Skip to main content

Alessandro Biascioli/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

As baby boomers get older, their age-related goalposts seem to steadily move backwards. The former hippies who once said, “Never trust anyone over 30,” are now using mantras like, “Life begins at 50″ or “beautiful at any age”

Boomers’ words and actions are powerful, given they account for a huge chunk of the population and have more financial might than younger generations after decades of accumulating wealth from cooperative stock markets and rising real estate prices.

It’s a generation with a lot of influence – but you wouldn’t know it by watching mainstream advertising, where the focus is overwhelmingly on youth.

A concentration on younger demographics may have made sense decades ago when brand loyalty was a thing and advertising could create a customer for life – but that kind of devotion is long gone.

“Once you hit 55, it’s like you don’t see any creative briefs, a media buy or research targeting anyone that old. It is like you fall off a cliff,” says Jeff Weiss, chief executive officer of Age of Majority, a consulting company for marketers looking to tap into older consumers in Canada and the U.S.

Marketers are missing out on billions of dollars in sales by neglecting the 55-plus “active agers,” according to research from the consultant, who splits his time between Boston and Toronto.

He polled marketers on the generational split in spending by Canadians a few years ago. At the time, they estimated that millennials (under 35) accounted for 38 per cent of consumer spending, 29 for Gen X and 32 per cent for boomers. In fact, millennials account for just 18 per cent of total consumer spending, while those 55-plus account for more than 40 per cent of outlays.

“Marketers should know better,” Mr. Weiss says. “They think that younger adults have a lot more money than they actually do. And now you see more focus on Gen Z and they have no money.”

By comparison, the 55-plus set have financial resources and still, for the most part, buy big-ticket items such as vehicles, appliances and furniture, but they don’t see themselves portrayed in ads.

Mr. Weiss says the stereotypical portrayal of elderly people as barely consuming (dubbed traditionalists) comprises just 25 per cent of the 55-plus group. The rest are still “mentally, physically, socially and digitally active. They want to live their longest, happiest, healthiest life they can and are doing what they can to do that.”

He has a shortlist of marketers who get it. On both sides of the border, it’s reverse mortgage companies that stand out: American Advisors Group in the U.S. which uses famous actor Tom Selleck and HomeEquity Bank in Canada which uses homegrown Olympian Kurt Browning. (HomeEquity Bank also released a trio of more humorous ads this year. One portrays an adult daughter and mom discussing dad’s back injury which was not caused by walking up the stairs but by sexual activity, prompting an awkward “Oh!” from the daughter.)

FOMO – which most people know as “fear of missing out” but in this case is “fear of marketing old” – is the chief culprit. Marketing is typically a young person’s industry and those working in the field typically target consumers closer to their own age.

“It drives me crazy; the infrequent time that I see that an advertiser can talk to an older market properly, I inevitably flag it because it is such a rare gem,” says Karen Howe, a veteran creative director and principal of The Township Group consultancy in Toronto.

“There is tremendous power in the boomer wallet and I always say to marketers, you are ignoring them at your peril. They are not going quietly into the night. They are climbing mountains, they are running marathons, they are not sitting around in a rocking chair. They travel and they have great affluence.”

Ms. Howe, a member of the Cannes Lions advisory board, points to a few other marketers who get it including shoemaker Nike, which created a TV spot that featured 86-year-old triathlete Sister Madonna Buder, dubbed the “Iron Nun.”

There are also some cosmetics and beauty brands like Dove with its “ageless beauty” campaign and L’Oreal, which employs actress Helen Mirren, 76, as a brand ambassador. Fashion magazine Vogue has also won praise by featuring senior-aged models on its covers in recent years, a nod at least in part to the fact that older women still purchase cosmetics, fashions and other goods.

“I am seeing some interesting shifts culturally in a few places but they are anomalies, which is why I can rhyme them off, because they are so rare,” Ms. Howe says.

The focus on youth in mainstream ads does make it appear that ad agencies and marketers only care about younger buyers, but some of these marketing efforts are in fact aimed at older consumers, even if it is not readily apparent.

While ads may feature millennial-aged or even younger actors, marketers hope to capture older consumers who view the ads as aspirational, says Michael Grimes, a former brand manager with Heineken Canada.

He argues that marketers are reaching older consumers through more traditional, targeted media buys such as TV versus more popular avenues being used today such as digital marketing.

“The easiest audience to find right now is the older audience,” Mr. Grimes says. “We know what TV shows they watch; we know what radio stations they listen to because they don’t work with all the technology that a younger generation would get to.”

He uses the example of Heineken, which may feature twenty-somethings in its beers ads but places those commercials in programming that attracts older consumers.

“There is not one brand out there that can live on its ideal customer profile,” he says. “You can’t [only focus on] the 27-year-old in a Porsche when we know that it is nothing but 50-year-olds buying them.”

Interested in more stories about retirement? Sixty Five aims to inspire Canadians to live their best lives, confidently and securely. Read more here and sign up for our weekly Retirement newsletter.