yawning chasm between advertisers and mature consumers his rallying cry.
- From 'well worth looking at' to 'what a load of patronising rubbish' - Tom Rayfield takes a closer look at advertising for the over-50s
"If you're going to write about advertising to the grey market, you'd better watch grey TV," my wife said. "Channel 4, 3.45pm every weekday. Seventy-five minutes specially designed for old farts like you. And try not to fall asleep." I pointed out that I am still four years short of a bus pass.
There were 27 commercials in and around Fifteen to One and Countdown, quiz shows with mostly elderly contestants and presenters. Half of the ads were aimed at people over 50.
AMP offered a range of financial services through, mostly famous, talking heads. Not original, but not bad. Sun Life (on Sky News that morning) had June Whitfield banging on about its over-50 plan. June also helpfully demonstrated how to use a telephone. Apparently, you point one finger at each of the numbers you want on the phone and press it. Do they think everyone over 50 is brain dead?
There was a toe-curling offering from The Pru. Threatening and depressing.
Doggerel soundtrack: "50's when you reach your prime, 50 is that special time." What a load of patronising rubbish.
A good, clear and simple spot for Stannah Stairlifts. "Don't leave home, get a stairlift." I hope I wrote that down wrong and it really said: "Don't leave home, get a Stannah." I did write down the phone number. 0800 715300, in case you know any old people.
There were ads for backache, ear drops, back pain, "pain relief without pills", blood-glucose monitoring and "the premier range of walk-in baths".
I have been a professional hypochondriac for many years and by 5pm, I was feeling at death's door. Nobody wants the over-50s to buy a car, a TV set, a sound system, a fridge, even a washing powder or some bran cereal, a chocolate bar or anything remotely enjoyable.Maybe press ads would be better. We oldies have lots of time to read press ads and to totter about looking at posters.
Gap's posters are well worth looking at. "Gap for every generation" is simple and neat and, what's more important, true of the merchandise. I don't feel aged or out of place when walking round the store. The same is true of Marks & Spencer now it has pulled itself together. Its recent massive, full-page, full-colour campaign in just about every paper had carefully cast models to appeal to a very wide audience. As does its new range of merchandise; no wonder sales are up.
By contrast, very few car ads show any people at all. It is, of course, true that you do not need to put the target audience into your advertising in order to attract its attention. Daewoo was successful in attracting the over-50s with a fact-laden campaign promising hassle-free motoring.
Hyundai is now running a very similar campaign and a friend who is a dealer reckons it is doing well. What Mitsubishi is doing, however, is a complete mystery - a rear view of an elderly and completely naked couple running towards the sea, their clothes scattered on the sand. It is not clear if they are going to end it all or what. The headline reads: "Slip out of something comfortable." I swear I am not making this up. The car even has "front seats that recline to take a nap". I bet nobody over 50 buys one, or under 50, either.
One of the great (and long-running) campaigns directed to old people is that for Aid-Call. An elderly lady lying on the floor, but pressing her alarm button. "From the moment Nancy fell, help was on its way." If I ever have to live alone, I shall buy one immediately.
Most of the advertising overtly directed to the over-50s is for specialist, usually medical, needs and is completely free from creative ideas. It may be that because most creative people are young they could more easily communicate with a Martian than a 50-year-old. But it is interesting that Grey (appropriately enough) was the only major UK agency to set up a specialist division to take the grey market seriously. The division has had to be scaled down, however, because of lack of interest.
We have a lot of money to spend and plenty of time to assimilate information before making a major purchase. But we don't get much help from advertisers or their agencies.