Does the ad industry really hate old people?

01 Mar 2016  |  Richard Shotton 
Does the ad industry really hate old people?

Hoffman addressing advertisers and publishers at Shift 2016

Bob Hoffman, aka The Ad Contrarian, argues that advertisers hate older people and ignore anyone over 50 - but Richard Shotton says reality might be more nuanced than Hoffman suggests.

"The ugly truth is that the marketing and advertising industries hate older people," said Bob Hoffman at Tuesday's Shift 2016 conference. "We like the excitement of youth not the boredom of middle age and the frailties of old age."

Despite the over 50s being the wealthiest generation in history, they are, he claimed, generally ignored by advertisers: only 10% of marketing activity in the USA is aimed at the over 50s. Hoffman dismisses this situation as "narcissism disguised as strategy".

It's not just the lack of targeting that enrages Hoffman but also the inappropriate imagery: "Marketers think people over 50 are decrepit old farts. Marketers cannot understand that Barack Obama, Jerry Seinfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Bruce Springsteen, Meryl Streep and tens of millions of others are all over 50."

Why do advertisers ignore the over 50s?

The pessimistic interpretation is that it's an error based on the youthfulness of the industry. Agency personnel certainly tend to be younger than the population as a whole, with the IPA 2015 survey revealing that only 5.5% of agency staff are over 50.

Among media agencies this figure drops to 3.2%. This absence, which Hoffman describes as "demographic cleansing", could explain why negative stereotypes blossom.

However, recent work by ZenithOptimedia suggests that there may be some justification for targeting younger groups. We surveyed 500 representative consumers to ask whether they had tried new brands in three specified categories in the last year.

In order not to bias the study we then excluded anyone who wasn't a category buyer.

The results were conclusive. In each category younger consumers were more likely to try new brands. In fact, on average, under 55s were twice as likely to have tried a new brand in the categories monitored as the over 55s.

Reality might be more nuanced than Hoffman suggests.

Our findings suggest that younger consumers may be less fixed in their purchasing patterns and therefore, for brands interested in growing their market share, there's a rationale for prioritising them.

This may not explain all of advertising's obsession with youth but it certainly shows that there are reasons, beyond incompetence, for targeting the under 35s.

Richard Shotton is head of insight at ZenithOptimedia.


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