Bearing an eternal summer: Marketers target people's mind-set, not age
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A hot red Chevy pulls up to a house, and a graying man climbs out. He knocks on the door, only to be greeted by a suspicious younger man. A white-haired woman, the younger guy's mother, comes out smiling eagerly, and the couple rush to the car. For just a moment there's a glimpse of them as attractive, young adults. "Just drive," she urges her date.
The TV commercial illustrates the marketer's challenge in a country packed with maturing adults. Just because people look one way on the outside -- or their driver's license says they've passed the half-century mark -- that may not be how they see themselves.
Not to be trite, but "you're as old as you feel," according to Thomas E. Barry, vice president for executive affairs and professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
He's got the research to back that up.
Mr. Barry and a colleague from Florida Gulf Coast University studied college-educated Japanese 55 years old and above. They found those who were psychologically younger had more positive attitudes toward life satisfaction and aging than those whose "cognitive ages" were older.
Four factors went into determining a person's cognitive age: health and how people feel; what chronological age they look; how engaged they are socially; and their interests and hobbies.
"Because somebody is 65 doesn't mean you market to them as if they are," Mr. Barry said. "They may cognitively be 50 or 55."
The findings among the Japanese group study were seen as a good match for earlier findings among Americans with a similar experience of economic independence and attitudes.
And the research might be helpful for those trying to develop advertising that reaches mature consumers without getting zapped by what seems to be the third rail of marketing.
Around the industry, the topic of "ageism" has been raised more often as the boomers get older. There's some debate over whether it refers to avoiding associating a product with an older demographic in commercials or just making assumptions on how mature audiences live and make purchasing decisions.
"If I were a marketer, what I've got to do is think of people in their age in a psychological way rather than a chronological age," Mr. Barry said.
Americans, and baby boomers in particular, are known for being interested in seeming younger than they are -- just ask all the cosmetics companies developing anti-aging products.
The cultural tradition of coveting young adulthood can be seen in the creation of clothing chains such as Forever 21 and Rue 21. The latter, based in Cranberry, explains its name on its website: "'rue' comes from the French word for 'street' while '21' represents the age that everyone wants to be! Our store is a favorite with almost anyone looking for fashion that is young, fresh and affordable."
But just as some 15-year-olds listen to Katy Perry while others prefer Led Zeppelin, older generations can't be tossed into one segment.
Some 55-year-olds don't want a smartphone or a Facebook page, but they hike daily and regularly rub elbows with younger people buying fitness gear and looking for the next challenging trail. Some people have had their 65th birthday and the white hair to prove it but they can't imagine retiring or not showing up for the latest free jazz concert at the park.
Mr. Barry just bought $300 worth of Under Armour products and was surprised to learn the sports apparel brand targets a 12- to 20-year-old demographic.
Marketers who'd rather spend the budget on social media than late-night TV might be happy with last year's Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project report showing the fastest growth on social networking sites came from Internet users 74 years old and over.
Not long ago, South Side agency Quest Fore was involved in a survey by a local nonprofit in which members were asked how they wanted to receive information. Email was the preferred method for all ages, including older members, according to Ken Cuccinelli, chairman and CEO.
The agency, which recently picked up the Iron City Brewing account, has determined that company's Iron City beer is traditionally more popular among those over 45 while IC Light does better with younger audiences. They'll be studying to try to figure out why and what that means for the brands.
Nationally, it's easy to find examples of different approaches that marketers have taken to the sometimes delicate issue of age.
Mr. Barry is amused by the actors in ads for Cialis, a treatment for the erectile dysfunction problems that typically are more common among older men. "Those people don't have those problems," he said, with a laugh. "Those guys are in their 40s."
On the other hand, the seemingly ageless appeal of 89-year-old actress Betty White -- and her sense of humor -- worked well for a product like candy bars. In a commercial last year, the actress took a licking from a group of backyard football players and then morphed into a younger guy once she bit into a Snickers bar.
First Published October 14, 2011 12:00 am