Times Square Drops The Ball Once A Year: Madison Avenue Drops It Every Day

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Dropping the ball, adland style

A year from now, at the end of 2019, as the ball again begins its annual 60 second Times Square drop, some 95 million American Boomers and older Gen Xers – the Boomer-next Generation™ – will be living, working, playing, switching brands and spending (especially spending) in the 50+ consumer space.

It is the third largest economy on Planet Earth; only those of the United States and China are bigger.

Just a few blocks away from Times Square, Madison Avenue drops the ball every day.

It does so by failing to address this enormous market, the most miscast and misrepresented in history, because in adland’s view this is an unadaptable arena where buying behavior is so static that it is pointless to waste budgets.

No longer coolly cliched as rebels, hippies, yuppies, slackers, latchkey kids or grungy MTV zombies, as Americans exit the 18-49 demo at midnight on their 50th birthday they become irrelevant old-timers shuffling off to God’s waiting room clutching their pills and potions.

Silly, isn’t it?

Gone in 2018: grownups who mattered to young Boomers 

Daring brands willing to dump orthodoxy and get inside Boomer-next generation heads must first understand the socio-cultural symbolism of their influencers, the people who helped shape the journey from tots, tykes, teens and twenty-somethings to – wow, that was fast – full on adults.

Too many of those icons passed in 2018.

From war hero politicians George Bush and John McCain to music, movie and television favorites to Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee to scientist Steven Hawking to the incomparable Aretha Franklin they are remembered by Boomer-nexters for how they were back in the moment, not appreciated as the “vintage classics” they became to later generations.

Hey, nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin (she don’t remember the Queen of Soul … she thinks I’m crazy, but I’m just growing old) Steely Dan, 1980.

Two TV stars whose seminal series served as complementary metaphors – the yin-yang of Boomer nostalgia – were Penny Marshall (Laverne & Shirley) and David Ogden Stiers (M*A*S*H).

Both shows revisited mid-century life through the eyes of comedy, one warm and wistful, the other ironic and introspective.

And both served different identities that emerged – and merged – during the Boomers’ young adult years and which still coexist in the generational psyche. Neither identity dominates all the time; there is ebb and flow.

Penny Marshall (1943-2018)

A talented and respected director in later life, to Boomers Penny Marshall is forever Laverne in the hit TV series Laverne & Shirley (1976-1983), a Happy Days spinoff set in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In fact, most Boomers only vaguely remembered the fifties – some barely, or not at all, because on New Year’s Day 1955, half had not been born.

However, the connections resonated because the generation’s 1946-1964 birth year span matched a national high point of optimism, confidence, technological innovation and upward social and economic improvement.

Despite injustices, inequalities and the threat of Cold War annihilation, the lasting legacy of the era would be Boomer expectation – and embrace – of progress.

So, after the upheavals and shocks of the Vietnam War, Watergate and oil crisis years, it’s perhaps understandable we would romanticize a mid-century world where no matter what, America cherished its young. Not just for our undeniable cuteness but also as a “built-in recession cure” (LIFE Magazine, June 16, 1958).

Since then, massive changes in technology, media and the globalization of products, services and cultures have played huge roles in the evolving Boomer experience.

But demographics too have been key drivers of their lifelong adaptability to change.

  • US population:                                                         1960: 179 million … 2015: 321 million
  • Median age at first marriage: 1960 vs 2015  Women: 20/28 … Men: 23/30
  • Births to unmarried women:                                 1960: 5% … 2015: 40%
  • Percent of US born adults 18+ who are married: 1960: 73% … 2013: 48%
  • Immigrant population:                                                 1960: 9.7 million (5%)  … 2013: 41.3 million (13%)
  • Median family income (in 2012 dollars):           1960: $28,000 … 2012: $62,000

(Data hat tip: US Census statistics aggregated by Pew and the Russell Sage Foundation).

While warm and fuzzy fun like Laverne & Shirley – eggheads said fluff but, well, some of them probably thought War and Peace was a laff-riot – was incredibly popular TV fare in the late 1970s through the 1980s; this was also a time for comedy as social commentary.

The most successful of the latter genre was M*A*S*H (1972-1983) …

David Ogden Stiers (1942-2018)

David Ogden Stiers enjoyed a long and varied career, with 168 acting credits (Internet Movie Database) from Winnie The Pooh to Star Trek and most everything in between.

But he lives in Boomer memory as TV’s Major Charles Winchester, the proper, pompous but consummately grownup counterpoint to the cast of cut-ups of M*A*S*H (1972-1983).

Ostensibly the story of army doctors in a forward hospital during the Korean War, it was an overt allegory of the Vietnam conflict – still winding down in 1972 – straddling the lines between lionizing the grunts, lampooning the brass and lambasting the gung-ho pols promoting “the war” from the comfort of home soil.

U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was mostly over in 1973, but its progressive and political sub-text was so powerful – and the cast so engaging – that after season one M*A*S*H was never out of the top 20 rated shows. Its 1983 finale is still the most watched episode of any series in TV history.

Stiers arrived in season 6 as Major Charles Winchester, replacing doofus-wimp Major Frank Burns whose main purpose was to spout patriotic pablum, racist rants and sexist slurs (hint, hint, we’re talking progressive here) only to be put down by the hip and witty anti-authority lead, Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda), and his posse.

Winchester presented a more balanced persona, one who accepted his drafted detour from civilian life as a grim duty to be endured as best as possible and who gave as good as he got from his cynical, war-weary colleagues.

David Ogden Stiers’ portrayal, although patrician, was actually closer to how most Boomers eventually came to see the Vietnam era – in shades of gray rather than with Hawkeye’s black/white caustic certainty.

 2019 is a 12 month touchdown opportunity, not a 60 second ball drop

Among the 20/30-something advertising and brand professionals whose creativity is fenced in by Big Data and research that is carefully crafted to meet management’s meme of the moment, the world beyond the 18-49 demo is not only mysterious but forbidden territory.

Recommending mainstream brand ad campaigns that target consumers over fifty has even less cachet than sporting a MAGA hat on Martha’s Vineyard in July.

Dealing with approved headgear issues is above our pay grade but we do help create authentic engagement in the complex and nuanced 50+ space, where half of America’s new car buyers, two-thirds of home-owners and 80% of household assets reside.

2019 is as good a time as any to make the right call, pick up that opportunity ball and run with it.

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