Think ’grey market’ and images of stooped characters shuffling to
the post office in the rain spring to mind. Or variations on Viz’s Mrs
Brady Old Lady - a particularly sour-faced pensioner, constantly doing
battle with either the weather, the youth of today, inflated prices or
her own advanced senility.
In other words, any thoughts about our more mature members of society
veer towards the negative not the positive. The fact that rock ’n’ roll
icons such as David Bowie, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are now in
their 50s - or that Michael Caine recently hit 65 and was pictured
proudly displaying a cake decorated in the shape of a bus pass in the
pages of Hello! - don’t seem to alter general perceptions.
This is a far cry from the situation in the US, where old folk have
claimed decidedly more positive images of themselves as a powerful, if
not militant, lobby of key consumers. Indeed, such is their advanced
status within US culture that they are generously catered for by
sophisticated schemes like self-contained retirement villages.
The UK is, however, beginning to catch up and is slowly making progress
in its understanding and acceptance of the 50-plusses - an evolution
that is particularly reflected in the grey media that service the
market, from the magazines and their associated brand extensions and
spin-offs to Websites.
Publications in the sector include the market-leading monthly, Saga, and
its rival monthlies, Choice and Yours, through the bi-monthlies,
Goldlife and Active Life to the sole grey newspaper, the tabloid, Mature
All of these are increasingly portraying and, indeed, catering for, a
demographic that is vibrant, highly affluent and extremely attractive to
advertisers - as well as getting ’younger’ both physically and mentally
by the day.
Martin Smith, the advertising and promotions manager of Saga, comments:
’Retired people today compared with retired people 20 years ago are a
whole different ball game. They are more active, more affluent and want
to have more fun now. Fifty isn’t old any more.’
Carolyn Morgan, publishing director of Choice Publications, which
publishes Choice and Yours, adds: ’People are physically getting
younger. Today’s 50-year-olds grew up in the late 40s and 50s after
rationing and when the consumer society was evolving. They have better
nutrition than their older brothers and sisters, a greater tendency to
take exercise and are generally fitter.’
Around 18 million people in the UK are now over 50, representing just
under 40 per cent of the population, and estimates predict that half the
adult population will be aged 50 or over by 2021. The fact that the
retirement age is dropping is fuelling further growth in the sector.
Around 30 years ago, people retired at 60 or 65, but now that figure is
falling to 55 or even 50 - opening up a whole chunk of time between
stopping full-time work (and thus technically being in the target market
for the grey titles) and actually feeling old - when the body starts
Given that the market is steadily increasing in size, getting younger
and thus developing a new identity for itself, all the grey publications
are now carrying features, pictures and advertisements that are
different from several years ago. Far more general-interest articles for
people who just happen to be over 50 are appearing, taking over from
in-depth investigations into the best incontinence pads on the market or
comparative studies of stair-lift manufacturers.
Chris Chatterton, the sales director of Mature Tymes, says: ’When we
started - in 1991 - our editorial was far more campaigning and into
protecting the interests and rights of pensioners.
There is still an element of that but it is not so in-your-face now,
with articles covering anything from fashion, to holidays and finance,
as well as cooking and antiques.’
Smith adds that the editorial shift on Saga has been so dramatic that
the title has increasingly been able to shed its image as a grey
publication and market itself more from the platform of a major consumer
title, armed as it is with a massive circulation of around 880,000 (just
below TV Times).
’Our position over the past few years has been to distance ourselves
from the grey sector. We are simply a big consumer title for the over
50s and the second-largest consumer monthly in the country behind
Reader’s Digest, hence our competition is more the national press,
Sunday supplements and TV than the other grey publications,’ he
A clear indication of this quiet revolution came with the March 1998
issue of Saga, which carried a cover-shot of the 48-year-old Twiggy
rather than a soft-focus pic of a snowy-haired couple strolling into the
sunset or cycling around Snowdonia. The Daily Express prompty picked up
on the Twiggy photograph and ran a full-page article on her.
But just as the editorial approach of these titles is changing to
accommodate this new, ’youthful’ grey market, so the advertiser base is
Nearly all the publications started out by relying heavily on a rather
depressing mix of mail-order classified advertising for such products as
bath-lifts and mobility scooters. However, this breed of advertiser is
increasingly viewed as inappropriate and undesirable for the fitter,
more healthy readers the titles are attracting, hence most are casting
their nets more widely to capture a broader range of ad revenue.
In general, the titles are dramatically reducing the number of care
product ads, while Saga has publicly declared it is dropping all ads
from the sector - an area which used to account for around 20 per cent
of its revenue - as of its August issue this year, turning its
attentions to the sort of advertiser that ’younger’ titles can attract,
particularly from the fmcg arena.
’We are responding to reader research. Readers tell us they don’t want
these ads - they want advertising that is topical, fun or informative,’
Saga will evidently take a limited amount of advertising for Zimmer
frames, funeral plans and stair-lifts ’because there is a certain need
for them’, Smith says, but they will have to be presented ’in a real,
lifestyle way in keeping with the rest of the magazine,’ he urges.
Morgan claims that Yours and Choice are similarly making inroads with
new advertisers. Yours - the monthly ’for the young at heart’ who is 60
or over - has quite a high female reader-ship, hence it is scoring
successes with mail-order fashion clients and other advertisers normally
seen in mid-market newspapers. It even got Bovril to advertise in the
wake of the BSE scare.
And Choice, which is for a younger, more upmarket grey readership, is
pulling in new money in the categories of finance, travel and branded
health products. The title has even had some success with certain car
clients, Morgan says, who cites the perhaps startling statistic that the
average age of drivers of the new MG is 52.
But while new advertisers more used to the national press environment
are coming on board, they are also realising that they must adapt their
executions in order to maximise their impact.
Chatterton comments: ’Some advertisers run the same work that they would
anywhere, but I would say that around six out of ten national
advertisers are tailoring their ads, and if they don’t then we encourage
This is because the nation’s older citizens have proved themselves to be
a discerning and intelligent brigade of consumers, and research has
shown that they are more influenced by informative, long-copy ads than
executions featuring a celebrity saying, ’It’s fantastic’.
Aside from the publications themselves, media owners are exploiting
other opportunities to target the increasingly monied and abundant grey
market, for example, through brand extensions.
Yours is dipping its toe in the water, launching a series of branded
nostalgia books on childhood memories and wartime cinema, sold off the
page within the magazine. This year it is also running its first cruise
in the late autumn around the Spanish coast, having successfully offered
land-based holidays to readers in the past.
Mature Tymes has also developed events, from two-day exhibitions in
Cardiff to fun-days in Bristol and one-day events in Southport, tying up
with the Southport Flower Show. It also runs branded weekend breaks and
finance seminars - all of which are an efficient way of bringing
advertisers and readers together as well as furnishing the title with
invaluable market research opportunities. In addition to these
developments in the grey print media, there are also burgeoning
opportunities on the Internet.
Perhaps rather surprisingly, the 50-plusses are actively embracing
computers and the Internet, far more so than their counterparts five or
ten years ago. One recent German report found that the older generation
across Europe is taking to computers more readily than had at first been
thought, claiming that there is a more detectable reluctance to use new
technology among the 30- to 50-year-old age range. In the US, the
fastest-growing sector of computer users and purchasers is the over-50s,
among whom sales of PCs are outstripping sales of TVs.
Mature Tymes has been the first to harness this interest by launching an
online version of the paper, which officially goes live this month.
Chatterton explains: ’We decided that the way media is going we have to
be on the Internet if we want to win. We have been developing our
Website for the past ten months and it will be a totally separate
product from the paper, with stories dedicated to it, separate marketing
and no cross-over deals for advertisers.’
Observers claim that a contributory factor to the take-up of computers
among the grey community is that older people have plenty of time to
learn the new technology and - crucially - they want to please their
’Grandparents have all the time in the world and they always want to
earn favours with their grandchildren who are incredibly interested in
computers and are influential and persuasive,’ Chatterton says.
There are other indications of how the grey media are coming of age and
developing a maturer understanding of the market they serve. It is
particularly evident in the increasing unfashionability and
unsuitability of the term ’grey’, a description that seems derogatory
and negative rather than something that celebrates retirement and all
its associated positives.
The fact that Saga has been moving away from classifying itself as a
grey title is symptomatic of this, but new terms are also emerging -
from 50-plusses, empty-nesters, and grey panthers (strangely) to (most
cringe-worthy) the gold sector (named after the ill-fated TGI Gold
classification coined a few years ago) and the rather improbable Glams
(short for grey leisured affluent middle-class).
While none of these has exactly caught on, the message is clear that a
more acceptable, positive label is needed for this vibrant sector of
society. But the media catering for the UK’s senior citizens are also
learning there is more than one grey market, rather than just a single,
amorphous blob of people roughly aged between 50 and 90.
Morgan explains: ’Some people do not mind being called pensioners or the
older generation - they accept they are old and are even proud of their
age, always pointing it out when they write in to us - while there are
some who really hate it. These are the younger ’greys’ who conceal their
age and want to be called the late middle youth.’
Hence publications are beginning to specialise more within the sector,
either targeting the younger or the older end of the market.
Either way, the grey media and grey advertisers now seem to recognise
that to reap real dividends and to prepare for a major return on their
investment as the market grows, they have to appreciate and respect
rather than patronise the modern UK pensioner.
Smith concludes: ’The grey market is the largest consumer market in the
country. There are more of them, it is the most affluent sector and it
will get bigger and bigger after the year 2000. That is why more and
more clients want a slice of the market and a piece of the action. They
know they have to cater for them and tap into that large disposable
income or they will miss the boat.’