Shades of Gray

“I bust out my Boost Mobile phone and call my boys, and the next thing you know, we’re playing Moto GP on the phone,” says an old man with a walker. A skateboard rests on top of it. A bearded buddy, forehead bandaged and looking a bit disoriented as he clutches his skateboard, chimes in with, “Boost Mobile gets us stoked!” The man with the walker proclaims, “Our boys ’bout to school y’all with some tweaked-out technical shiznit!” He turns to see one of the senior boarders crash and lie groaning on the cement. Supers explain the ill-assorted posse: “Boost Mobile. Designed for young people. But it’s just more fun showing old people.”

In a second execution from Team One in El Segundo, Calif., an elderly woman talks about “getting 10 kinds of nasty” at a “banging party, yo.” The campaign, which broke last month, is “a juxtaposition be tween our target market and the people in the ads,” says Boost media director Mark Fewell.

Mocking the old to pique the interest of the young is exactly what advocacy groups for seniors would like to see as a thing of the past. “It’s time to raise awareness of ageism in advertising and work toward its demise,” Rob ert Snyder, a senior partner at J. Walter Thompson’s Dallas-based Mature Market Group, told the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging at a hearing on the issue last month.

“Business and advertising is missing the boat,” says Dr. Robert Butler of the International Longevity Center in New York. “Either [sen iors are] not in advertising at all, or the portrayals tend to be negative.” Butler, who also spoke at the hearings, is credited with coining the term “age ism” in 1968.

Even as the population ages, the 18-34-year-old demographic is still the most coveted among mainstream marketers—who have shown little concern about offending older viewers in the pursuit of younger ones. But with baby boomers hitting retirement age, agencies and their clients will have to rethink the way they portray older demographics.

“It would behoove marketers to dem onstrate respect of [seniors’] age, wisdom and relationships,” says Bill Lud wig, chief creative officer of Campbell-Ewald in Detroit, which handles Chevrolet as well as the Department of Health and Human Services’ Medicare and Medicaid accounts. “Too much time and energy and press is being focused on chasing after the young market. Baby boomers are every bit as big as Gen Y, a lot bigger than Gen X, and they have a lot more money.”

To be precise, 78 million baby boomers are reaching retirement age, and Americans over 55 account for 27 percent of the $4.2 trillion that households spend on consumer goods each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But not only do clients and their agencies overlook “the largest, wealthiest consumer group in a collective worshipful attitude toward youth,” Snyder told the congressional committee, but “laughing at and stereotyping older Americans appears to be tolerated by many industries in ways that would never be allowed by any other group in our country.”

Finding humor in the aging proc ess is nothing new. Comedians from Groucho Marx to Woody Allen have made self-deprecating jokes about getting older. And some of advertising’s most memorable characters are seniors: Clara Peller barking, “Where’s the beef?” for Wendy’s, Bartles & James’ porch rockers. But it’s one thing to show seniors as quirky but lovable and another to laugh at their expense.

One spot screened at the congressional hearing was a Midas ad from Cliff Freeman and Partners in which an old woman flashes an employee at the auto repair chain. Enthused about Midas’ lifetime guarantee, she takes off her shirt and asks, “What can you do about these?” The ad broke in March but was pulled after a “considerable amount” of complaints from adults of all ages, says a Midas representative. The campaign was created after the client lowered its target age.

Commercial roles for the elderly come around “rarely,” says Los Angeles-based casting director Cathi Carlton. Most often the parts are for “a nice grandmother at a baby’s first Christmas. Occasionally they write good roles. But there are few [creatives] who know how to pull it off.”

These one-dimensional characters are a result of sheer laziness, says Mike Hughes, president and creative director of The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va. “Advertising people … too often settle for easy jokes that aren’t really part of the message that’s trying to motivate people to act in a certain way,” he says.

Other creatives chalk up the proliferation of negative stereotypes to the fact that creative departments are predominantly staffed with younger talent. “I don’t feel it’s done out of maliciousness, but [creatives] aren’t walking in the shoes of the people they are writing about,” says Snyder.

One of the “sins” of the advertising industry is the “assumption that once you are over 40, you are dead,” says David Baldwin, executive creative director at McKinney & Silver in Raleigh, N.C. “It’s very strange. You look at the agencies that are hot and it’s usually the ones that are doing the young stuff. A lot of that is because the creatives doing that work are 25.”

Work in young-skewing categories such as fast food, beer, soft drinks and video games tends to be considered higher profile and sexier than categories that traditionally target seniors, such as financial services, insurance, pharmaceuticals and travel. The popular assumption is that younger demographics are more likely to switch brands, but an AARP study conducted earlier this year contradicts that notion. It found that adults 45 and older are no more brand loyal than those 18-34, and about half of Americans age 45-plus are “always looking for better products.”

“Ideally, if you are a big, broad mass marketer, you’ve got to find a way to talk to the 18-34 market at the same time you are talking to the 50-plus,” says Ludwig. When C-E asks focus groups to name their favorite ads, Ludwig notes, responses vary little between age groups. But while 45-plus Americans appreciate humor in ads, according to the AARP study, they say many of today’s commercials are “too weird.”

Ludwig points to the music in C-E’s new “Rock ‘n’ Roll” Chevy campaign—with ’60s-era classic rock in some spots and new artists in others—as one approach to cross-generational marketing.

Gap’s fall campaign is another broadly targeted effort, carrying the tagline “For every generation.” Personalities of every age are featured—Willie Nelson sings alongside up-and-comer Ryan Adams in one spot—in the work, done by Laird + Partners in New York. “This campaign reflects the connection that people of all ages have with Gap,” the company’s former CEO, Millard Drexler, said when the work broke. “Whether you are 6, 16 or 60, nothing is more universal than a pair of Gap jeans.”

Communicating appropriately to older consumers takes “a good client” and strong planning insights, says Randy Saitta, co-executive creative director at Merkley Newman Harty & Partners. In contrast to most pharmaceutical ads, which portray the elderly as dependent grandparent types, the New York agency’s commercials for the cholesterol drug Lipitor star a sexy older man in his swimsuit and a sophisticated, gray-haired diva in evening wear.

One of the agency’s more unexpected casting decisions came from a commercial Saitta created last year for Mercedes-Benz. It targeted younger consumers with words of wisdom from people in their 90s. They talked about living life fully, ending with the line, “Before it’s all over, get a cool car.” “It was a bold move for Mercedes to use elderly people to sell to a young target,” says Saitta. “Traditionally you want your target audience in your commercial.”

A current PlayStation 2 ad flips the stereotype of the confused, senile grandma. The spot takes place in a retirement home, where a seemingly disoriented elderly woman stares off in the distance and tells her daughter, “I was going to defeat the lord of the underworld. The silver dragon stole my key.” Her young grandchild recognizes her ravings, advising, “Next time, use the magic stones.”

The tag, “Live in your world, play in ours,” lent itself to the execution, says Jerry Gentile, creative director at TBWA\Chiat\Day in Playa del Rey, Calif. Gentile, who says his son often plays Play Station with his own grand parents, wanted to show in stances of people talking about something very different from what one would first assume. “It’s just one of those clichés you see in life—maybe [old people] are not lunatics,” he says. “Maybe they are the sane ones.”

Lee Lynch, the 65-year-old founder and CEO of Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis, agrees with Snyder’s belief that consumer values are more important than generalizations based on age. He says advertisers should take an “ageless” approach to their work and cites CL’s Harley-Davidson campaign as an example. In the ads, the rider is faceless, allowing people to project themselves into the image, regardless of age.

Says Lynch, “The sooner marketers realize there is an ageless aspect to virtually every product, the better.”