It's the same old story: agencies can't face the truth

Advertising companies might be failing to reach the over-55s. But there's no way they are going to start depicting the reality of old age. By Meg Carter
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JOHN GLENN may have shown the world you don't have to be past it if you are in your seventies, but youth-obsessed adland remains unconvinced. Not only do few advertising campaigns feature anyone the mature side of 55, but many are perceived by older consumers to be out of touch, too cryptic and - worse - irrelevant, according to research published this month.

The over-55s are more likely than any other age group to actively reject advertising, a study by media consultants Carat Insight reveals. This is a bit of an own goal for the ad industry, given that the over-55s account for over 40 per cent of consumer spending and almost 80 per cent of Britain's private wealth.

"Many widely held notions about the over-55s are clearly outdated," says Dr Wayne Fletcher, head of consumer research at Carat.

"The advertising industry's traditional focus is on thirtysomethings - consumers perceived to have more money - or 16- to 25-year-olds who are least brand-loyal and most open to switching brands before their spending patterns settle down.".

Trouble is, ads designed to appeal only to younger age groups by- pass older consumers. This is because the motivation of different age groups varies considerably. While younger people are motivated by image - how others see them - older consumers want to satisfy themselves.

So, while brands such as Honda and Toyota are more popular among older consumers because of their reliability, their advertising daren't admit it. And it's a similar story with jeans, soft drinks and beauty and cosmetics brands. Although now bought by a broader cross section of consumers than ever before, Levi's, Pepsi and Nike are among a growing number of brands desperate to re-establish their youth credentials.

There is, the agencies insist, a simple reason for this - none of us, particularly the over-55s, like to see ourselves as we really are. Take the Chrysler Neon. "This is a product targeted at older people but we'd never openly admit it," admits Greg Delaney, the chairman of Delaney Fletcher Bozell, Chrysler's advertising agency. "Why? Because older people don't think of themselves as such - even the phrase sounds pejorative."

If an advertiser wants to appeal to four-year-olds, it features children of seven or eight in its ads, adds Mark Palmer, the head of communications strategy at BMP DDB. "The same applies to targeting older consumers, although in reverse," he says. "If you're targeting 50-year-olds you don't feature a 50-year-old, you use someone of 40 and dye their hair."

Cynical? Undoubtedly. But false? Apparently not. "When advertising to older women you've got to be particularly careful," he explains. "While they say they want to see real people in ads there is resistance when you put them in."

Pride and self-confidence are key - as with Bozell's Life Begins at 40D advert for Triumph featuring a middle-aged woman photographed waist up in only her bra. The ad was successful, although, Delaney confides, Triumph did not go with the agency's advice to use an even older model.

For men, however, it's slightly different. "There isn't quite the same beauty and fashion industry conventions to contend with," he says. "Men are more likely to respond positively to someone the same age. But you must be extremely careful not to suggest to a man that, as he gets older, he'll lose potency, be less exciting or more conventional. Men would like to become an old bloke of fantastic wisdom - teacher and protector, not a knackered old git."

It's a fine line to tread, he admits. "The question is: do you hold up a mirror to the consumer? Generally, advertising does not." Advertisers, however, are on safer ground if they can understand the attitudes and aspirations associated with getting older.

"We've always looked at old people as the savers not the spenders - it's just not true any more," says Beth Barry, a director at Ogilvy & Mather, which recently repositioned Saga to be more in tune with today's over-50s."One of the big problems is you now have two generations over the age of 50 who've traditionally fought each other - the baby boomers and their parents."

Higher disposable incomes and more active lifestyles make "freedom" and "control" key aspirations for today's older consumers, not gradual decline and the quiet life. Is it any wonder, then, that one of the least popular ads among those responding to Carat's survey was campaign for Stanna stairlifts featuring Beryl Reid. Advertisers take note.