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 Mr Bleaney, 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.

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