GREY MEDIA: GRWE WITH A SILVER LINING - The over-50s make up a wealthy, loyal, leisured and very sizeable market - advertisers ignore them at their peril, Harriet Green says

Let’s get this straight. Unless you’re extremely unusual, you think older people are boring. They’re set in their ways, you might say. They never spend any money.

Let’s get this straight. Unless you’re extremely unusual, you think

older people are boring. They’re set in their ways, you might say. They

never spend any money.

In an industry obsessed with youth - probably more than any other

industry outside childcare - you are in a minority if you consider the

over-50s interesting. But the time may have come for you to think again.

Many wise heads in the industry have concluded that the grey market

deserves serious attention.

Take Dr Wayne Fletcher at Carat Insight, who recently put together new

research on the sector. Fletcher says: ’The over-55s were once regarded

as a group of has-beens, but enlightened marketers realise they should

court these consumers with as much vigour and zest as affluent


The prize to gain from a comprehensive understanding of older consumers

is guaranteed custom and revenue from what may be the most loyal sector

of the population.’

The sector is also sizeable. According to Fletcher’s figures, the number

of over-55s in the UK will double in the next 30 years, from 15 million

to 30 million. This group, which holds between 70 and 80 per cent of

Britain’s wealth, already accounts for more than 40 per cent of consumer

spending. So get ready for a powerful shift in spending power.

Moreover, today’s over-55s tend to be fit and healthy. Unlike their

predecessors, these aged baby boomers are highly likely to travel the

world, compete in tennis matches or dine at new restaurants.

So it seems strange that they continue to be ignored by youth-obsessed

advertisers, marketers and the media. Both Levi’s and Nike have recently

gone to some lengths to inject a hip new tone to their advertising and

marketing messages, precisely because younger consumers might otherwise

reject their goods. For companies such as these, the most feared message

from consumers is: ’But my dad wears those!’

But that approach is shortsighted, according to Andrew Cracknell, the

former chairman of Ammirati Puris Lintas. ’Levi’s is desperately trying

to chase the youth market. But it could be that the older people who

want their jeans are the very people who have the money to spend. The

world has changed. It seems to me that Levi’s marketing department

hasn’t grasped that yet.’

The pursuit of youth by fashion brands is perhaps understandable. But

what about other sectors? An astonishing 65 per cent of all new car

purchases in the UK are made by the over-50s. But car ads still show

romping young couples, boy racers and a stripping Claudia Schiffer. Ray

Starkey, creative partner of the grey consultancy, Prime, says: ’Citroen

has made some wonderful ads, but the Schiffer execution is really

tacky.’ (It didn’t go down well with the grey market. Only 1 per cent of

the over-55s questioned by Carat said they felt comfortable with sexy


When senior citizens do make it into commercials they are often

stereotypical grandparents or figures of fun. But just occasionally,

Starkey says, advertising manages to incorporate the older generation

successfully. He picks out a piece of work by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.

’The Yellow Pages advertising has an appeal right across the spectrum.

AMV has done some wonderful advertising that is not consciously

age-specific and which attracts a broad range of the audience.’

Sadly, a handful of exceptions is not enough. Carat Insight’s research

shows that older people return the indifference of advertisers. Instead

of being influenced by ads, older consumers, Fletcher says, will more

frequently rely on recommendations from family and friends or

endorsements from TV programmes such as Watchdog or consumer interest

publications like Which?.

Older consumers retain loyalty to brands such as Heinz, Marks & Spencer

and B&Q, which work hard to build consistency and familiarity.

But that doesn’t mean older consumers are set in their ways. Carat’s

research shows that they have embraced technological developments such

as computers and the internet.

But is advertising exclusively to blame? What about the media in

general? Away from the specifically grey magazines, Saga Magazine,

Mature Tymes, Choice and Yours, older consumers seem happy with a wide

range of others, such as Reader’s Digest, Which?, Good Housekeeping and

TV listings titles.

On TV, programmes that attract large numbers of older consumers also

bring in younger viewers. Thus Yorkshire Tea, sponsor of Heartbeat,

reaches its traditional audience while also opening itself up to large

numbers of potential new consumers. Similarly, Who Wants to Be a


captured 2.8 million over-45s in January. Even Men Behaving Badly, which

you might assume would appeal to the young, managed to attract 2.3

million older viewers. On the radio, Classic FM attracts large numbers

of over-45s without jeopardising its younger audience.

But the vast majority in the media continue to act on the principle that

older consumers should be ignored or even hidden. Radio stations,

including Radio 2, Radio 4 and Magic have done their utmost to attract

younger listeners and, in the process, upset sizeable portions of their

established, older audience.

Newspapers have done much the same. Sales are dropping, the argument

goes, and older readers won’t live for ever. To lure a younger

readership, editors have risked alienating vast swathes of their

markets. In this context, it is traditional to cite The Express, but the

problem applies across the board.

Martin Smith, director of the specialist over-50s agency, Millennium

Direct, says: ’Papers tend to shy away from what proportion of their

circulation is over 50. We want to target that market but the media

packs don’t provide that information. Instead, they make a great fanfare

about the younger market.’

But could it be changing? At a recent conference of regional newspaper

editors, David Gledhill, editor of the Bath Chronicle, warned the

industry about its youth bias with these words: ’Abandon the holy grail

of youth.

They are an ungrateful bunch who will drink your free beer, dance on

your free club tickets then vomit behind your sofa before abandoning you

without a word of thanks.’


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