Marketing to Boomers? You’re Doing it Wrong.

As the managing partner of a PR firm specializing in generational communication, explaining what I do for a living to a college student the other day, I was met with a puzzled look. “Why do you need to focus on a specific generation? It’s the same product you’re promoting either way.”

Well, yes it is, but it isn’t. The reason we decided to focus on generational communication and marketing is simple. We’ve seen too many businesses waste money developing messaging that is at best irrelevant and at worst insults the target audience – and most of us here at QSE are Boomers.

Put yourself in the shoes of the Baby Boomers. We’ve lived our entire lives in the marketing spotlight. We’ve been studied, researched, sliced and diced, courted and fawned over by advertisers and marketers our entire lives…until someone discovered the Millennials now had jobs and spending power. Pity the Gen Xers, who never got their moment in the glare of the marketing sun.

So what happened to the Boomer? We’ve been unceremoniously dumped by mainstream corporations that used to fawn over us, like Samsung™ did in its Déjà Vu commercial. Now the youth-obsessed people creating the ad campaigns think all Boomers have a compelling need for Cialis™, Viagra™, pocket catheters and adult diapers, if the current crop of TV commercials is any indicator. Only Toyota seemed to have a glimmer of understanding, as demonstrated by its Venza™ commercial. Problem is, no one else is listening.

It may seem counterintuitive to target Boomers if you don’t have an age-specific product, but don’t discount the spending power and habits of Boomers. We currently have over $3 trillion – that’s with a “T” – but a joint study between the University of Cincinnati and Procter & Gamble says that Boomers are still an underserved demographic that is “befuddling” the marketers (P&G. University of Cincinnati study). The problem is that they don’t understand who they’re talking to, even in their own study, and it shows:

“They’ve discovered that seniors treat their pets more like grandchildren than children, and spoil them accordingly. They’ve created biomechanical models of the human hand to understand how hard it is for arthritic consumers to open bottles of P&G’s Tide™. And they’ve thought long and hard about how to ease Grandma’s journey through the airport.” –Matthew Doyle, Vice President, Procter & Gamble’s Live Well Collaborative

How nice for seniors – except that only the very oldest of Boomers are actually “seniors.” The Baby Boom Generation began in 1946, which means that only the first three and a half years of that generation actually ARE seniors. So of the total US Boomer population of 95,252,000, only 4,507,000 are actual seniors…a measly 21.1 percent (Source: US Census data). And this Boomer can tell you that I’ve yet to encounter ANY Boomer that thinks we are seniors – even those that are. We certainly don’t spend as if retirement is staring us in the face. According to a recent Nielsen survey, Boomers are the wealthiest generation, controlling 70 percent of disposable income in the U.S. We account for nearly 50 percent of all consumer packaged goods (CPG) sales, 77 percent of prescription drug sales, 80 percent of leisure travel spending and 41 percent of all new car purchases.

We don’t see ourselves as growing older. Remember, we’re the generation that invented the concept of adult toys. We’re having too much fun to be “old.” Marketing to Boomers as if we’re old won’t work until we do grow old in our own minds, if we ever realize we actually are old. Even if there’s no reason for you to market to Boomers, don’t insult us the way Samsung did – because we’ll make you pay, and it’ll hurt your sales when we do.

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  1. Debra Bethard-Caplick

    Peter, thanks for your kind words. Just when I think companies couldn’t misread the people they’re selling to more, some new off-target and, quite frankly, insulting, ad campaign comes along to prove me wrong. I wonder what it will take to make them realize why their sales aren’t what they expected?

  2. Failure to think in terms of psychographics, instead of demographics, fails to provide narrative context, which fails to sell products. Millennial advertising is rife with variety in lifestyle examples; i.e., Excedrin made my headache disappear quicker, so I can resume my life faster, playing with my kids, washing the car, working, etc. Boomer advertising is not. The presumption seems to be that Boomers are all whiling away their hours in retirement planning the next rendezvous with the wife (Cialis/Viagra) or are in survival mode hanging on to life by, well, a catheter.

  3. BINGO! Great article, Debra. I’m a 63 year old writer/copywriter, and an inveterate viewer/critic of advertising in all its form. I’ve written about cialis and viagra, among many other drugs (DTP promotional content for docs); my consciousness is perhaps heightened by that and impending retirement.

    What strikes me over and over again is how advertising for the boomer demographic fails to simply “tell the story” that is really universal–“what I/we will do today.” We see this narrative featured so often in youth-oriented ads (the overwhelming majority of all ads) where the action centers on “I/we go to work” (or) “go to a party” (or) “take the kids out to dinner,” etc (end encounter PRODUCT on the way).

    If I’m a 60-70/something retiree with adequate resources (the logical target of any advertiser who wants to reach boomers), that narrative will be a bit different, but it certainly won’t be consumed by catheters, pills, healthcare topics. Even when those things intrude more into daily life than they did in earlier decades, they don’t actually dominate consciousness and consume every minute of the day (barring serious illness); rather, every day brings those universal decisions about where to go, what to do, what/where to eat, who to see, and (drum roll, please), WHAT TO PURCHASE & WHY.

    (I could script effective TV ads for boomers in my sleep…it’s a deserted space awaiting oases of creativity).

    Thanks for listening. You’re so onto something here…

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