OLDER CONSUMERS DON'T BELIEVE YOU;HOW TO OVERCOME SENIORS' SKEPTICISM

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As if it were not challenging enough these days to formulate intrusive and compelling advertising, the older consumer segment presents a much more labored task. As anyone who has studied them in focus groups knows full well, seniors are a very skeptical and disputatious bunch.

Repeatedly, our research with this important and growing market segment (projected to be over 60 million strong when the boomers start turning 65 early in the 21st century) portrays older Americans as ardent advertising cynics and detractors.

A great deal more of the advertising directed at the senior segment is truly ineffective in governing their purchase decisions. Indeed, our research shows a sharp decline in any kind of shopping interest. Their interest in trying new brands becomes acutely attenuated as their life focus shifts to things of a less material nature.

Nonetheless, our research suggests ways of getting over this hurdle. Older consumers have a multiplicity of product needs and, increasingly, money to spend. What remains is to craft the ads and commercials that are geared to respond to the physical and mental features emanating from the aging process.

Speak their language: Avoid talking down. Seniors aren't newly arrived on Planet Earth. They may look old to you, but they were all young once and most of them still have many of the same values and interests. But language changes with each generation, so watch your tongue. Being politically correct may be second nature to you but even in its most subtle execution, this is a major senior-citizen turn-off.

Don't patronize: Older people don't think they are cute and they hate it when you treat them like little dolls. Never forget that they know more about this world than you do. They aren't waiting for you to give them a badge for still being alive.

Enunciate: Watch your soft consonants. The body's audio amplifier, the organ of Corti (an inner ear thing), loses juice as its sensory cells conk out. This happens with most older people. They aren't exactly deaf but, while vowels and the hard consonants are seldom a problem, some of the softer consonants are troublesome. For example, Jeff and Jess sound alike. Test your sound tracks with older folks if you want them to get every word.

Hue in: Color preferences change with age. This is because the lens of the eye gets less flexible and takes on a yellow cast so that it projects a somewhat crummier picture to the retina. Color quality no longer meets broadcast standards. So what we often see is a concomitant shift in color preferences and (more important for marketers) color connotations among our older consumers. Usually they go more for subtler "designer colors," but not always. Test your colors. It doesn't cost that much.

Don't get chummy: Older folks don't really believe you give a damn about them. They grew up here. They, too, once venerated youthfulness, the national obsession. They wince as they witness yuppies worshipping their kids. So don't make the mistake of pinning the success of your campaign on getting them to think you're concerned about them. They know you're in it for the money. Try a different tack. Go back to Marketing 101 and concentrate on product benefit.

Test spokespersons: You may be gravely disappointed if you pre-judge this. Older Americans are becoming increasingly politically conservative. This doesn't necessarily mean G. Gordon Liddy should be shilling for Depends, but it could mean that there are other personalities that could deliver the message with the kind of clout and memorability you seek.

Avoid triteness: Don't simplify to the point of banality. Certain aspects of brain power decline with age but it's not as bad as you may have been led to believe. Sharp brains stay sharp. Cognitive processing takes longer due to a problem you should be so happy to have. In many ways the brain really is like your computer. If you don't upgrade and insist on installing more advanced software applications it will take longer to process stuff. The older brain is packed with gigabytes of information and with advanced-age-blessed software, so naturally retrieval time takes longer. It doesn't mean seniors are stupid, and they will resent it if you fail to appreciate this. Don't produce advertising that requires rapid informational retrieval to be understood.

Spatials: In both interviewing and in advertising executions, be careful about your visuals. One thing that bugs older people is a declining ability to deal with spatial relationships. This starts to deteriorate in your 40s and gets progressively worse. For example, it gets harder and harder to read a map. Certain types of self-administered questionnaires become difficult. Graphs and charts in commercials may flash too quickly across the screen to have any meaning.

No slickness: Most of them are smart enough and experienced enough to smell a huckster a mile away. Only the exceptional senior becomes the classic dupe of the con artist with his pigeon drops. Most are overtly suspicious of flattery and scheming deference.

Older consumers are different but they aren't dopey. Many have lots of loose cash. They are increasing in numbers. They can be reached through advertising. You just have to use approaches in both research and ad executions that are custom-crafted for this market segment.M

Mr. Haller is chairman of the Older Americans Research Institute in Wilmette, Ill.

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