Blanked by brands: age and advertising

Posted on October 23, 2014 by Eleanor McKenzie
Mannequins in store window

Over 50s control a staggering 75% of the UK’s wealth, we are successful entrepreneurs and we go on frequent holidays, we are a serious driving force in women’s fashion retailing and yet, I’ve just picked up a research study that says only 4% of people over 50 feel that advertising talks to them. Something is wrong in the world of advertising if brands are not communicating with a group that has some serious spending power.

I must declare a personal interest here. I used to work for one of the world’s biggest and oldest advertising agencies – J.Walter Thompson—or JWT, as it’s more commonly known. It’s home of the KitKat and the Andrex puppy and a host of other household names. So, I know something about the topic of brands and how they communicate.  I also know that ad agencies are full of hip kids with an average age of about 25: I was once one of them.

OK, I exaggerate slightly; there are some people over 40, maybe even over 60. But they’re in a minority. A recent Ad Age article revealed that Madison Avenue – the birthplace of modern advertising–is “no country for old men” and that means anyone over 55. This is an industry with “grey hair phobia.” No wonder then that 90% of advertising expenditure is aimed at those under 50.

Anyway, back to the research, which is a joint study by the 50+ online community High 50 and Research Now. They discovered that only 11% of people in the 50+ bracket felt that brands are interested in them. Basically one in every five of the people interviewed felt totally ignored by brands. The brands that did well are M&S, John Lewis and the BBC. Hmmm, a younger demographic has little interest in these companies, so the clear choice was to target an older market.

Couple using a mobile phone on holiday

Worst offenders: technology brands

The worst offenders—when it comes to ignoring the over 50 population—are the technology brands. Ninety-five percent of respondents said that technology brand advertising didn’t target them at all and some 66% felt technology advertising was aimed at 16 –to-34 year-olds. They also named and shamed the brands that ignored them the most. They are: Apple, Samsung and YouTube. Over 50s customers feel that these technology brands are either “not at all” or “barely interested” in them, even though 21% of them say they can’t live without their smartphone.

For me, there’s some irony in this; I’m writing this article on an Apple MacBook Pro, my Samsung Galaxy S is sitting beside it and just last night I listened to a bunch of tunes on YouTube. And here’s another irony where Apple is concerned: Angela Ahrendts, who is Apple’s Director of Retail and Online stores, is 54! Come on Angela! And, come on TBWA and Cheil UK who handle the Apple and Samsung accounts respectively.

You guys are getting it wrong, and I don’t know why your planning departments haven’t mentioned this: over 57% of people in the 50 to 64 age range surveyed enjoy technology. James Burrows, the co-founder and CEO of High 50, who is himself a potential pin-up boy for the 50+ ‘femme’, says: “The study highlights a vast disunity between advertisers’ targets and those with spending power.” He calls us “the most economically powerful generation,” and all the other recent studies on our generation back that up!

Burrows also makes the point that advertisers seem to still be hooked on stereotypes of anyone over the age of 50. Other commentators suggest that the study should have gone beyond the age of 64 and that if it had the results would probably still be similar. Apparently research is in the pipeline that takes the age – range up to 80.

Agencies should know that there are people who’ve passed the 100 mark who have social media accounts. Ivy Bean (1905-2010) became a Twitter and Facebook celebrity for being the oldest person on both social media channels. When she died she had over 56,000 followers on Twitter.

So, advertising agencies and your clients remember this: we love to travel, we know how to use technology, we’re fit, optimistic and possibly starting a new business. We have quite a bit of disposable cash. Please stop blanking us – or you might just find we’ve logged off, shut down and gone elsewhere.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.