December 02, 2013

Why Do Marketers Hate Old People?

One of the most infamous advertising campaigns in the history of the auto industry was called, "This Is Not Your Father's Oldsmobile."

The premise was that Oldsmobile was suddenly a vehicle for young people. There were only three problems with this campaign:
1. Young people couldn't afford and didn't buy new cars
2. When they did, they'd rather stick a jelly donut up their ass than buy an Oldsmobile
3. The campaign insulted the people who did buy these cars - their parents
Apparently, Oldsmobile thought it was a good idea to malign their real customers and flatter the people who would never buy their products. Why? Because their real customers were old, and everyone in advertising and marketing hates old people.

It may have been the first time in the history of business that a company told its customers that their product was no longer for them.

Marketers, it seems, would rather pander fruitlessly to young people than make real money selling things to old people.

The idea of people over 50 driving their cars, drinking their coffee, eating their hamburgers, and wearing their sneakers is so appalling and such an embarrassment that they willfully ignore and disparage the most valuable economic group in the history of the world.

Well, believe it or not, the Oldsmobile campaign flopped, and ultimately Oldsmobile folded.

What hasn't folded, however, is marketers' irrational obsession with young people and loathing of old people.

Today, marketers are just as likely to target people simply because they are young -- even though they have no money and cannot and will not buy their products .

Conversely, they are just as likely to ignore people who are old -- even though they have lots of money and are prime targets for their products.

As I wrote recently, automobile marketers continue their idiotic habit of targeting people 18-34 for "youth cars" despite the fact that 88% of the people who buy these cars are over 35.

Almost everyone you see in a car commercial is between the ages of 18 and 24. And yet, people 75 to dead buy five times as many new cars as people 18 to 24.

In fact, marketers are more likely than ever to ignore and insult the people who can actually buy their products and grow their businesses.

Marketers contempt for and prejudice against older people is a remarkable and fascinating story. They have volumes of data that tell them about the size and power of the over 50 market, but because of their hard-wired prejudices they are blind to it.

It is very much the story of the weapon that is hidden in plain sight.

If you could find a group

...who was responsibly for about half of all consumer spending

...who control over 70% of all the wealth in the country

...who dominate 94% of all CPG categories

...who buy almost 2/3's of all new cars

...who owned 57% of all second and vacation homes and all the stuff that goes with that

...who are far easier and cheaper to reach than other groups

would you ignore them?

There is only one type of person foolish enough to do that -- a marketing person.

If we dropped marketing people in from Mars and they looked at the data, they would immediately understand how important it is to aim marketing activity at people over 50.

Unfortunately, our marketing leaders don’t come from Mars. They come from New York and LA and Chicago where decades of prejudices and legends have overwhelmed simple, clear thinking.

I was speaking to a very smart ad agency guy recently. He made a great point: 
"If I could talk to CFOs about this, they'd get it in 5 seconds. But I have to talk to CMOs."
According to Nielsen, people over 50 are "the most valuable generation in the history of marketing." Yet only 5% of advertising is directed at them.

Why? Because marketers are embarrassed by them. They are afraid that 18-year-olds will, god forbid, see people over 50 using their products.

Marketers think that people over 50 are decrepit old farts. The unrelenting stupidity of marketers cannot accept the fact that Barrack Obama, Jerry Seinfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Bruce Springsteen, Meryl Streep and tens of millions of others are all over 50. They are healthy, wealthy, and wise. And, in many ways, hipper and more youthful than the marketers.

Oh, but they're dying out, right? Not exactly. Between now and 2030 the adult population over 50 will grow at about three times the rate of adults under 50. It's the young people who are dying out.

Marketers are also under the delusion that older people want to be like young people. Yeah, Steven Spielberg is aching to be like Justin Bieber, and Michelle Obama is just itching to be like the doofuses in Taco Bell commercials.

Let's be honest here. As a former ad guy, I am sorry to have to say that any intelligent business person who comes into contact with advertising and marketing people soon discovers that many are exactly what the clich├ęs say --  shallow, glib mediocrities who have learned some dreadful jargon and buzzwords and repeat them endlessly.

When it comes to having the imagination to understand the tremendous opportunity that is staring them in the face, they are clueless. They are obsessed with people like themselves. They think that everyone is a young, big city, coastal elite hipster.

Despite their pretensions of leading-edge hipness, they are mired in beliefs and practices that are 30 years out of date.

Strong letter to follow.


Leon Jacobs said...

Youth is simply more aspirational. For the same reason you show thin people in fast food ads - even though your real audience might be more generously proportioned. I have also seen storyboards of ads aimed at older people being tested in groups and to see the respondents, some aged 60+ saying, I'M NOT OLD!

Our culture fears death.

Dawn Sillett said...

Agree! Please please can we have more older people in ads. And there's no reason why they can't be aspirational at the same there? OK, dying, Leon - granted. I'm thinking the marvellous 'I'm the thorn in time's side' for Nike.

Francesca said...

One build on this: I think age differences have also become more nuanced and specific. Once I transitioned to my late 30s I realized how different I was, on many different levels, from people who just turned 30. Marketing people would have targeted us in the same demographic, and yet our mindset and cultural focus are different.
Also: the assumption that older people would look up to younger people's models is simply wrong. On the contrary, I'd rather look up to role models that are older to prepare myself for my future, not to role models that remind me of a more inexperienced and naif version of myself.

Graham Strong said...

Hey Bob,

I always wondered about that series of Olds commercials -- it did seem strange that they were aiming at young people. My only conclusion (at the time) was that they were trying to imprint early so that when they did get to the Oldsmobile driving age, they'd be already thinking about it.

Interesting that Olds did fold, especially when cars like BMW, Acura, Lexus and the like starting coming on strong for exactly the type of buyer Dan Plant describes above. They might have been better positioning themselves as (in not so many words) the poor-man's Beamer. As it is, most of GM's product line is now aimed at younger and/or richer.


Neuromarketing said...

Oldsmobile did face a problem with an aging base of buyers. If you can't recruit new, somewhat younger, buyers, your brand will disappear as your customer base dies off or stops buying cars.

Disparaging their current customer base was a poor way to accomplish that, as was aiming at a customer demographic that was too young. A far better approach would have been to present an image of successful and mature (but still youthful) Olds drivers. Attractive folks in their forties might represent how customers in the 50+ age range think of themselves.

Even with that, presenting Olds as an aspirational brand for mature drivers would have been a major challenge. If any brand deserved to die, it was Oldsmobile. (Performance-oriented Pontiac and the authentically rugged Hummer might have had a chance without government pressure.)


john p woods said...

Oldsmobile…the clue was in the name.

Conor Blake said...

I don't buy the halo effect idea at all. If you're advertising to a demo, advertise to that demo.

Also, it boggle my mind how you'll read countless articles everywhere about millenials being either unemployed or totally broke, yet they're the target of how many gazillions of ad dollars? I sure as hell wouldn't want to be a CMO for a brand advertising to people in their twenties. Go for their parents who are trying to blow what they have before they croak.

Sonny said...

CMO's aren't looking to the long term since they are being judged and let go based on short term goals. Trying to lure young people or thinking that one day they will eventually be customers is foolish.

TimHJ said...

For me, the problem with the Oldsmobile ads was not that they attempted to target a younger demographic, but that they were used in a 'broadcast' manner rather than 'narrowcast'. In other words, either the agency or the client did a decent (if rather obvious) job of market segmentation, but scored an epic 'fail' in targeting and positioning.

By the way, there's nothing intrinsically muddle-headed in a carmaker targeting young drivers who don't have the cash to buy its products. I have vivid memories of my dad briefly driving a BMW E21 in about 1975, and deciding then and there that BMW was the brand for me. I was seven years old - but I still love Beemers to this day.

Stephen Eichenbaum said...

I have never believed in the rule that you have to use people in the ads who match your target audience. A good idea can target old folks without having to feature them in the ads. By the way, if you've ever tried to drive or use a check-out line in Florida, you'd know why people hate geezers.

Mike Rideout said...

Great article, hope it makes the rounds at agencies. The truth though is the primary reason youth are targeted is because of insecurity. Humans are predisposed to care more about not losing than they are winning and young people are paranoid about missing out on what's hip, cool, etc because they haven't achieved the wisdom and security that age and experience brings. This ultimately leads to them being much more irresponsible with their money and impulse buying where older people are more cautious and calculated with their spending.

ChesterHrob said...

One thing that weakens your credibility is the age of car ad actors. What's your reference? I don't recall ever seeing an 18-21-year-old in a car ad. That guy dealing with Willam Defoe is around 30, and he's one of the younger ones.

Mike Rideout said...

Terrific article, hope it makes the rounds at agencies. The truth though is the primary reason youth are targeted is because of insecurity. Humans are predisposed to care more about not losing than they are winning and young people are paranoid about missing out on what's hip, cool, etc because they haven't achieved the wisdom and security that age and experience brings. This ultimately leads to them being much more irresponsible with their money and impulse buying where older people are more cautious and calculated with their spending.

Mike Rideout said...

A lot, what young person wants to buy a car not considered hip, cool, etc? Plus early brand equity is in play as older people chose their car brands a long time ago.

draytonbird said...

What an excellent article. I believe Oldsmobile went broke. I know General Motors did, and no doubt many on this group have helped with their taxes to bring it back to life.

I do not believe the writer suggested - as someone here implies - that car ads should feature senile old buffers like me.

The reasons why ad people run this stuff and their clients approve it is not merely crass ignorance and lack of study.

It is that the agency people are all young and a) write for the only people they vaguely understand - themselves b) "Instead of praise they seek applause" - Claude Hopkins (who wrote the copy that launched Chevrolet c) their clients know even less - if that were possible than they do.

I have worked on nine car brands, from Aston Martin to Toyota. I can only recall two clients - in Australia, working for Toyota - who had the ghost of a clue. There was another in the UK, but I forget who he worked for.

There was once a man who launched the Nissan brand in the U.K. and made millions as he was a major shareholder. He used to insist that all; his ads made money, the fool. When he sold to Nissan they soon put a stop to that nonsense.

Tim Parker said...

That's beautiful.

Cecil B. DeMille said...

I have an example, I think. Scion ads are packed with twenty-somethings. Last I looked (and this was a few years ago), the average buyer was in his or her 50s. Honda, Kia, Mitsubishi and VW tend to skew young in their representations but are by no means singular in their focus on age representation.

For the record, I'm old. And my point of view is that I'm glad marketers are ignoring me. Hell, I wish more of them would. I don't pay any attention to them anyway. But, I'm in advertising, so I'm not to be confused with a representative sample.

st. vital kid said...

Check out (on Youtube) television commercials for Chevy's Sonic that have run on Canadian networks lately. Watch endless loops of cool, hip twentysomethings doing cool stuff in their Sonics. Reality check: most of the Chev Sonics (and their predecessor, the Aveo) are by my observation, driven by middle-aged women.

Chuck Nyren said...

Good one. It's way too long to listen to - especially eight years later - but I was screaming about this (not specifically Oldsmobile) on The Advertising Show in 2005: And also blogged about it here:

RepublicAnn said...

I laughed when I saw the Fiat commercial with "Jenny from the Bronx" Lopez pitching it in the Bronx. They caught on quickly and changed it to "middle-aged men would pick up models" commercial if they bought one.

RepublicAnn said...

There are definitely different selling points to an older person. Including: the ease to get in and out of the car, room for walking devices in the back seat or trunk, type of seats, possibly more people in the car now than when they were employed. My parents have purchased several new cars in their 70s and all were either Mercedes or Lexus. A young person is not going to be pitching those points in a spot and probably not going to be considered credible but the older crowd.

BingoJoe said...

And therein we find why ad creative today is so poor — no really thought behind it. Everything is about getting laughs.

I guess finding a way to sell something to a a 75 year old person, using messaging specific to a 75 year old isn't possible for today's creative.

I wonder what other excuses they use.

BingoJoe said...

And if you every need wisdom from precocious youngsters you'll understand why you're hoping in vain.

BingoJoe said...

Youth is also less wise. And perhaps why people want to say they aren't old may be due to society reflecting the crap messaging that advertising has pushed.

amportfolio said...

Many have already alluded to the issue that ad agencies are chock full of youth and often an underlying tone of ageism is rampant in ad agency employment.

I also think this is mainly many execs who cling to stereotypes and old logic. Its the stereotypes that bolder people don't spend their money the way younger people do. Add in the incessant grasp of outdated mediums such as TV and print, because too many execs care more about awards over client profitability.

Some say older people are clinnging on to their money and not spending it, but I say no one has handed them a message to spend. Not unless it's a message to spend on younger relatives.

Drew said...

Couldn't disagree more. I remember that campaign as if it were yesterday, and the agency was clearly and aggressively going after younger demos. "Hey, we've changed - we're better (cooler) than before!" Now...what successful ads DON'T say that? Very memorable...all these years later!

Claudia Chamas said...

but advertisements with young people reach old when this commercial they see the possibility of being younger when buying the car!

Michael P. Sullivan said...

Just remember. When selling to the older demo, understand their physical changes and how that affects products and services, how psychological change affects them when aging and the dominance of the right side of the brain with age. It's a day of awakening for younger agency people when they get and understand this message, I have learned from my ad workshops.

Richard Ambrosius said...

Great post...some of the ageist comments about geezers etc. document the naivety of many ad 'professionals'. While GM ordained Olds as the new superstar they targeted Buick for elimination. Olds died and Buick was the only GM division to make money...they promoted the Olds marketing Ron White would say, "You can't fix stupid!"

Richard Ambrosius said...

the answer to the question is - the ones that still believe hyperbole works!

The Midlife Gals said...

As a boomer woman and 1/2 of 'The Midlife Gals,' my sister and I know that HUMOR sells, no matter the age, but older people are just funnier...we look funnier, we're not afraid to make fools of ourselves, and here is an example...a car example...a way to market to baby boomers and a way to sell.................. Please enjoy 'Car Maintenance for Women-What a Tool'
Sincerely agree with the author. What's wrong with you marketing people??

Kelly and Sally Jackson

Floridacoastdude said...

I agree. I'm a actor. I go to auditions after auditions for commercials but because I am balding and over 50 (Do not look my age even without make-up) when they ask my age, I get a smile and thank you and don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out. Very prejudice in my opinion. Almost all auditions for commercials are 30-40. To heck with anyone over that.