OK Boomer Jumps the Shark as the Boomer Economy Rides the Wave

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Grownups hijack cute Generation Z meme 

We’re all for young entrepreneurs. But the sad reality is that many – maybe most – of their Big Ideas are co-opted by interlopers.

So it is with OK Boomer, the Generation Z meme of the moment. After teenagers launched this cute pouty put down, adult arrivistes quickly hijacked it as a platform for personal agendas, pontification and PR.

In addition to millions of TikTok and YouTube views, Googling the term yielded over 12 million news site hits in the first two weeks of November as media and marketing players piled on.

MadAve’s fig leaf fix for Millennial mistakes, Boomer bungling

The OK Boomer barb is fading, but for the next dozen years or so Gen Z will remain the go-to grabber for news outlets, brands, pollsters and ad agencies recycling old headlines: Millennials Zers will disrupt (INSERT TOPIC HERE) and nothing will ever be the same again. Etc. Etc.

Z-boosting reflects Adland’s eagerness to divert attention from failed past predictions now that Millennials are selling out to normalcy

Crossing the 30th birthday threshold, they adopt conventional lifestyles, marry, have children, buy homes in the burbs and opt for family-friendly vehicles.

In short in short, they become like their Boomer parents who, despite buying half of everything sold in America, are deemed too old to adapt and too destructive to brand image to openly target.

So strategists, prognosticators and opinionizers are hustling to change the generational conversation.

Their challenge is to sell C Suites on the importance of 13-year-olds whose buying power derives mainly from taking out the garbage and walking the dog.

The suits, eager to appear hip, will likely go along.

Generational revisionism: ample precedent

When it comes to throwing out old memes and replacing them with new memes, Madison Avenue has been there, done that.

Except for Baby Boomers, memorialized as born 1946-1964, generational labels and birth year ranges skittered around for decades as unexpected events forced constant revisions.

Mostly, these gyrations came at the expense of Gen Xers. In some cases they barely transitioned from Barbie and Ken before passing their sell-by date:

  • 1965-1974 (New York Times)
  • 1965-1976 (J.D. Power)
  • 1965-1976 (Pew Research Center, 2010)
  • 1965-1981 (Strauss and Howe, authors)
  • 1965-1984 (The Harvard Center)

With history as a guide, trend-makers began to dislodge Millennials from their perch atop the pecking order: Job One was to dethrone them as America’s largest generation.

Easy peasy.

Although in 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau defined Millennials as people born 1982-2000, The Pew Research Center stripped them of their bragging rights in 2018 by switching to born 1981-1996.

Overnight some 16 million Zers entered the 18-49 demo and, under the radar, America’s largest generation honors bounced back to the Boomers.

Full disclosure: VizioNation uses Census Bureau definitions – keeping score is so much easier when the goalposts stay put.

Boomers already know they are OK 

When The Washington Post asked AARP senior vice president Myrna Blyth about the OK Boomer surge, she zinged back “we have the money.” Ouch! 

“Blyth’s point is that ad and marketing execs routinely pit generations against one another and overlook older people, especially older women,” said AARP’s media relations editorial manager, Colby Nelson, in a statement.

In fact, after the USA itself and China, Americans over 50 represent the world’s 3rd largest economy. Dominated by Boomers and boosted by older Gen Xers arriving at the rate of 4 million annually, it is the most powerful purchasing group on the planet.

What’s more, Boomers have a strong sense of cohesion: they know who they are.

In 2015 Pew found 79% of Boomers correctly identified their generational age range: only 58% of Gen Xers and 40% of Millennials did so correctly.

The Boomer label is so powerful that  15% of Gen X claimed to belong to this hip in-crowd.

Even more (34%) of the Silent Generation described themselves as Boomers, tracking with real-world socio-cultural overlap. Many iconic “Boomers” were actually born in the late Silent era, including all The Monkees, Jimi Hendrix, Diana Ross, Jerry (The Grateful Dead) Garcia and Peter (Easy Rider) Fonda.

A 2017 VizioNation study (Brand Courtship©, 2017) asked 500 people aged 50-71 what Baby Boomer means to them; we found they bond over when they were born/their shared age group, the wars and the music that punctuated their youth and a sense of optimism and confidence.

And they consistently referenced hard work, responsibility and playing by the rules as Boomer attributes – values that Pew, Gallup and others say younger groups do not strongly associate with their own generations.

But perhaps the most important trait Boomers assign themselves is wisdom: 94% feel they have grown wiser as they have grown older.

It is a finding of great significance for marketers, advertisers and – most of all – for the brands they represent.

The brand/Boomer disconnect

Awash in Big Data, metrics, surveys and statistics, brand strategists are well-aware of the Boomers’ incredible purchasing power. But they flounder when it comes to the inner mind decision-making of the 50+ space. It’s understandable.

The average agency creative staffer is 28; over half of ad/marketing professionals are gone by age 40; only 5-10% are 50-plus.

A 55-year-old knows what it is like to be 30 – the reverse is not true.

So, although incredibly talented, young marketers have few authentic connections to the socio-cultural imprinting of people who have already transitioned through several life stages that they have yet to experience.

Even so-called age-agnostic advertising falls short of optimal engagement because there if no such thing as age-agnostic perception. Consumers over 50 have been advertised to all their lives: they really are older and wiser.

Upshot: according to AARP research, 83% over 50 feel advertisers make mistakes when trying to appeal to their age group,

And our own Brand Courtship Study found consumers use highly negative terms to describe how they see themselves depicted in advertising.

Perhaps the most powerful barrier to winning brand share in the world’s 3rd largest economy is that consumers themselves cannot fully express their embedded perceptions. Boomers and Gen Xers communicate in subtle, highly nuanced silent languages, the syntax of which they barely remember.

Without a true understanding of how to navigate these hidden dynamics, advertiser outcomes are stereotypes at best, caricatures at worst. OK Boomer is a prime example.

Fortunately, authentic guides and interpreters are on hand to bring astute Adlanders across the chasm that separates them from the 50+ space.

High on our own reading list are Advertising to Baby Boomers (Chuck Nyren), Boomer Reinvention (Brent Green) and Barry Silverstein’s superb primer on Iconic Brands that Shaped Our Childhood, Boomer Brands.

Barry illustrates how lifelong attitudes are imprinted more powerfully by the routines of everyday life – from food to clothing to automobiles to entertainment and, yes, to memorable advertising – than by big events in the outside world.

About VizioNation

VizioNation conducts creative seminars and publishes innovative reports that stinspire managers to brand re-generation in the 50+ space.

Contact us learn how generational imprinting and the silent languages it creates still drive brand destinies in the world’s 3rd largest economy.

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