Centrum's Self-Inflicted Silver Bullet

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The ad seems innocuous enough. Two handsome and healthy "older" adults bundled in khakis and denim pull a canoe out of a lake, leap across a bubbling stream, roast marshmallows over a crackling fire. An oversize bottle of vitamins rises from a silver pool, and a hearty male voice proclaims: "Life is an adventure, because you're over 50 and still exploring!" We hear a bit about "age-essential nutrients." The announcer says, "It's a great time to be silver!" And the 15 seconds are up.

My Aunt Alison changes the channel every time these images flash across her screen. Considering she is a prime candidate for Centrum Silver, this is not good news for the vitamin's maker, Whitehall-Robins Healthcare, a division of American Home Products. At 54, Aunt Alison is health-conscious, has the means to buy what appeals to her on TV, and is interested in dietary supplements. So what's the problem?

The trouble is my aunt thinks Centrum Silver's ad is unbearably annoying. Sanitized, homogenized, lacking in any sort of hipness or edginess, sexless, patronizing, dated-a 30-year-old's version of what old people are supposed to be-these are just a few of her complaints.

"If it's aimed at me," she says, "they missed by a country mile."

With 13.6 percent of the market share for adult multivitamins, Centrum Silver is the second most popular brand in the country, outflanking competitors like One-A-Day, Nature Made, and Geritol. Introduced in 1990 for "everyone over 50," Centrum Silver's sales have jumped 47 percent during the past two years, according to a company spokeswoman.

They must be getting great word-of-mouth, because the "Still Exploring" campaign is damned irritating. Yes, older consumers are known for shopping with their heads rather than their hearts, and for being less easily swayed than their younger counterparts by what's "cool," but that doesn't mean they're immune to an appealing image. Nor does it mean they won't notice when they're being fed a lousy one.

"The inauthenticity of the ad convinced me the product was bull," my aunt says. "How can they tell me what I need when they clearly don't know who I am?"

Klaus Rohrich, president of Toronto-based Taylor/Rohrich Associates Inc., which specializes in marketing to 50-plusers, is not surprised by my aunt's reaction. He had a similarly negative response himself. In fact, he says the Centrum Silver campaign is a good example of how companies often botch their attempts to attract the 50-plus market-which, it should be noted, is 65 million strong and controls 55 percent of the country's discretionary income.

The imagery is hackneyed, he complains, and the camping scenario fatally flawed. Since the premise of the ad is that life can be an adventure after hitting 50, you'd think the company would be extra careful in what it chooses to represent its "adventure." Its air-brushed camping scene is neither a likely choice for people older than 50 nor particularly adventuresome. My aunt says it should have been a bicycle tour. Rohrich says it should have been a cruise. The point is, it should have been something people older than 50 are likely to do. Otherwise, the ad becomes irrelevant at best and offensive at worst.

Aging baby boomers, who pride themselves on being physically fit and active, are not going to rally around a product that implies dirt- and sweat-free camping is an adventure for them.

Michael Rybarski, chief marketing officer of Age Wave IMPACT, in Emeryville, California, a marketing firm that focuses on the 50-plus market, calls it the "happy couples kicking sand on the beach" model, which he haughtily dismisses as very 1990s. He says the problem is simply a lack of sophistication. People older than 50 have been deflecting advertisers a long time, he says, and their defenses are too highly-tuned for such an approach.

Rybarski thinks Whitehall-Robins, which worked with the Irvington, New York-based ad agency Carrafiello, Diehl & Associates on the campaign, might have done better to create more than one ad for the vitamin, carefully placing the spots to attract the right viewers. And perhaps that addresses the crux of Centrum Silver's problem. The 50-plus market is simply too big and too diverse to reach in one message-after all, it's a group that spans about 40 years and three generations.

"It's a challenging market because it's so heterogeneous," says George P. Moschis, director of the Center for Mature Consumer Studies at Georgia State University. He points out that not only is the 50-plus group unwieldy in size, seniors are more individualized simply from having lived more years. "It's not the same as going after Generation X," Moschis says. "The longer people stay alive, the more singular they become."

So the "adventure" of "Still Exploring," while grating to an active 54-year-old, might be more attractive to an inactive 75-year-old-which would help explain the vitamin's success despite the uncanny ability of its marketing to irritate aging boomers. In fact, the median age of those who buy Centrum Silver is 63, with the 75-plus market carrying the bulk: 17.52 percent of all Centrum Silver users are 75 and older, while only 7.66 percent of Centrum Silver uses are 50-to-54-years-old, according to Simmons Market Research. For obvious reasons, this probably isn't an ideal scenario.

I wonder if the next time my aunt is in her drugstore looking for a good vitamin, she'll forgive Centrum Silver its trite commercial and buy what seems to be a decent product. I sort of doubt it-at least for the next 20 years or so. She didn't take too well to being crammed into a marketing category that she found repulsive, just because of her age.

"They jumped out of the TV and said, 'Up yours,'"she grumbles. "They created an image of old people that's safe for young people, but has nothing to do with us."

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