Poor boomers. They may not know it yet, but by ad biz calculations, they're about to fall off the radar screen. Some months ago, my good friend Steve Frankfurt asked if I had any thoughts to contribute to a United Nations panel discussion on advertising that he would be chairing in April of '99. The subject? Population aging and urbanization, plus a concern that city dwellers age 60 and over could well be excluded from the opportunities and challenges cities usually offer. The irony? The U.N. has proclaimed 1999 the International Year of Older Persons, and in light of the fact that older people are living longer and more active lives, the U.N. is actually looking to the advertising community for help in redefining the concept of "old." That would be enough to make you howl, if it wasn't also more than enough to make you cry.
In understanding and responding to the needs and interests of 50-, 60-, and 70-somethings, how do you turn for help to an industry whose own practitioners start to sweat at age 40? The U.N. has demonstrated it carries much of the same baggage as the ad business. It establishes age 60 as "older." (Just as age 40 similarly qualifies for that dubious distinction in any of our hot shops.)
Of course, 60 is older than 50, and 30 is older than 20. But in the context of the problem, as posed by both the U.N. and the ad business, sixtysomethings (or even fortysomethings) are not merely viewed as older, they are also assumed to be old -- the age at which one crosses an invisible threshold and joins the community of "older" people. And we all know what that means.
Given reasonable health, I don't believe age defines people as much as lifestyle. I read recently that the new breed of Russian businessman has far more in common with his American or Japanese counterpart, than he does with a Russian peasant. Ethnic differences and language barriers pose no problem when it comes to sharing the enjoyment of fine wines, good cigars, well-tailored clothes and first class travel. Whatever your nationality, if you can afford them, you can appreciate them.
If those pleasures were affordable and enjoyable when you were 30 or 40, they will only become more so as you mature and your resources grow. You will carry your lifestyle, your carefully cultivated tastes and preferences, well into your 60s and 70s. You won't become less of a consumer as you age. In fact, to maintain the lifestyle you've grown accustomed to, and with fewer financial obligations and concerns, your wallet and your mind may both be open for more. It's the state of your health and the sum of your wealth that will determine how you live, what you buy, where and when you travel -- not your age.
Advertising people surely know that, smart as we are. You would think so, wouldn't you? But let's take a look at the way this business is run:
The people we hire: Any creatives on your team over 19, or thereabouts, or media buyers who've made it all the way to age 25?
The commercials we create: At one time we believed our target had a 7th-grade education. In retrospect, that was the golden age.
The programs we air: "Now that we've got 500 channels, there's nothing to see." Right on, because if you're age 12 or older, there isn't.
The demographics we consider desirable: I'm told it's ages 12 to 24, with an occasional stretch to 30. I think it's time to reassess. There's an enormous boomer population about to pass into the great beyond. That is, beyond the invisible threshold that means they're growing "older."
But this time I'm not certain marketers will be so quick to write off the boomers or the big bucks they represent. Researchers will suddenly discover they're still a viable and valuable target market, with a lot of living to do. And, as a by-product, they'll probably find the need to employ a few skilled contemporaries to communicate with them. Which shouldn't be too difficult, since most were laid off some years ago.
As for me -- someone who thinks younger boomers are still wet behind the ears -- I continue to have fun in the business, getting better all the time at doing what I've always done. I continue to develop new interests, switch brands whenever I'm of a mind to, and I never miss an opportunity to try almost any product that promises it's "new and improved."
Larry Dobrow, former ad executive and creative, editor and publisher, is a full-