Why no ads for the olds?

by Tom Albrighton 8 February 2012 Branding, Tone of voice

I turned 40 last year. And although I couldn’t have told you in advance what being 40 might feel like, I do indeed feel 40. I think it’s the sense of finality. Having spent your 30s enjoying the gradual process of ‘becoming yourself’, you find that your bed is made, and all there is left is to lie in it. Comfortable, but discomfiting.

'Professor, when did you become so obsessed with voting?' 'The very instant I became old'

My hair is long gone, I can’t drink more than three pints and I can never remember what I came upstairs for. But there are consolations. I do have more disposable income. However, my leisure is limited, so I’m very much interested in ways to exchange cash for time. Which, you might think, makes me a plum target for advertisers.

But whenever I see marketing ostensibly aimed at me, I feel patronised. On TV, the only time I see people living lives similar to mine is on ads for awful, naff suburban brands like Bisto, Ronseal or Vauxhall – normally revolving around some sort of jokey vignette about family life. While I might recognise the situations with a wry smile, I don’t particularly warm to the product.

Contrarian viewpoint

As Bob Hoffman has often noted at Ad Contrarian, advertisers are curiously coy about targeting older consumers, even though people generally attain more spending power as they age. Everything is pitched at the young and the beautiful – even though they’re the least likely to be able to afford it.

Here’s a summary from his excellent free ebook, The Ad Contrarian:

There seems to be an irresistible urge for marketers to target young people despite monumental evidence that older people have far more money, are more willing to change brand loyalties, are far easier to reach, and all-in-all make better customers…

Not only is most advertising not appealing to the people who have and spend most of the money but it’s alienating them with imagery, values, and cultural references that are actively disliked and resented.

Embarrassment and humiliation

I can so relate to Bob’s observations. Video games are a case in point. I enjoy them, but I’m embarrassed by the culture that surrounds them. Despite the self-congratulatory blah about ‘interactive movies’, most games have yet to rise above the sort of setting, narrative and character development that appeals to 15-year-old boys. Even titles like Heavy Rain and LA Noire, which represent the very pinnacle of mainstream sophistication, barely manage to attain the level of an average genre movie. And yet new PS3 games cost £50, and the average age of a US gamer is 33.

Clothes are another good example. Having finally got to the stage where I can afford some decent threads, I’m increasingly intimidated by the experience of buying them. Going into a ‘proper’ fashion outlet means enduring the condescension of a 20-year-old assistant with a 28” waist, but I’m not ready for the unmitigated beigeness of M&S. So I end up in places like French Connection, Gap and Esprit, glumly browsing the light-blue shirts under a huge monochrome image of a pouting twink. And feeling very, very old.

Aspiration and visibility

Why the mismatch between message and reality? One reason might be the impulse to feature beautiful young people, whether for purely aesthetic reasons or because they are ‘aspirational’ for the olds. In areas such as women’s fashion, progress in this area seems painfully slow, having been limited (as far as I can tell) to a few patronisingly labelled ‘real’ models and the occasional 50-year-old with a freakishly youthful body, like Twiggy for M&S.

Relative visibility might be another part of the answer. Young people have enough free time to go online and make a lot of noise about the games, music, films or fashion they like – whether or not they actually pay money to consume them. Inevitably, brands and marketers listen, and end up skewing their messages towards a vocal minority. By the same token, they might fall into the seductive trap of ‘engaging’ young Facebook users who aren’t that likely to buy.

This was Mr Bleaney’s room

Another explanation is that ads (and ‘content’ more widely) are written or approved by people far younger than me, who are trying to think their way into my shoes. Inevitably, the attempt to ‘appeal’ ends up being lame and patronising.

Any junior copywriters reading? Let me give you a pointer, kids. In terms of your inner life, being 40 is exactly like being 20 – but the guy in the mirror doesn’t look like you any more. He looks like your dad.

OK, he thinks a bit like him too. But he still doesn’t want to be reduced to the sum of his lifestyle habits. The 40-year-old is more than the Bisto he ladles on to his sausages, the Ronseal he slaps on his fence or the Vauxhall he uses to take the boys to football. Like Larkin’s email hidden; JavaScript is required, he wants to shake off ‘the dread/that how we live measures our own nature’.

Inside the middle-aged man is someone who, against all the odds, still wants to be cool. Or feel cool, at least. And if he’s got half a brain, he doesn’t want to do it in a ludicrous mutton-dressed-as-lamb way, but on his own terms. Midlife Man doesn’t really want to go back in time 25 years. He wants to relive his youth with his knowledge and experience intact – and without giving up the hard-won comforts of middle age.

Clumsy nostalgia

One way to do that is by returning to the films, books and music of yesteryear. Cultural nostalgia should be a powerful weapon for the advertiser, but it’s often wielded in the clumsiest way. Take the much-lauded Christmas advert for John Lewis (excerpt below). For a certain type of person growing up in the 1980s, the music of The Smiths was literally sacred. (When I say ‘literally’, I literally mean literally.) Morrissey’s lyics, attitude and sheer living-signness were a lifeline, making Smiths records a qualitatively different cultural experience from other music.

Used in the right way, and for the right product, such music could have a powerful emotional charge. But a mawkish, wispy cover version is not the right way, and a crushingly middle-class department store is not the right product. Even though I am slap-bang in the middle of John Lewis’ target market, their ad actually eroded the little bit of their brand that lives in my head. The concept of the ad was OK – but you don’t mess about with The Smiths.

A more recent example is Honda’s spot featuring Matthew Broderick reprising his role from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (below). This sparked righteous outrage from some quarters, while others noted that the ad had not really captured the film’s ‘charm, energy and humour’, and that Broderick himself appeared rather stilted and ill at ease (perhaps because of his hesitation at agreeing to the ad in the first place).

Maybe it’s too much to hope for – sincere, considered marketing that connects with my life as I actually live it. But that’s what young people get, all the time. If advertisers want to reach the olds, they might want to ease off the suburban stereotypes and ironic button-pushing, and try treating older people as, well, people.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • I’m continually amazed that a man of your years manages to work a computer. Do you not speak into the mouse while desperately scrabbling for the tape deck?

    In all seriousness, it’s a great post, and you’ve hit the nail with this line:

    “One reason might be the impulse to feature beautiful young people, whether for purely aesthetic reasons or because they are ‘aspirational’ for the olds.”

    I’m convinced it’s the aspirational angle. Advertising shorthand for men seems to be either the 20-something lager drinker with his womanising and stubble, and then either tragic Just-for-men Widower (Just because your wife’s dead doesn’t mean you should accept looking old!) or Suburban Dickhead Dad (Ho ho, look at you trying to cook bacon on the hoover! Good job supermum’s here to clean up!).

    When these ‘memes’ are saturating the market, you don’t want to risk associating your brand with either of the latter men, so it’s 20-something WKD Wanker all the way.

    Then again, what do I know? I’m only 26. 😉

  • It’s not just the advertising – as you say, it’s the products too. We’re a great market. Who’d know?

  • I’ve never met anyone in advertising who likes The Smiths, which is probably why Morrissey held out so long before allowing the songs to be used in adverts. I wish the nation could have paid him a big enough pension to have prevented it.

  • Good post Tom.

    I think I disagree with you though about cultural nostalgia. It’s one of the worst things about reaching our/my age: having to listen to men my/our age banging on and on about the past. Particularly with music. These old idiots never move forward, stuck in the attic with their Specials, Joy Division and Smiths records.

    As much as I disliked the John Lewis Xmas ad, and as much as I liked The Smiths, I did like that it wound up so many middle-aged men. In the same way that the recent Disney/Unknown Pleasures T-shirt did. Old punks getting upset about this kind of thing are really just versions of Jeremy Clarkson. I’m in favour of anything that kicks against that conservative Mojo magazine mentality of fetishising our cultural past.

    Now, where do I go to get down with the kids?

  • @ Paul

    Yes, I’ve seen your views on nostalgia on Twitter. You would probably like ‘Retromania’ by Simon Reynolds, which I’ve mentioned on here before. He talks about the way the past is endlessly recycled and re-appreciated – not just by record buyers, but by bands themselves. He’s ambivalent about it, caught between irritation at his own obsession with the past and a genuine belief in the quality (though not necessarily superiority) of old music.

    For me, it’s not a question of cultural reverence or conservatism, but simple taste. A lot of the time, the old stuff just sounds better to me. To shake myself out of that, I make a herculean effort to listen to new music. When I do, however, the irony is that the acts often sound more 80s than the real thing. And I can’t see the point in choosing ‘new’ music on principle if its content is utterly derivative – that’s just fetishising youth for its own sake, like advertisers do.

    When I listen to something genuinely ‘new’, like dubstep, I often find I can’t suspend my disbelief about it, and/or I feel like I shouldn’t be listening to it somehow. I guess you’re as old as you feel…

  • @Tom

    I like Simon Reynolds. Haven’t read that one though.

    I’ve no problem with people genuinely liking old stuff. I love old stuff. It’s the going on about it that gets me. Especially when it comes from old punks who, while loving a musical form that supposedly sneered at the conservatism of the past, carry on in much the same way as old Teddy Boys do (or old dads shouting in disbelief at Top of the Pops).

  • @Tom

    Interesting you mention dubstep. I prefer grime. Although, to be honest, I’m too old and too busy to be bothered with the genre differentiations.

    What do you reckon to this? One of my favourites from the past couple of years:


  • @ Paul

    I like it. (Wasn’t sure if I should respond there or here.) It’s the sort of thing I like to have on my ipod for running – the more furious the track, the less I notice the pain in my knees.

  • Eddie Haydock

    All young people are twats.

  • I think the problem is still that people in their 40s/50s and above don’t like to think of themselves as that age. Plus even if they did, there is nothing more off putting to a 20 year old than seeing a brand they like aimed at 60 year olds.

    The answer is complex but:

    1. Create ads less centered on youth, not more centered on *ahem* older people. These are relevant to both without being alienating to either.
    2. Better targeting, so that brands can speak to older people more directly in the right places.
    3. Agency ages are probably not much of an issue (more overall understanding). But helping clients to understand the value of older customers is something we can do more.
    4. Better understanding internally to reduce cliche and patronisation in ads aimed at over 40’s. This will help reduce the negative reactions in younger audiences too.

  • @ Rob

    Thanks for the thoughtful response.

    It’s true that I don’t like to think of myself as ‘in my 40s’ the whole time. But it’s equally true that seeing young people in ads for things I like kinda makes me feel old anyway. What I’d like is considered, targeted (as you say) ads that just ‘feel like they’re for me’ without mentioning my age. Ads for young people don’t foreground the fact that they’re poor, impulsive or selfish – they just make them look great.

    You say ‘there is nothing more off putting to a 20 year old than seeing a brand they like aimed at 60 year olds’, but that statement could easily be turned round the other way. What you’re implying is that there is a stigma attached to age, but no such stigma about youth. Which is probably right, sadly.

  • Paul Eveleigh

    Young ad agencies are unable to empathise with 40-plus folk. That’s why agencies churn out cliché ads for the 40-plus. And get this: many 50-plus workers don’t have enough to retire on. Who’ll write the financial copy advising them how to avoid a life of poverty when they retire? None other than that rare breed of older copywriters like you, Tom, who can empathise with your audience.

  • The ridiculous emphasis on youth used to bother me but Sky+ means that ads are now just something to be fast-forwarded so I can get to the next bit of the Sopranos re-run on Sky Atlantic.

  • Pingback: Five Suffixes That'll Make you Look Like a Moron - Copywriting Blog()

  • 26 y o male

    Oh the irony! “the guy in the mirror doesn’t look like you any more. He looks like your dad.” I guess women don’t do copywriting. Great article though.

  • When I say ‘you’, I mean ‘I’…