Why Baby Boomers Can't Be Put in One Box

Jerry Shereshewsky Responds to Our List of the 15 Biggest Boomer Brands

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Jerry Shereshewsky
Jerry Shereshewsky
It seems like the American marketing community is poised on the brink of an astounding discovery: the value of the post-war baby boom market! With the upcoming (and much anticipated) Tom Brokaw special, "Tom Brokaw Reports: Boomer$," it seems like everyone is trying to jump on this particular wagon. On March 1, Advertising Age published a fun piece by Judann Pollack called "The 15 Biggest Baby Boomer Brands" in which Pollack attempts to lay out the iconic products and their ad campaigns of her generation. This is precisely why marketing to boomers is in such a state of disarray. Folks are trying to take 20 pounds and shove it into a five-pound bag.

Boomers are a very diverse group, with a 20-year age span dividing the youngest from the oldest. A friend of mine, age 50, recently attended his college reunion, where he met fraternity brothers with 2-year-old children and 2-year-old grandchildren -- and this from precisely the same age cohort. Now contemplate the differences between those graduating from high school in 1964 and those graduating in 1984.

In her article, Pollack is right in identifying Levi's as an iconic brand for a part of this generation -- the earliest one-third, to be generous. But the latter two-thirds were more swayed by Jordache and the flood of "designer jeans" that almost washed Levi's away.

Pollack's Harley Davidson image was associated with the 1969 film "Easy Rider." I was 24 when it came out, but the younger boomers, perhaps half of them, were younger than 12 and probably not even allowed by their parents to see the movie. Harley was also having a desperate time back then, even with product placement in the film. It wasn't until the 1980s when its business fully recovered. This can be accounted for by the majority of boomers who were working and could begin to afford the luxury of an American-made motorcycle.

Ditto for the inclusion of Volkswagen. Remember, these ads were done in the mid-1960s. Few boomers had enough money to buy a new car, even a new VW. This was a product for their older siblings and parents. The boomers made their auto impact in the late 1970s and 1980s when they began turning to the Japanese and turned Detroit completely upside down.

More hits and misses
The Slinky? This was a "Silent Generation" favorite. And while it had continued success (and still does), a more emblematic boomer toy would perhaps have been Cabbage Patch Kids, introduced in 1978. The brand's incredible run-up in price (was it the first toy that went so ballistic as to create its own black market?) is reflective of the size and impact of boomer demand.

I would love to call The Beatles the iconic band of boomers, but their impact began almost before boomers could really afford to buy all their records, and has continued long afterward. As a very old boomer, I turned off to rock after the initial success of The Beatles, and so ignored the huge impact of The Who, the Bee Gees and even Donna Summer.

Pollack also nailed it with Pepsi. Alan Pottasch and Phil Dusenberry (and an incredible team at BBDO) took Pepsi from "Twice as much for a nickel too" all the way through "The Choice of a New Generation" and eventually "The Pepsi Generation." Talk about a preemptive strike.

How about Absolut? When my daughters were in lower school, they and their friends were mesmerized by this campaign and collected every ad from every issue of New York magazine. They were barely 8, no less 21. I'm afraid the choice of the boomers was not vodka but many things more illegal.

"Saturday Night Live" demonstrated cross-generational appeal, continuing, somewhat, even until today. And, debuting in 1975, it was there for the entire boomer generation that could, by this time, all stay up past 11:30 p.m. (especially because of the products alluded to above).

Too many eyeballs, too little cohesion
Facebook is a real reach. Growing by 175% off a base close to zero means little. Pac-Man, Asteroids and the world of Atari and the Commodore 64 are much more core to the maturation of the boom with technology.

The bottom line here is that you cannot and should not try to encompass the boom with a snapshot from the 1960s. The late 1970s are closer to the truth (what will I do with my "Saturday Night Fever" white suit, especially since no one I know can possibly fit into it?), and of that I am not especially proud.

Marketers that try to capture the zeitgeist of a cohort the size of the post-war boom make a huge error: Too many eyeballs, too little cohesion. Instead, they should focus on the very distinct subsets -- all large enough to merit their attention. The late parents, the early retirees, the grandparents (one out of three households, by the by) and the I'm-going-out-kicking-and-screaming groups are more addressable with meaning. Lester Wunderman said it best: "Junk mail is a letter addressed to me on the outside and someone else on the inside."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jerry Shereshewsky is CEO of Grandparents.com.
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