Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Market to Me, When I’m Fifty-Four?

When The Beatles released ‘When I’m 64’, the song being used as an allegory for lackadaisical marketing half a century later, to hazard a guess, didn’t cross their mind. But here goes.

On one hand, it’s a chirpy track deliberating the trepidations of approaching old age, pondering times gone by and one’s place in society; questioning the perceived limitations the end of work brings; the freedom of retirement, its futility.

On the other, it’s a song riddled with dodgy stereotypes: fogeys sitting by the fire knitting sweaters, scrimping, saving, and — quite literally — ‘wasting away’. See where I’m going?

Half a century since the song was released, a combination of advances in science and technology, access to healthcare, and improved diet ensure people live healthier, happier lives well into retirement. There are 90-year-old triathletes, mountaineers, Nobel Prize winners.

Times have changed, and with it, what constitutes being ‘elderly’. An average British woman will live to 89 in 2018. Many work well into their seventies, are digitally literate, and live active lifestyles. And yet, the way many brands communicate with over-50s, let alone the elderly, is a hangover from yesteryear, compounding damaging notions of senility, of uselessness and doddery. It’s not good enough. And not just because I’m over 50. Ahem.

In psychology, the Illusory Truth Effect stipulates a tendency to believe information to be correct after repeated exposure, regardless of its veracity. Essentially, if you hear something enough, eventually you’ll believe it.

Sweeping, patronising generalisations in both messaging and targeting serve only to reinforce negative stereotypes of age. You might be a marathon runner, served ads for stairlifts; a globetrotter, targeted for Saga cruises. Does that represent how you feel about yourself? If you see that messaging often enough, you soon will.

78% of those aged 50 or over feel under-represented or misrepresented by advertising, especially from tech firms. Some 93% think advertisers need to start asking what over-50s want, rather than assuming, while 92% want advertisers to acknowledge their spending power.

Research this week from Gransnet and Mumsnet found that 78% of those aged 50 or over feel under-represented or misrepresented by advertising, especially from tech firms. Some 93% think advertisers need to start asking what over-50s want, rather than assuming, while 92% want advertisers to acknowledge their spending power.

Ethics aside, that’s the crux of why this matters. The purpose of advertising is to sell. This age group has the most equity, lowest debt and highest savings. They have purchasing power, disposable income and often, more free time to spend it.

Billions is spent on figuring how to convert experience-seeking millennials, yet the over-50s are brushed aside, redundant. In the same Gransnet research, the perception of two thirds surveyed is that they are ignored because advertisers are too young to understand the demographic. It’s a fair point.

At our agency, Harvest Digital, the average age of our 40 or so digital specialists is 31, but many of our clients have customers well into retirement age. And whereas someone in their sixties has direct experience of what it’s like to be in their forties or twenties, the converse simply isn’t true — hence the tendency of marketing people to deal in stereotypes when it comes to age.

Of course, treating every elderly person like a super-fit, globetrotting immortal would be ridiculous, achieving only the opposite means. It’s about balance, and understanding. At Harvest, we have made a real effort to empathise with genuine issues around ageing in a non-cliched way.

For instance, to dramatise the impact of arthritis we created a video in which a pair of twins, both in their twenties, went about their daily lives — one dressed normally and one wearing a suit that aped the impact of arthritis. Our participants were dumbfounded, horrified even, about how difficult even basic tasks like catching the bus become when dealing with the restrictions of arthritis.

Beyond creative, we also work hard to make web content as accessible as possible to an older audience. Of course there are guidelines with recommendations on colour contrast and type legibility. But for us it is also important to look at primary research, and to hear the genuine voices of users as they work through some typical tasks on a website. We often find that even small changes can make websites easier to use, leading to increased marketing effectiveness.

The world has moved on from the comic strip stereotypes of cane-walking, infirmed seniors. Unlike many people, these clichés have not aged well.

When Paul McCartney wrote the melody to ‘When I’m 64,’ he was 15, so perhaps we can forgive his insouciance. Advertisers targeting the over-55s today don’t have the same excuse.

Mike Teasdale

Planning Director and Co-Founder at Harvest Digital
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