Ripe Old Age

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Pat Conti is proof 50-year-olds are younger than they used to be.

The suburban Pittsburgh nurse is one of millions of baby boomers buying more luxuries than ever and shelving brands they used in their 20s, 30s and 40s. While data increasingly suggest Ms. Conti is more the norm than not, few companies are flirting seriously with consumers old enough to buy wrinkle cream.

"Marketers aren't paying attention," she said. "If they were wise, we would be the people who [they target] because we are financially secure. ... I find myself able to go shopping and buy things that, when I was raising my family, I wasn't able to do."

Older consumers may have more disposable income than their kids, but marketers remain obsessed with the 18-to-49 demographic and its younger sibling, 18-34. That fixation appears based more on habit and theory-that younger consumers are more impressionable and aren't yet brand loyal-than on quantifiable evidence.

More than 70 million people were born from 1946 through 1964, with the oldest now 56. Today, 38% of American adults are over 49, and that group will grow to 47% by 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Yet, media buyers estimate 55% of the $8 billion in advertising spent in TV's upfront and scatter market last year was directed toward the 18-49 age group. The remainder went to kids (under 18) and adults ages 25 to 54.

finite dollars for fledgling consumers

The tug-of-war between CBS and ABC over "The Late Show With David Letterman"-fought mainly because younger-skewing "Letterman" brings in $100 million in advertising more than ABC's "Nightline"-reinforces the notion that finite marketing dollars are better spent on fledgling consumers.

Other factors come into play. "For a lot of brands we work with, it's sexier to advertise to the younger consumers who are trendier, much more fashion-forward, very social and very in the public eye," said Melissa Pordy, senior VP-director of print at Zenith Media, owned by Cordiant Communications Group and Publicis Groupe. "With marketing dollars so limited and precious, you want to ... bet on the future. "

Increasingly, that mind-set is being challenged.

AARP and RoperASW surveyed 1,200 people in July, August, January and March and found consumers over 44 are more receptive to marketing than once thought.

AARP found loyalty varies more by category than by age (see chart). But even categories with 50% to 80% loyalty among mature Americans could benefit, as they control 70% of the country's net worth, according to AARP.

"That leaves millions and millions of opportunities to bring in new customers," said Stephen Frost, AARP publications' research director. Through March, Modern Maturity`s page count fell 11.3% vs. 2001; AARP's My Generation was up 49.7%. Modern Maturity, however, outperformed the magazine category, which fell 14.1% for the quarter, according to Publishers Information Bureau.

While the former American Association of Retired Persons may have an agenda, many outsiders agree older consumers are vital.

Ken Dychtwald, an economist and author of two books on aging America, said people over 50 account for half of the U.S.'s discretionary spending but receive less than 10% of ad messages, up from 1% to 2% a decade ago. "Anybody who is going to let 76 million baby boomers go by as a consumer audience is a fool."

David Poltrack, exec VP-research and planning at Viacom's CBS, said "There's a certain illogical standard today when baby boomers...are moving into their 50s and taking a predominate amount of spending with them." He said Nielsen Media Research now tracks 35- to 64-year-olds, proof, he said, that "some advertisers look at this demographic as more representative of where the core consumer is."

lip service

CBS, long perceived as the network with the oldest viewers, had tried to parlay that into an advantage. Now, CBS is No. 2 among viewers 18-49, according to Nielsen, behind NBC.

Richard Kinsler, president of SLG Advertising and former publisher of Playboy and Mademoiselle, said marketers give older consumers lip service but few ad dollars, though he predicted that would change by 2005.

"Sixty-year-olds don't think like they did in the last generation. Sixty-year-olds in the last generation wore plaid pants," he said.

Jon Mandel, co-CEO of Grey Global Group's MediaCom Worldwide, said a decade ago, about 70% of brand advertising targeted 18- to 49-year-olds (then 61% of U.S. adults). Now the total is less than 40% (though the demographic accounts for more than 43% of adults).

Stacey Lynn Koerner, senior VP-director of broadcast research at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative Media, said marketers would be wise to look beyond young, sexy advertising . "Older Americans are spending a lot more than advertisers give them credit for. We are a youth culture. We value youth above everything else, but some advertisers can see through the gloss ... and go for the sale."

contributing: jon fine and wayne friedman

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