Senior Citizens Market

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Interest in the senior market emerged in the 1960s and '70s, finally becoming widespread in the 1990s as advertisers began to understand and respond to several ongoing trends.

The first of these, beginning in the 1960s, was the movement by older people to establish themselves as a group with civil rights. The American Association of Retired People, the Gray Panthers and other groups were formed and became highly influential. They sought to draw greater political, legal, governmental and commercial attention to the needs of senior citizens. Among other actions, these groups protested stereotypical portrayals of senior citizens in the media, including advertising.

For the most part, advertisers began to pay increased attention to the senior citizens market not because of social movements or improved comprehension of aging, but because older people began to constitute a larger portion of the population.

By the late 1990s, people older than 50 constituted approximately one-third of the U.S. adult population. The baby boomers (i.e., those born between 1946 and 1964) were growing older, while at the same time the life expectancy of each succeeding generation was increasing. According to one estimate, the under-50 population was expected to increase by 3% over the first quarter of the 21st century, while the over-50 population was expected to grow by 73%.

Advertisers also came to realize that older consumers possess considerable wealth and discretionary income.

Dispelling myths and misconceptions

Still, stereotypes and myths about seniors persisted. Among the most typical of these stereotypes is that virtually all older people are in poor health, senile, crotchety, confined to retirement or nursing homes, inactive, isolated, unproductive, uninterested in sex or romance, indifferent to material possessions, have low incomes and are rigidly brand loyal.

Numerous studies over the final three decades of the 20th century showed that those stereotypes were evident in portrayals of older people in a variety of media, including TV and magazine advertising. Older men tended to be depicted favorably more often than older women. Older models appeared more often in advertising for upscale products.

Equally significant, marketing researchers found that older consumers have been greatly underrepresented in the media and in advertising in the past few decades, although they have become much more visible they once were.

Advertisers and market researchers have found it particularly difficult to define and segment the senior citizens market. Collective labels such as "mature," "elderly," "seniors" and "older" have caused confusion. Definitions of "senior" range from "40 and above" to "over 70" or anywhere in between. Some researchers have focused solely on those senior citizens in retirement homes. Others accept the designation "65 and older." The U.S. Census distinguishes four categories: "olders" (55-64), "elders" (65-74), "aged" (75-84) and "very old" (85 and older).

Understanding the market

Rather than using age definitions, understanding senior citizens and developing promotional efforts on the basis of lifestyles, attitudes, interests, self-perceptions of age and aging, social roles, relative physical health, employment status and degree of social isolation has been much more fruitful.

In 1969, the Greyhound Bus Co. was credited with being one of the first companies in the U.S. to advertise extensively to senior citizens. Its consumer research indicated that many of its passengers were older.

In the years that followed and especially in the 1980s, other advertisers with products or services targeted to seniors began to tailor ad campaigns to them. For example, Cadillac advertising was aimed at older, affluent consumers. L'Oreal for many years successfully advertised its Grecian Formula hair coloring products to the senior market, clearly depicting older people in the ads.

Other companies developed and advertised new lines of products or services specifically for seniors. Campbell Soup Co. led the way in developing and promoting low-calorie products for older consumers. Kellogg Co. changed the name of Bran Flakes to 50-Plus Bran Flakes and increased its sales. Many other companies began promoting low-fat and high-fiber food products.

Bristol-Myers and other drug companies offered special products for those older than 50 such as Naldecon Senior cough syrups. Metropolitan Life, Aetna and other financial institutions created investment and retirement services—and correlating ad campaigns—expressly for senior citizens. By the mid-1980s, more than half of the largest U.S. corporations were to some degree targeting products, services and advertising to the senior market.

The broader market

Many successful ad campaigns of the 1980s and '90s employed older celebrities as spokespersons for products or services aimed at seniors and other markets. The late baseball star Joe DiMaggio was long featured in campaigns for Mr. Coffee coffeemakers. Actress June Allison was successfully featured in campaigns for Depend, as Kimberly-Clark led the way in developing adult wetness protection into a whole new product category. As they aged, James Garner, James Coburn, Ed McMahon, Wilford Brimley and many other celebrities have served as spokespersons for various products and services targeted to their contemporaries.

The use of older figures in ads targeted to a mass audience also became more evident. A 1995 study, "The Representation of Elderly Persons in Primetime Television Advertising," found that marketers such as Wal-Mart, Sears, RCA, Microsoft and AT&T targeted both older consumers and other market segments while featuring older people in their ad campaigns. Compared to their numbers in the overall population, however, seniors continued to be under-represented.

Reality check

Astute marketers and advertisers have observed that most people 55 to 64 and even many of those 65 to 74 think and act in ways similar to people in their 40s in past generations. Some senior citizens succumb to health problems—although in the U.S. only about 5% of those older than 65 are in nursing homes and 15% or less have a severe health problem. The great majority of senior citizens tend to be active, independent, learning, growing psychologically, socially and spiritually, productive and interested in a wide variety of products and services. In addition, an estimated half of all discretionary income and three-fourths of the assets in the U.S. in the late 1990s were controlled by those older than 50.

As older consumers' interests, desires, behavior and purchasing patterns have become better understood, the senior market has become particularly attractive to certain industries. For example, the travel industry often targets tour packages and luxury cruises to older consumers, who tend to travel to learn, expand their horizons and find new friends, while younger travelers primarily seek adventure and escape. Most hotels and motels, responding in part to pressures from AARP and other organizations representing seniors, offer special discounts to them.

Market researchers have discovered that older consumers also seek material possessions, particularly products and services that will keep them healthy and active. These include prescription drugs; over-the-counter health care products and medical supplies; new automobiles, especially luxury cars and recreational vehicles; health spas and exercise equipment; upscale household furnishings and home remodeling; various types of medical and home-owner insurance products; and financial services. Often occupying the role of doting grandparents, they purchase approximately 25% of all toy products.

Ads with senior appeal

Because they are less peer-conscious, older consumers are less responsive to advertising appeals that emphasize status or what is fashionable. Special promotions that include discounts for senior citizens have proven effective in many instances, but marketing and ad practitioners warn that some age-conscious older consumers actually resist such offers because of the stigma associated with them.

More important in building brand loyalty in the senior market are objectivity in advertising, attention to customer service, speed, convenience and a personal touch. Some have found older consumers particularly responsive to advertising containing testimonials. Lifestyle advertising that includes factual information also has proven effective.

Increasingly, marketers are also tailoring their media plans to senior citizens. Older people read newspapers more often than their younger counterparts. Reader's Digest and TV Guide are the publications most widely read by older consumers, but Good Housekeeping, Better Homes & Gardens, Family Circle, National Geographic and Woman's Day all have a wide readership among seniors. Niche magazines such as Modern Maturity and Prevention are increasingly effective in reaching this very pluralistic market. Special newspaper sections or supplements aimed at seniors became common in the 1990s. Direct mail advertising is another means that has been successful in reaching this group.

Even in the late 1990s, critics of the TV industry pointed out that most programming was aimed at younger audiences and seldom contained characters or themes that would interest older people or depicted them in positive, realistic roles and situations, despite their increasing numbers. Nonetheless, senior citizens generally have tended to be heavy viewers of TV. They also preferred the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel and PBS to offerings by the "Big Four" broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox).

As the 21st century began, most marketers and agencies were becoming aware that older consumers comprised a very diverse, greatly expanding, potentially highly profitable market. The seniors of the year 2002 were better-educated consumers than their predecessors and were more interested in cultural activities and an active lifestyle. Responding to the needs of dramatically increasing numbers of healthier, wealthier and longer-lived senior citizens promised to be one of the greatest challenges facing marketers in the new millennium.

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