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Reaching Today's Active Seniors

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Stick around for seven or more decades and you're apt to become the focal point of some stereotypes before you're done. In the case of today's 65-and-older consumers, though, the problem is that the stereotypes of frail-and-lonely ancients are more creaky than the people to whom they're applied. And it doesn't help matters that baby boomers talk loudly about being poised to transform the nature of old age, as if it has heretofore been unchanged dating back to the Stone Age. Looking at some survey data on 65-plusers, and hearing from people professionally engaged in understanding and marketing to this cohort, we get a clearer picture of how older Americans see themselves and the advertising that's aimed (or, often, misaimed) at them.

For starters, people whose chronological age would seem to put them squarely in the "old" category often don't see themselves in that light. In a Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends survey released last month, 60 percent of respondents age 65-plus said they feel younger than their actual age -- in many cases much younger. "Among respondents ages 65 to 74, a third say they feel 10 to 19 years younger than their age, and one in six say they feel at least 20 years younger than their actual age," according to the report. Even more telling, when asked flat out whether they "feel old," 78 percent of the 65-74s and 61 percent of the 75-plusers said "no."

Needless to say, this sort of complication is apt to give gray hairs to marketers -- or would, if many marketers weren't oblivious to such nuances. Thanks to advances in health and longevity, people in what's sometimes called the Silent Generation (which accounts for the bulk of the current 65-plus cohort, including those born from 1925 to 1942) are already pioneering a change in what this life stage means. "They're having a second middle age before becoming elderly," says Ann Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing, a New York-based marketing firm. "And they're making it up as they go along, because it's never been done before."

So, how do you address people who are old, by conventional measures, but whose self-perception and physical condition doesn't match up with the standard understanding of what "old" means? On the simplest level, what sort of people do you show in ads aimed at this audience? "There are several schools of thought on the issue of chronological vs. cognitive age in advertising," says Jim Gilmartin, president of Wheaton, Ill.-based Coming of Age, a marketing firm that targets boomers and seniors. "One school of thought promotes using images that reflect the target market's age less 10 to 12 years. Another is to not be concerned about the ages of the target populations -- practice 'ageless' marketing -- being sure the ad reflects your understanding of the values and stage of life of the targeted populations and how the product and service meets needs. Our recommendation is the latter or a combination when appropriate."

Kurt Medina, president of Medina Associates in Rose Valley, Pa., emphasizes what the people in the ad are doing more than the age they happen to be. "The old adage is that you should always use models in ads who are 10 to 15 years younger than your 65-plus target market," he notes. "This isn't actually correct. Instead, you should choose models and situations that show the individuals to be active and involved." While agreeing that the age "should not reflect anything older than your true target," he stresses that "vibrancy is the key. Don't worry about graying hair or a wrinkle line if it's on a truly involved individual." But the ad shouldn't go overboard, literally. Medina adds that when an ad shows older folks waterskiing or otherwise behaving as "superjocks," the images "are viewed as silly."

For Sandra Timmermann, executive director of the MetLife Mature Market Institute, it's a question of authenticity. "I think some of the images in ads are not very authentic -- like that affluent couple you always see walking hand in hand on the beach, perfectly coiffed," Timmermann says. And if the people in the ad look too young, the audience won't relate to it, she says. "At some point, how much denial can you be in?" For the advertisers, it's "a delicate balancing act," she adds. Echoing Medina's advice, she suggests that "maybe the answer to the dilemma is showing people the right age but actively engaged in doing something." That's in sync with the thinking of Todd Harff, president of a Woodbridge, Va.-based agency called Creating Results. "They could care less whether the person in the photo has gray hair or even is bald," he says of older consumers. "They want to see the person being vital and active -- doing something that is relevant to their life, not necessarily to their age."

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