The “age-old, old-age” disconnect in advertising.

Here’s an interesting statistic: Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. projects that by 2010, half of all consumer spending in the United States will be generated by people age 50 or older.

It’s a reminder of just how important the Baby Boom generation has been to the U.S. economy over the past three or four decades. And now, just when you might think that power has shifted to younger generations, the McKinsey statistic helps us realize that Baby Boomers aren’t ready to leave the stage just yet.

In fact, they’re not even ready to leave center stage yet.

Here’s another interesting stat: The average age of creative personnel at ad agencies and related communications firms is … 28 years old. And the number of personnel over the age of 50? Fewer than 5%.

And therein lies the age-old, old-age disconnect.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that ad agencies are stuffed with creative types who are mostly between the ages of 20 and 35. After all, that’s traditionally the demographic group most likely to buy and spend … and so the vast bulk of marketing dollars – traditional and emerging – are devoted to this segment (as true in the 1970s as it is today).

And of course, having a bunch of twenty-somethings spending time developing marketing pitches to other twenty-somethings makes perfect sense. It’s just that the 18-34 target is no longer where the bulk of the buying power is happening. That’s still happening with the Boomer group, whose average age as of 2009 happens to be 53.

Just how significant are “the oldsters” today? McKinsey’s statistics are telling. They include the finding that the over-50 population in the United States brings home nearly 2.5 times what the 18-34 group earns. Which makes it no surprise that the over-50 group represents more than 40% of all disposable income in the U.S.

And when you look at spending, the over-50 segment — which makes up only about 30% of total U.S. population — accounts for well over half of all packaged goods sales and three-fourths of all vacation dollar expenditures. These spendthrifts buy more than 50% of all the automobiles. They even spend significantly more than the average online shopper during the holidays – 3.5 times more, to be precise.

These are strong financial figures.

Now, consider for a moment to what degree ad creative personnel who are 20 years younger are going to really understand older consumers. Sure, they’re well-versed on the ever-growing interactive and social marketing tactics that are available today. But how likely is it that they’re actually able to craft compelling advertising and marketing messages to older consumers?

Undoubtedly, many will scoff at the very question. For one thing, these creatives grew up with Boomer parents.

But when you consider how many common, worn-out clichés one sees in the advertising that’s aimed at the over-50 set — online as well as off — it does make you wonder if the communications firms are putting their creative emphasis in the right hands!

2 thoughts on “The “age-old, old-age” disconnect in advertising.

  1. The old people have all the money. So why do they get all these Senior Citizen discounts?

    Also, I wonder if most 50 – 60 year olds really think of themselves as upper middle age. They still think they’re in their 30’s.

  2. Phil, you conclude:
    “But when you consider how many common, worn-out clichés one sees in the advertising that’s aimed at the over-50 set — online as well as off — it does make you wonder if the communications firms are putting their creative emphasis in the right hands!”

    This begs another question: whether 50-something copywriters can strike a responsive chord among the “under-50-something” crowd. My sense is there are some great young copywriters and some great 50+ ones. If you’re creative, you’re creative. If you can write, you can write. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 30 or 50. Having said that, I would concede that younger copywriters are more likely to detect subtle cultural shifts and linguistic innovations before their older colleagues do. On the other hand, older copywriters have the advantage of having more life reference points on which to draw. A wash?

    As you note, it is certainly true that the common perception in the industry is that you have to be under 30 to be creative, perhaps because “hip” is seen as an essential ingredient.

    To counter, I would point to legendary adman Joe Sedelmaier who, in his 50s, created the “Where’s the Beef” campaign for Wendy’s and those award-winning FedEx spots.

    It was a young Steve Jobs who once famously said, “Nothing of real significance was ever invented by someone over thirty.” It is perhaps instructive that Mr. Jobs, now 50+, feels he can still micromanage one of the most innovative companies on the planet. And he’s doing a pretty good job, I’d say.

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