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the boomer shift

Taxi Canada parodied advertising’s obsession with youth in a video proposing agencies target consumers still in the womb.Taxi Canada

This is part of the Globe and Mail's week-long series on baby boomers and how their spending, investing, health and lifestyle decisions could affect Canada's economy in the next 15 years. Is Canada ready for the boom?

For more, visit and on Twitter at #GlobeBoomers

Advertising still is not great at looking diverse. But some marketers have been trying to change that – attacking gender stereotypes, portraying same-sex couples in a positive light and sometimes reflecting the multicultural makeup of their consumers. But there is one group not as often discussed in issues of advertising diversity, who are equally underrepresented or depicted in stereotypes: older people.

Advertising's obsession with youth is well-documented, and most recently parodied by advertising agency Taxi Canada. In a video created for an award show recently, the agency mocked the focus on "millennials" (those in their 20s and early 30s) and proposed targeting consumers while they are still in the womb.

And yet, boomers (those between the ages of 50 and 69) have enormous spending power, and not only are they not visible in advertising, they often feel ignored. For example, a report from research firm Nielsen in 2013 found that boomers represent 50 per cent of the spending on packaged goods products in the United States, but that only 10 to 15 per cent of advertising spending is targeted to people over 50. The report predicted that by 2018, those aged 50-plus will control 70 per cent of disposable income in the United States.

The picture is similar here in Canada: The average household income of boomers is $98,000 per year, compared to millennial households at $71,000 on average, according to Environics Analytics. And boomers' consumer spending is 66 per cent higher than that of millennials.

"It used to be that people turned 50 and their spending declined. Until boomers started to turn 50. That's shifting now," said Brent Bouchez, founder of New York ad agency Bouchez Page, which includes a boomer-focused division, Agency Five0. It has done work on a project-by-project basis with advertisers including American Express, Pfizer and Coca-Cola. "Everything changed, but the marketing people didn't change."

While some are taking notice, many advertisers – beyond the health-care and financial-services sectors, which have always advertised to older people – have not woken up to boomers' immense spending power.

"A lot of what we do is educating people about the opportunities with this market," said Dave Austin, managing director at Influent50, an advertising agency owned by the for-profit subsidiary of the AARP. Both he and Mr. Bouchez said they do not see many examples of effective targeting to this age group.

The rationale for focusing on younger people used to be that advertisers who could win them over would gain a consumer for life. But research has shown that brand loyalty is fading, meaning this approach may not make sense any more.

Advertising could also be seen as a reflection of a larger preoccupation with youth: If everyone wants to be young and hip, then marketing products for those people will win a wider audience.

"A principle in marketing is that you are always drawn toward your ideal self," said Donald Shiner, a professor at Mount Saint Vincent University who has researched boomers' decision making. "For boomers, the ideal self is a younger, healthier, more exciting one. ... They're a bit like Peter Pan."

Even Matthias Hollwich, an architect and co-author of an upcoming book called New Aging that will be released by Penguin Random House in March, said he struggled with targeting the book to older people.

"I avoid making it too much about being old, but talking about aging as a process and redefining how we think about it," he said.

In Canada, boomers are the second-largest market (a close second behind Gen X) for BMW's Mini Cooper cars. Steve Ambeau, brand communications manager for Mini Canada, attributes that to the design (smaller, for people who are downsizing, but roomy inside) and how customizable they are.

"If you would ask me do we target them, the short answer would be yes, but it's not direct," Mr. Ambeau said. "Most brands, you want to be perceived as youthful, and we very much are. We have drivers that are 72 and we have drivers that are 25. They're all very youthful and young at heart, and that's at the nature of that boomer generation."

But the Peter Pan effect does not always apply: Ads skewed to the young may look good, but may not be relevant to the people who control a great deal of purchasing power.

"Everybody wants to be young again ... but what they actually mean is, they would like to have the body of a 30-year-old," Mr. Bouchez said. "When you're 55, you feel like you didn't know anything when you were 30. Nobody wants to go [mentally] back and do it all over again."

Marketers need to account for that mental difference by acknowledging that boomers can still be youthful and fun, while also understanding how they are different, he added.

At the very least, they need to guard against a mindset that is so youth-obsessed that it allows ageism to creep in. Just this week, Procter & Gamble apologized for an ad that showed a comparison between a bag of potpourri ("smells like mee-maw" – a term for grandmother) and the company's Gain laundry detergent ("smells like yee-haw!")

Randee Reidy, a 67-year-old grandmother who spotted the ad in the Sacramento Bee newspaper, took exception to the slight. She contacted the paper, the company, her congressperson and state senator. P&G pulled the ad and contacted Ms. Reidy to apologize, a spokesperson said in an e-mail.

"The ad is offensive and does not represent the views of P&G or the Gain brand," the company said in a statement. "This was developed by a local agency and only ran in the Bay-area Sacramento region, and we are working with the agency to stop any future running of this ad."

Contrast that with the largely positive response this year when octogenarian writer Joan Didion was cast as the face of a campaign for the fashion label Céline.

"A lot of older people feel that they're invisible," said Susan Eng, executive vice-president of advocacy group CARP. "It's time for marketers to modernize their thinking and appeal to people who have been ignored."

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