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Aging Baby Boomers Defy Easy Classification

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Next month, TV Land will unveil an original reality series starring 50-something Mr. T as a motivational guru. Called I Pity the Fool, the program will feature everyday "fools" achieving self-improvement and fulfillment. The channel first considered a show loosely based on The A-Team, which lofted Mr. T to stardom in the 1980s, but themes of personal transformation tested better among baby boomers polled by the network in January, said Tanya Giles, svp, audience research, TV Land/Nick at Nite.

"We're trying to uncover how you speak to this generation," said Giles, stressing that TV Land research found complex differences in outlook and attitudes among various sub-segments of the broader boomer group.

The network's latest effort to capture the attention of boomers illustrates the challenges that media and marketing executives still face in presenting effective ad messages to the nation's largest population segment, one that defies the traditional characteristics of the age group it's now entering.

Even CBS, traditionally the oldest-skewing major TV network—one that for years has touted the value of marketing to boomers, with their high level of disposable income—is re-evaluating how to best reach out to those born between 1946 and 1964 as they march from the younger demographic into their 50s and 60s.

"What advertisers are recognizing is that even though youth are still important, you can't look at these big, broad demographic age groups" in a vacuum, said David Poltrack, president of CBS Vision and the network's top researcher. "There are just too many sub-segments." That stands in opposition to the previous generation, which more uniformally achieved life markers such as marriage, success and retirement, noted Mike Irwin, CEO of Focalyst, a research and consulting firm jointly owned by AARP Services and WPP's The Kantar Group.

The network recently began a study of 16 psychographic groups, said Poltrack, de-signed to provide new marketing insights based on categories such as income, education, household composition, work status and technical savvy.

Poltrack observed that all the networks—including traditionally young-skewing Fox-—are shoring up their programming fare targeted to boomers. For its part, CBS has added several new shows with 42-60-year-old viewers in mind. Sharks, Smith and Jericho, for example, star name-brand boomers like Ray Liotta and James Woods in inter-generational dramas that contain elements of mentoring or adventure thought to strike a chord with boomers.

The Fox hit, House, has found success with a boomer audience, Poltrack said. ABC's new Brothers & Sisters, with Sally Field (who played The Flying Nun in the 1960s) and Calista Flockhart is also expected to have strong appeal to that demo.

Traditionally, most network advertisers have harnessed their brands to images of youth and dismissed anyone over 49. But given the size (77 million) and spending clout (about $2 trillion annually) of the boomer crowd, marketers need to adjust their strategies, said Joseph Coughlin, director, MIT's Age Lab. "Now you need to keep the boomers in mind just to keep your market," he said. So the costs of not capturing what he dubbed a "truly disruptive demographic" are prohibitive.

"If the boomers are leaving any legacy behind, it's that you can't encapsulate in any one thing" the experiences of such a large generation, said Coughlin.

Still, some marketers continue to believe that boomers generally embrace the notion that the 1960s—their coming-of-age decade—was all about flower power and rock 'n' roll. Hearing-aid maker Miracle-Ear is betting on a print campaign that does just that. The ads, which ran in the July and August issues of AARP The Magazine, juxtaposed a Woodstock-era flower child with a goateed boomer of today with the caption, "These days you're probably more interested in your grandchild's giggle than a guitar solo." Marketing svp Chris Toal explained that hearing loss among American boomers reflects "partly lifestyle choices that boomers made—louder music, louder concerts—and partly aging."

Critics say the approach is risky. "Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll is a generalization that is partially true and partially untrue of many boomers," said Irwin. Coughlin agreed: "Using counterculture icons may alienate as many as you attract."

Decision makers in media and marketing "must understand segmentation and look at the different segments as not age based," Irwin said. More than half of people older than 50, he said, "find that advertising that is targeted to them is either offensive or insulting: too young, too old, too feeble, too beautiful. Life events and life stages are much more indicative of how boomers are going to want to be spoken to."

Small wonder that 80 percent of boomers are online, where they can seek out the content and products that resonate with them individually. And savvy entrepreneurs are picking up on that, offering the kinds of services that will appeal to them.

Eons.com, a new social networking site for the 50-and-older crowd, lets members group themselves by interest and, it would seem, maturity level. "If you are 54 but think you look like you're 40 and think you act like you're 32, everything is up for negotiation except for your age," said founder and CEO Jeff Taylor, who also founded Monster.com. "But age is the only thing at the center [of the 50+ demographic]."