The nightmare of selling things to old people

Norway postcard promotion

Is this you in Norway? Not if you're over 65

Advertisers and marketing people have trouble targeting older consumers, because old people just aren’t very aspirational. No one looks at an old person and thinks: ‘I want to be like that! Now!’

Older people, though, are increasingly taking up an inconveniently large space. They make up a greater proportion of the potential market than ever before, and it’s only going to get worse. This is awkward for a society whose popular culture can find little to say about the old other than that they are, alternatively, dependent or living in some weird Golden Years bubble, self-indulgently pursuing full-time leisure. Neither of these states, aside from being incredibly patronising, bears much relation to most older people’s sense of themselves.

Occasionally, you do come across new attempts to segment the market in the way of youth markets; to create tribes – SWOFTIES, for instance, who are apparently single women over 50 who like clubbing, Twitter and exotic holidays. (Thanks, The Future Perfect, for reminding me of this.)

One wonders, though, what difference the ‘over 50’ bit makes here? Do these women have quite different values from under-50s who like clubbing, Twitter and exotic holidays?

What it says to me, in fact, is ‘unseemly.’ In other words: ‘We’re offering you an identity that sounds aspirational but because you’re so old it’s actually a bit sad. Shouldn’t you be doing something grownup? Where’s your dignity, woman?’

Swofties may sound like they’re having a good time, superficially, but they’re a close cousin to that other media fantasy, the Cougar, who really should feel ashamed of herself because she’s sexually active. And old. Probably even sexually predatory. Yuk.

Why don’t they just call them witches and be done with it?

These half-hearted attempts to envisage the older population in more interesting and nuanced ways that fail completely shouldn’t really surprise us. They are part of a world in which posters promoting Northern Norway on the tube appear to say, quite specifically, that over-65s aren’t desirable tourists. I saw one this week: it called for volunteers to upload pictures of themselves onto beautiful Norwegian landscapes with a view to winning a trip and being photographed for real. Candidates had to be between 25 and 65.

I called Visit Norway to find out why, but it appeared that the only person who could answer was hiking in Vesterålen. I hope she was running away from lots of angry 65 year-olds demanding to know why they too cannot be ‘ordinary people’ with ‘a vibrant personality’ and a ‘love for the outdoors.’  Does Visit Norway imagine the country is too steep for older people? Too cold? Or do they think they won’t be able to cope with the incessant demands to be taken clubbing?

On my very first day working on a local newspaper, straight out of university, I was taught the second rule of journalism: always get people to tell you their ages. (The first was to get them to spell their names, which is actually a really good idea.) Biology is destiny in much of the media. In marketing and advertising, it seems to trump all other values.

It’s not, of course, that values don’t change as people grow older. The shifts are subtle and often highly aspirational, though: there is some evidence from nascent brain science that older people tend to place increasing value on creative and intellectual pursuits, on sharing, on experience and wisdom, on productivity and on compassion and concern.

Advertisers would do well to think about how to speak to those values: to think about the identity and relationships that matter to people, about the validation that they are looking for and the skills and knowledge they are seeking. They’ll never find a way of marketing to older people by thinking about how past it they are.