The latest Shreddies campaign would have us believe that there is a whole tribe of grannies out there, waiting for a sign that the one man in the commercial approves their product. The Shreddies website, www.knittedbynanas.com, meanwhile, has them sitting in a parlour playing tricks on one another.
Yes, we know it's a spoof. And it's not even aimed at grannies. But the fact that they have been lumped together outlines the problems facing brand owners. Who is this strange breed of decaying citizens who hold all the money? What do they read? What influences their buying decisions?
In the past, some advertisers have tend-ed to look at seniors as a homogenous whole, using demographics as an often- clumsy tool to specify those consumers in whom they are interested. They slice and dice different segments in an attempt to make sense of what is, in reality, a very varied audience.
Now? Well, there are those who opt for a different route entirely. "We tend not to use demographics as targeting tools," Martin Hayward, the director of consumer strategy at Dunnhumby, says. "There is more disparity between old and young because of income. So we would prefer to look at behaviour. It's the pensioners, for instance, who are very good at collecting green loyalty card points. We are told that it's the next generation who will be greener, but it's the older generation who bother to bring their plastic bags back."
This disparity ties in with research that Reader's Digest has carried out into the 40- to 59-year-old demographic. The study's title, The New Ruling Classes, arose from the fact that respondents showed influence over a minimum of 13 other people.
"They manage kids and parents, run companies and golf clubs, drive supermarkets to stock organic food and cinemas to bring back Thunderbirds movies," Victoria Scott, a publisher at Reader's Digest, says.
"In short, the old school tie and the unions are dead. The people who now run all aspects of society are this new demographic of 40- to 59-year-olds."
They are, it seems, a force to be reckoned with. They grew up with marketing, they know all the ins and outs - even if some companies treat them like a known and trusted friend, thinking that is the language they understand. They do so at their peril. According to The New Ruling Classes, some 46 per cent have withheld custom because they are unhappy with a company and 70 per cent have complained in writing.
What does this generation miss about being younger? The report says: "Feeling that everyone else is getting more sex", "worrying about making ends meet" and "being able to see without glasses". What they don't miss: "Lack of money and big mortgages"; "Ex-partners and being single"; "Worrying about the future - it's here and it's pretty good". Their ambitions: to travel the world (46 per cent); for men, to travel in space (58 per cent) and, for women, plastic surgery (67 per cent).
Saga is another company which has compiled huge amounts of data on this market. After all, for many consumers it's not the fact that they're eligible for a Freedom Pass which alerts them to their declining years, but a letter promoting Saga's wares landing on their doormat which does the trick.
The company quotes Government Actuary data to highlight why the over-50s are so important to advertisers. They account for 42 per cent of all adults, and have a collective pot of £175 billion disposable income, 30 per cent more than the under-50s. Some 85 per cent have private pensions and the group also accounts for 80 per cent of all private wealth.
Martin Smith, the director of media at Saga, warns of the dangers of viewing the Saga brand as "elderly". "As the unrivalled market leader to the over-45s, we have been extremely successful in changing the advertising industry's perception of the older demographic. However, work remains to be done in many sectors, he says. Saga is selling a record number of cruises on its ships. You'd assume that these people might just be buying lots of cars, cameras and clothes as well. It's not rocket science."
The problem, of course, is that advertising and marketing tend to be young people's professions. Is it fair to expect agency executives and media planners to understand the needs of a generation that might have more in common with their parents?
The truth is, demographics are fine as a starting point, but there is a need to hone in on specific groups within the wider market, and then to dig deeper to gain insight into them. For publishers, it means recognising that readers have a diverse range of interests and values, and that you can't just write for the 50-plus and expect to appeal across the board.
Yours magazine is from the Bauer Consumer stable. Relaunched as a fortnightly in January 2007, it claims to be the UK's best-selling magazine for the over-50 woman. Its demographics: the average reader is 66 years old, with "new buyers" slightly younger, at 61. Some 78 per cent are retired, 17 per cent are still working, and 54 per cent are married.
Its publishing director, Sam Fitzgibbon, explains the magazine's target audience further. "She wants to make the most of her life, whether that is following her dream now she has left work, travelling or even finding new love. She still cares about how she looks and takes good care of her health. She knows it is the key to a long and active life.
"But she also has responsibilities. She may be looking after grandchildren or working part-time, she may be a carer for elderly parents. But she doesn't feel she is represented properly or valued in society and the media in general. She wants to be heard.
"She grew up with The Beatles, miniskirts and having fun - and she still cares about fashion, make up and having a good time. Her life is busier than ever, and most of all she wants to make the most of every opportunity.
"What this means is that we are clear on the articles we write, the celebrities we want, the investigative reports we focus on and how we market Yours to the target market."
If the media are busy working out what will interest the segments of their "seniors" audience, agencies are just as eager to deconstruct them. The New Majority, for instance, is how Millennium - a full-service agency for the mature market - describes its multi-dimensional mature market segmentation model.
This was achieved by breaking down the 20 million-strong mature market into four age bands those between 50 and 59, called Thrivers, which take 43 per cent of the market; those between 60 and 69 (Seniors, 32 per cent); those between 70 and 79 (Elders, 18 per cent) and finally the 80-plus (Survivors, 8 per cent).
It then worked on the data to create five extra overlays (levels one to five): Successful Spenders (19 per cent); Average Affluents (23 per cent); Prudent Purchasers (30 per cent); Poor Pennypinchers (21 per cent) and Struggling Subsisters (7 per cent), respectively.
"Without a doubt, the Thrivers category is the fastest growing and most dynamic group," Fiona Hought, Millennium's managing director, says. "And then, if you look at the 80-plus group, not surprisingly, it's the smallest one. But as people change, it will alter the dynamics of those segments and we will be looking to rename and revalue them."
Millennium then creates media imperatives for each level, fine tuning them based on age and relative affluence levels. When they're 80, people are more sedentary, more likely to watch TV and have more rigid reading habits. When they're 50, they're out and about. They're busy, lively people who don't watch much TV. At level one, meanwhile, they tend not to listen to commercial radio, opting more for the BBC.
An alternative "slicing and dicing" of this market comes from Andrew Hovells, a planner at TBWA\Manchester. He cites the "Traditionalists", the Victor Meldrews, who draw comfort from the past; the "Refuseniks" (think Patsy from Ab Fab), and the "Celebrators", the most significant in potential size and opportunity for brands, who define themselves by attitude rather than age.
Brands therefore need to be both attentive - and inclusive. Think Ferrari, he says, praising it for creating coupes that creaking backs could squeeze into without positioning it as the sports car for oldies.
It all makes for a very commonsense attitude towards the seniors market. Yet those media and advertisers who appeal to this audience don't always share this outlook. Indeed, some - who shall remain nameless - insist that they don't target them, even though they blatantly market to them.
It's a strange state of affairs, given the normal astuteness of marketing and planning directors. Does linking a brand to part of our ageing population mean that it starts to smell old? What propels this type of denial?
Robert Campbell, a founder of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, has teamed up with Toby Constantine, the former marketing director of The Times and The Sunday Times, in building a company, tgi50, that he hopes will connect 50-plus people with the brands that want to talk to them. It will, he hopes, act as a challenger to Saga.
He has an upbeat attitude towards this market. Yet, when he visited one major multinational at its continental office recently, its 50-plus people asked him: "What are you going to do about the menopause?"
"I said, 'nothing'. I'm not interested in the bad things about growing old. I'm interested in the good things about being at the top of your game, which I believe those in their 50s and their 60s actually are. And probably those in their 70s.
"Age power is happening and people who are in denial about it are in denial about it. But all the money is held by us lot, and frankly we know how to have fun."
Who are those turning 50 this year? According to Campbell, they were the glam rockers, the punks, those who were into disco in the 70s, the yuppies. And he's convinced that the right way to define them is to look at their life history rather than put them into a sector.
It's a view that is gathering converts. Rather like The Prisoner's "I am not a number", Golley Slater's executive creative director, Mip Phillips, wonders if age no longer defines this group. If, for instance, it is the different facets of their attitudes that define them, then these attitudes can change as they gain greater access to things like online content.
For instance, "is there a specific channel in which to get them because they like bungee jumping?" he asks. "I know that people over 50 have Facebook pages, but I bet no brand would consider doing a Facebook page for them. We need to be really smart in terms of the channels we use, and advertise to them without them actually knowing we're advertising to them."
The one solid fact about the over-50s audience is that it is evolving, and will continue to do so. There are many who are going back to work, travelling rough or setting up small businesses. Splitting them by gender, meanwhile, women are indulging themselves after years of catering to husbands and offspring, while men - by contrast - seem less focused, often attending more to health issues and possibly sports cars.
Scott looks at targeting through interest and income rather than age which, she claims, is no longer a definer. "What determines opportunity is how much disposable income they have, how many dependants and time available. When it comes to interest, people are prepared to spend over the odds, regardless of age."
This has led Reader's Digest to develop a whole range of products that specifically target these new demographics, from health businesses and financial products to high-end luxury items and high-quality gifts for grandchildren. It is, Scott says, an incredibly lucrative audience that seeks value over cost and does not trust price promotion over trusted brands.
But not everyone agrees that higher levels of disposable income go hand-in-hand with a propensity to buy. For instance, Stephen Stokes, OMD UK's strategy director, worries that the over 50s, and definitely the over 60s, have a different approach to saving and to debt.
"In a way, for them, it's almost an embarrassment to be in debt," he says. "When you're 40 or younger, it's not so much of an issue.
"The over 50s demographic are perceived to have all the wealth. But they're not necessarily the big spenders because their attitude towards saving money and debt is significantly different."
They have, of course, other calls on their money. Like baling out the generation below, helping people get on to the housing ladder, making sure their kids have a bit more stability. They don't want them to be renting in their 40s.
It remains to be seen what impact the credit crunch will have on the over 50s. Will the silver surfers survive? Will the greys grow and prosper? What is certain is that their numbers will continue to rise. Every 40 seconds someone turns 50. Whoops, here comes another one. Just hold that thought.
ROBERT AND SHEILA
Robert lives next door to Joanna and Johnnie and he's coming up to retirement. Not that there's any danger of him eking out his days eating cat food alone in a cold room. He's paid off the house, his other assets have appreciated nicely and he was one of the last to get a nice fat index-linked pension. Having ensured that he was handsomely sorted, he pulled up the drawbridge behind him by abolishing the pension scheme at the company where he works as the financial director.
The present is pretty well sorted too. He and his wife Sheila are both at the peak of their earnings, the kids have left home and, as a consequence, every penny of their considerable joint income is disposable. And how do they dispose of it? Holidays, city breaks, two shows a month, the 3 series BMW in the drive, Sheila's Nicole Farhi habit, and Robert's slightly pathetic interest in model trains.
In fact, they are so busy consuming that they have little time left to notice what's going on in the world. So you might just find Robert and Sheila a tad complacent. They take The Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday, obviously; there's a bit of BBC during the week; the Today programme in the morning and thank God A Touch Of Frost seems to be on some channel almost every night. The big questions vexing Robert are: why do people moan so much when life is obviously so sweet; and how does Anna, next door's nanny, manage to fill her blouse in such a pleasing fashion?
THE NATIONAL TRUST
Mention The National Trust and the vision that springs to mind is that of a stately pile that it has rescued and renovated for the nation. But try another take. Think farmland instead, in one of the UK's most picturesque locations, at the foot of Mount Snowdon.
The National Trust is a well-known heritage brand, but it's also a charity which relies on donations to carry on its work. Hafod Y Llan, a farm with farmland in Snowdonia, was acquired after a large fund-raising campaign in 1998, but the pot has since dwindled.
It turned for help to DMS, with its detailed knowledge of the "Baby Boomer" generation, those born between 1946 and 1953. It wanted to illustrate not just the work it had done on the property, but also what still needed to be done and the options to raise the funds to complete it, highlighting the need for cash donations.
DMS's response was a mailpack inspired by the style of a blog. It used the words of the property manager, Richard Neale, to convey his enthusiasm, dedication and personality, as well as to build a picture of the property.
It tapped into Baby Boomer insight by sending out the main pack mailing in January to 220,636 active donors, plus another 60,000 to members who were not yet donors. A reminder pack was sent in February to 100,074 donors.
The pack acted not just as a fund-raising tool but also as a guide to the area. All responders had the option to be included in a prize draw (with or without a donation) with a chance to win a personal tour of the work being done and to possibly lend a hand.
It fed on Baby Boomers' need to know what's in it for them when giving to charity, to look for value for money, and to see effectiveness demonstrated. This is in addition to their love of novel experiences and their familiarity with blogs.
The campaign, which broke at the start of the year, raised £420,000, with the main pack achieving as much as a 27 per cent response rate from active donors and the reminder 14 per cent.
LEADING MEDIA BRANDS
- Successful spenders
A Question of Sport, Rugby Union, University Challenge, Match of the Day, Newsnight, Question Time, Have I Got News For You
- Prudent Purchasers
A Touch of Frost, Midsomer Murders, Foyle's War, Antiques Roadshow, Gardeners' World, Time Watch, Heartbeat
- Struggling Subsisters
Countdown, Antiques Roadshow, Heartbeat, Midsomer Murders, National Lottery, The Weakest Link, Casualty, Crimewatch, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
- Successful Spenders
The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Mail On Sunday, The Observer, National Geographic, CSMA, Which?, BBC Good Food, Good Housekeeping
- Prudent Purchasers
The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Mirror, Daily Express, Reader's Digest, TV Times, Gardeners' World, Saga
- Struggling Subsisters
The Sun, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, The News of the World, TV Choice, Chat, My Weekly, People's Friend, Take A Break, Woman's Weekly, Yours
Successful Spenders - Above average (88 per cent)
Prudent Purchasers - Average (80 per cent)
Struggling Subsisters - Below average (75 per cent)
- Successful Spenders
Above average access (more than 85 per cent)
- Slightly below average (62 per cent)
- Subsisters Significantly below average (36 per cent)
Source: Millennium The New Majority.