The myth of the ageless society

Marketers can be ruthless in targeting their core audience with age-specific ads, but can brands appeal to consumers in different age groups without alienating others?

The myth of the ageless society

Our ageing society is creating a headache for marketers. As the number of over-65s rockets and the proportion of the population aged between 16 and 64 declines, brands face a growing challenge in marketing to consumers across a wide range of ages.

By 2035, the number of over-85s in the UK will have more than doubled to 3.5m, while 16- to 64-year-olds will have fallen from 65% to 59% of the population (ONS).

This presents a dilemma, since many better-off consumers tend to be in older age groups. At the same time, however, brands need to forge loyal, life-long relationships with the young. Striking the right balance - engaging one group without deterring the other - is, therefore, essential.

The problem is acute for brands such as Holland & Barrett. The health-foods and supplements retail chain appeals mainly to older shoppers, but also has a sizeable market of younger consumers interested in sports nutrition and pain relief.

Holland & Barrett's marketing director, Phil Geary, points to the brand's customer magazine Healthy to exemplify the difficulties of marketing to this broad audience. 'It is a fact of life that people don't aspire to be older. The cover of the magazine needs to pass the "Tube test" - would people aspire to it if they saw someone read it on the Tube? If it has people from the older generation on the cover, it turns off younger audiences.'

To avoid this problem, the magazine's cover is often pitched at the middle ground, with pictures of people in their 30s and 40s. That said, a recent edition featured 63-year-old Olivia Newton-John.

Geary says Holland & Barrett's products are marketed according to consumer needs, so one might be promoted to different age groups in contrasting ways. Products for treating muscle and joint pain, for example, are sold specifically to older customers who experience the problem as part of ageing, but marketed to younger people to soothe discomfort caused by sport and exercise.

Geary entreats marketers to use research and insight to uncover ways to resolve the age dilemma. He believes that poorly judged representations of different age groups persist in advertising.

'I object to how the older generation - 50 onward - can be portrayed in some ads, particularly for holidays. It is as if you've reached the end of the line, so you go on a cruise,' says Geary. He believes younger people get a relatively positive portrayal in ads by comparison, and are often presented as cool and good-looking simply by virtue of the fact that they are young.

Attitudes to age portrayal in the media have been uncovered in resent research carried out for The River Group by YouGov. The survey suggests that both the under-25s and the over-65s are unhappy with the way in which they are represented in marketing and the media (see box, page 36).

Age of alienation

River's business development director, Adrian Odds, notes there was a theory in the 90s that we would become an 'ageless' society, where age would be a less important defining social factor as the proportion of older people soared. 'Actually, we are just as restricted by age as we ever were,' he says.

Even so, Odds was surprised by the discontent expressed by younger age groups in the research. Over-65s might be expected to feel disenfranchised by a perceived media focus on youth, but it seems the under-25s are unhappy with their portrayal, too. Nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds and a third of over-65s thought the media disrespected their age group. This is a far higher level than for 25- to 55-year-olds, who were, on the whole, content with their portrayal.

This may be an expression of the alienation experienced by both older and younger groups in an increasingly polarised society. There has been much talk of inter-generational conflict as well-heeled baby boomers retire on decent pensions and unlock the value of their properties.

By contrast, younger people are struggling with unemployment, or, if they have a job, stagnating incomes, poor housing and the prospect of low-payout pensions. They are often portrayed in the media as rioting, consumerist hoodies or self-indulgent students.

Some believe there is an incipient mutual antipathy between the old and young which marketers would do well to bear in mind. The so-called 'Granny Tax' announced in the recent Budget, which is to freeze age-related tax allowances from 2013 and then phase them out, infuriated some, who saw it as an attack on the retired. Others believed it was fair, given the extent to which retired people have amassed assets.

'It was purely a tax-raising measure, to get revenue from a section of society more prosperous than we previously thought,' argues Jim Murphy, editorial director at trends researcher The Future Foundation. He plays down the idea of generational conflict, and supports the vision of an ageless society. 'There is a recognition that you live from birth to 85. We call it the "Viagra zeitgeist". There is a group of people entering their 60s who don't think they should be denied anything because they are getting on a bit.'

He claims many sectors, such as furnishings and homewares, are age-neutral in their marketing as it is not relevant to target a specific age group. Groceries and technology products could be included in this category.

Meanwhile, Tony Hall, director of marketing and communications at walking charity Ramblers, has seen little sign of inter-generational conflict. 'But it is important not to be patronising,' he adds. 'I don't think young people want to be targeted as an age-cluster - that is a real turn-off.'

Ramblers has many members at retirement age, but also a growing number in their 20s and 30s. A key difference is in their use of technology. Older groups are just as savvy with digital media, but not driven by it in the way younger people can be. Younger consumers may decide on a Friday evening to go for a hike, then use social media to gather a group of 15 to go walking the next day. Older people tend to plan for weeks before a Ramblers walk. Hall believes marketers need to take age into account, but it is not the defining factor.

The shifting age profiles of the UK population will require some smart thinking by marketers if they are to successfully promote their brands across the age groups. While age may not be the decisive factor in many brand choices, marketing to young and old requires research, insight and sensitivity.


Ali Crossley is executive director of retirement-home builder McCarthy & Stone and a former marketing director at financial-services brand Prudential.

With people working longer, how is the perception of retirement changing?

There is a growing awareness that people will tend to work for longer. According to the Office for National Statistics, 12.5% of women and nearly 12% of men are still working when the statutory pension age kicks in.

People are living longer - men aged 65 can expect to live a further 18 years and women to live 20 years longer, to 85. Research from Age UK showed that nine out of 10 people between the ages of 60 and 70 were against forced retirement.

Perceptions are that people understand they need to keep working. A lot of people (now) go into semi-retirement or go back into work; there has been a blurring of the line between work and retirement. There is more of a flexible approach. We are going to stop calling our centres retirement homes (to reflect this).

In future, will retirement no longer be seen as 'the slow decline toward death'? How will it be considered?

Retirement is not seen as a slow decline. A lot of people look forward to it - they live 20 years after they have retired. They are time-poor when they are working, and (in retirement) the commodity they have more of is time, which is a wonderful thing and they really enjoy it. There is no blueprint for retirement - people might downsize, live abroad, do flexible working or start their own business.

In real life it doesn't play out as dissatisfaction, but it is possible that tension may grow in the future. There is growing awareness that baby boomers have done well in terms of their pensions, while the 18- to 20-year-olds of today struggle to get jobs. The gulf may start to grow, but I don't think it is significant today.

How should marketers target retired people?

Age is irrelevant in a lot of marketing, it is largely about behaviour and attitudes. You shouldn't target people in a different way just because they reach 70.

The situation is helped by big companies' advertising using older celebrities such as Dame Helen Mirren. These are trendy and funky people who are still considered attractive.

The 70s are the new 50s - people look after themselves better and are more conscious about their health.


The River Group's research into age-group attitudes, conducted by YouGov, explodes the myth of the ageless society.

River says the survey shows that the needs of UK consumers are not well understood by marketers or the media. Some 46% of 18- to 24-year-old adults in the UK believed that, overall, the media disrespected their age group in the way it portrayed it. This belief was stronger among the younger age groups: just 34% of those aged 65 and older agreed.

British brands and marketers ignore big sections of the UK population, according to the survey findings. Half of UK adults aged 65 and over thought that British brands ignored them in their marketing and advertising; only 9% disagreed. The only age group not to feel ignored by brands was 18- to 24-year-olds.

The age of models in advertising and marketing is not a major factor in consumers' propensity to buy. Nearly a third of 18- to 24-year-olds said they were more likely to buy a product if ads and marketing for it featured models of their own age group. By comparison, 30% of those aged 65 and older disagreed.

YouGov survey results

Sample Size: 2164 Fieldwork: 12-14 March 2012.