The Age-Agnostic Advertising Trap

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Mid-Century Modern – Millennials mesmerized / Boomers bifurcated

Everywhere you look, mid-century style is on trend – high end collectibles to modernist inspired designs to mass affordability at popular furniture and decor chain West Elm to Target, Kohl’s and Best Buy.

It’s not just home furnishings and decor; consider vinyl records …

In 2016, 6.5% of albums were vinyl LPs; though far behind CDs (52%) and digital downloads (41%), vinyl was the only format to post an increase over 2015.

At 13.1 million units, they were up 10% from the previous year while CDs and digital downloads declined by 17% and 20% respectively (Statista / Nielsen).

Annual vinyl LP sales lingered around a million units until Millennials took a new look at retro tech and retro style, discovering a cool parallel universe of Boomer/Gen X audiophiles and mid-century aficionados that never totally went away.

Vinyl records require turntables; mass marketers were quick to seize opportunities by channeling original design themes,

For $100 Kohl’s offers a ’50s-style portable record player; for $300 BestBuy will move you away from Beach Blanket Bingo and into grown-up world.

And at a grand-plus, well-heeled buyers get real wood, real metal, a preamp and an authentic old school analog task – running cables and figuring out what connects where.

With mid-century design booming, it’s understandable that over-enthusiastic taste makers claim it unites Gen Xers, Millennials and Boomers under the same hip umbrella.

Well, yes and no.

By the time most Boomers had settled into adult lives, mid-century style had gone corporate – bank lobbies and slick offices – but said yesterday at home. Mom’s tired ’50s/60s furniture looked anything but modern.

And music tastes had moved on.

The Beatles, acid rock and Motown had aged into the Golden Oldie zone along with the bubble gum music so beloved by younger Boomers.

So long, Archies … bye, bye  Sugar, Sugar.

1980s modern was the high-tech music CD, and 70s  cassettes rapidly disappeared into attics and garages, to join the vinyl and turntables of yesteryear.

Boomers and advertising: mid-century mythology

Madison Avenue has fixated on targeting youth since the days of the Mad Men, but in 2017 this fifties fad is well past its sell date.

It creates a paradox.

The 110+ million Americans aged 50+ are the mightiest money making machine the marketing world has ever known: as a country, this would be the 3rd largest economy on the planet – only the U.S. itself and China are bigger.

Owners of 80% of US household assets, they dominate sales receipts in almost every product category: retail (58%); new vehicles (59%); home improvements, remodeling and appliances (60%).

But, bizarrely, mainstream brands spend over 90% of their ad budgets on the 18-49 demo in blind obedience to group-think.

So, every year, 4 million peak earning Gen Xers disappear from targeting as they turn fifty, replaced by around 4 million struggling, low-income 18-year-olds.

The rationale is that after fifty consumers no longer adapt, are easy to engage, wallow in nostalgia and scare off Millennials, aka the future.

Huh? Really?

The future of brand profitability resides with Boomers and Gen X and will for a long time.

In 2030, Boomers and Gen Xers age 50+ will number 120 million, up from 88 million today. According to Deloitte, Millennials will own just 16% of US wealth by then, while Boomers and Gen Xers will control almost five times as much (76%).

120 million outcasts – that’s a heck of a lot of fast-disappearing buying power.

Boomers and advertising: the age-agnostic trap

Trying to have it both ways, some brands seize on the notion of age-agnostic advertising featuring shared values and shared truths.

It’s a laudable concept. In principle.

Returning to a mid-century focus, what could be more age-agnostic than products in a modernist setting – no people, just symbols of, you know, shared truths?

But there’s a problem: there is no such thing as age-agnostic perception. Millennials relate to mid-century style – and pretty much everything else — in different ways than do Gen Xers or Boomers.

Okay, some shared truths soar and some kinda-sorta work. But others polarize and – per an actual conversation overheard at West Elm on Black Friday – yet others are the kiss of death.

30-Something: Mom, I love this credenza!

60-Something: I can’t stand all that fifties stuff – I had enough of it when I was a kid

Right on, Boomer Mom. Consumers perceive products and brands in the context of life experience, not just in the moment. And by age 50 these perspectives are voluminous, complex and even contradictory.

Alarming statistics highlight the dangers of the age-agnostic trap.

A CBS Research survey found the median age at which Millennials think adulthood starts is 30. Meanwhile, the typical ad agency creative is only aged 28 and the typical Boomer consumer is aged 62.

What could possibly go wrong?

Escaping the age-agnostic trap: trite tweaks won’t work

Is anyone really surprised to learn survey after survey shows consumers over 50 say advertisers are out of step with their priorities?

In 2015, AARP’s in-house ad agency influent50 found 83% of Boomers feel brands make mistakes when advertising to people their age.

Managing director Dave Austin noted “we’re tired of the idea that if you put a Rolling Stones song on a commercial, you’ll reach the over-50s … it doesn’t work that way.”

Austin’s research also sidelined shop-worn stereotypes, revealing Boomers as highly open (82%) to considering new brands when they go to make a purchase.

A 2017 survey of Americans age 50-71 by VizioNation’s own Boomer / neXt unit confirmed the AARP results: 84% enjoy learning about and trying new brands and products.

Interviewed by The New York Times, Brent Bouchez of Bouchez Page explained why so many brands fail to engage the 50-plus:

“Companies want to reach Boomers, but … with their general advertising message, usually a message created by and for a Millennial target.”

Frankly, we older professionals don’t blame ad agency Millennials – they have been conditioned by tradition, programmed by precedent, boxed in by bosses.

Fortunately, there is an escape from the age-agnostic trap, but trite tweaks don’t work.

And you can’t Google your way to Boomer World, nor can you master Boomer-speak and  Boomer-think with Big Data algorithms.

No pain, no gain.

But, with effort, study and experienced coaches who are themselves residents of the world’s 3rd largest economy, conditioning can be reversed, brands re-generated and award-winning creativity unleashed. It begins here

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