Marks and Spencer’s Stuart Rose was just the latest in a series of chief executives humbled by the fickleness of the baby boomer when last week he promised to woo back the UK retailer’s “neglected” middle-aged women customers.
The criticism that advertising and marketing companies are ignoring baby boomers in favour of youth has become a crescendo, on both sides of the Atlantic.
It is also wide of the mark. The uncomfortable truth for the champions of “age empowerment” is that most baby boomers do not want to be identified in a club of their peers. The baby boomers are only as young as they feel – and they feel about 20 years younger than they look.
In focus group interviews with British baby boomers, which I and a colleague conducted for “Eternal youths”, a Demos pamphlet published last week, most could not think of anything worse than being labelled as baby boomers, but werekeen to point out their continued fascination with youth culture and with brands that have extended their boundaries to encompass people in their forties.
Among the younger baby boomers interviewed for the study – those between 40 and 50 – we uncovered a sophisticated awareness of brands that are normally considered the preserve of young people: Gap, Adidas and Smirnoff, for example.
None of this means communications professionals can continue to pretend the boomers do not exist.
The ageing of the eternally youthful baby boomers is giving rise to confusion about etiquette among communications professionals. Nothing better illustrates their prickly sensibilities than asking them what they want to be called.
When earlier this year an advertising agency asked
Americans past their fifties how they wished to be addressed, respondents dismissed most of the suggestions provided.
“Senior” was rejected by 98 per cent of respondents while 85 per cent turned up their noses at the term “older adult”. Nearly three-quarters did not much like the idea of “middle age” and two-thirds blanched at “baby boomers”. Even bland euphemisms such as “active adult” and “50-plus” were rejected by a clear majority.
Marian Salzman, a New York trend spotter and the strategy director of global advertising agency Euro RSCG Worldwide, agrees that the way to the heart of the baby boomers is through flattery rather than empowerment. “The baby boomers,” Ms Salzman argues, “now constitute a hugely profitable niche segment within a revamped youth market.” But she makes a distinction between being young and a youthful way of life. Baby boomers, “are not out to hijack the genuine culture of youth. Instead they are interested in a youthful way of life, the recognition that being young is a state of mind, and in a physical, turbo-charged approach that allows you to bend and stretch well past your 40th birthday.”
The baby boomer fetish for youthfulness means marketers are increasingly disguising products that are associated with ageing or infirmity. In the US, the makers of bifocal lenses have rebranded their products as “progressive lenses” or “an upgrade for your contacts”. Also in the US a national initiative to educate baby boomers about hearing problems hired Pat Benatar, the veteran rock star, to front a campaign called “It’s Hip to HEAR”.
Marketers should not underestimate the power of nostalgia. In North America, the trickle of advertisers and marketers trying to communicate with baby boomers by jogging their memory has become a flood: Mercedes is using Janis Joplin songs, Cadillac has borrowed Led Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll. Pepsi has even persuaded Britney Spears to dress up in the kind of retro garb remembered by children of the 1960s.
In our study, the baby boomers agreed that advertisements connected more profoundly with them when they used images from the past. There was also a strong sense of our interviewees wanting to be “in the know” – they delighted in recognising celebrities, music or humour their children did not know.
The key to selling to baby boomers is to make a distinctive pitch to their experience without explicitly targeting their age.
Tamar Kasriel, an associate director of the London marketing consultancy The Henley Centre, says: “Nobody has yet cracked the idea of how to sell to baby boomers. The problem is that they don’t like to see older people in ads, but at the same time they hate seeing 15-year-olds as well.
“My suggestion is to find different icons to change the discourse surrounding youth and ageing. The holy grail is to suggest age without suggesting that people have aged.”
There is more than one generation with a stake in youth culture and companies must be nimble when coding merchandise and marketing, if they are to appeal to both.
Just as youth culture is coded with underground or sub-cultural meanings to exclude others, baby boomers want to see their own shared meanings woven into the DNA of marketing initiatives – meanings based on nostalgia or shared humour.
Rather than being age-based, campaigns targeting baby boomers might simply replicate the stuff of youth culture: the music festivals, the year off and the idling around as a student could be suggested, but in greater luxury and at a less frenetic pace than the first time around.