Inside the Brain of a Boomer: Cash-Rich Demo Does Poorly With Visual Complexity

Neuroscientists at Nielsen Neurofocus Have Studied How Ads Are Perceived By Demo

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The neuroscientists at Nielsen Neurofocus, having strapped EEG-tracking caps on hundreds of people over the years, have good and bad news for marketers about the brains of baby boomers.

If you are confused by this chart, you might be a boomer.
If you are confused by this chart, you might be a boomer. Credit: Illustration by Athletics

The bad news: As boomers age, some neural decline will be inevitable, and they'll find it harder to handle visual or verbal complexity. (If you're a boomer, like this author, that means "keep it simple.")

The good news for marketers: Boomer brains tend to experience negative emotions less and filter out negative messages (so they may have already forgotten the bad news). The amygdala, an emotional center in the brain, tends to be active in older people only when viewing positive images, according to the Nielsen unit. Negative images are overlooked unless they're "immediately relevant."

Caroline Winnett, chief marketing officer of Nielsen Neurofocus, a research company that studies how people's brains respond to advertising, packaging, products, shopping experiences and marketing, is a boomer. She therefore recognizes that the "old folks are losing it" generalizations may not sit well with the still-powerful demographic.

But the silver lining for boomers and people who market to them is that "the brain is far more adaptable than we thought," Ms. Winnett said. "So the old paradigm that you get old and your brain and all your neurons die is completely getting shot down by new research."

Research is finding that changes in the brain aren't just about age, but how it's used and the media that feed it. So while boomers have more trouble "seeing the forest through the trees" and often ignore busy ads or information in borders around ads, that 's just because they're more easily distracted than younger folks. And that 's a problem, it turns out, that a little "World of Warcraft" might cure.

One recent study found "immediate structural brain changes in the over-55 brain through a very short series of video games designed to improve focus," Mr. Winnett said.

For similar reasons, Adam Gazzeley, science adviser to Neurofocus and director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, has stopped admitting heavy players of first-person-shooter games into attention and cognition studies. That's not because the games turned them into psychopaths on the brink of homicidal rage, but "because they perform so well on the tests," that they throw off the data, Ms. Winnett said.

It's only recently that 7-year-old Neurofocus has gotten enough boomer tests under its belt to feel comfortable drawing conclusions about boomer brains.

"Most brands and clients are still asking for the magic 18-to-49 group," Ms. Winnett said. "But we've done a lot more testing recently with boomers as more people realize that 's an important market."

That's because boomers have something millennials often don't: money. They account for only 25% of the U.S. population but 70% of the net worth, according to Nielsen.

Marketers shouldn't, however, conclude boomers have more money than sense. Among cognitive pluses that come with age, she said, are more "emotional resilience" and a tendency to "not sweat the small stuff," she said. So they're less likely to fall for alarming messages like "last chance to buy."

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