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I’m not old… and I’ve got money in my pocket

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Published: 16 January 2020

By Senior Lecturer Alan Charlesworth, Faculty of Business, Law and Tourism

I’m not old… and I’ve got money in my pocket.

Having more disposable income than ever, better health than their parents, and time on their hands, the over 50s should be the darlings of marketers.

However, research conducted by prominent websites Gransnet and Mumsnet, and presented at the 2019 Festival of Marketing, found that the over 50s feel misrepresented and ignored by advertising because advertisers just see their age and ignore their attitudes and lifestyles.

Speaking at the event, Tanya Joseph, Corporate Affairs Director at Nationwide (whose LinkedIn profile suggests is not yet 50), said “Brands need to stop taking a nostalgic view of what older people are like. Watching advertising, you would think all older people wear cardigans, are incontinent and eat Werther’s Originals”.

Even this well-intentioned comment reflects confusion in the ranks. You see dear reader, I’m over 50 and I have cardigans in my wardrobe – but at least one is a ‘lifestyle’ brand that youngsters crave but might struggle to afford. I’ve also been known to get through a whole bag of Werther’s Originals in one go. I am not, however, incontinent (yet?). But I do follow my football team around the country, driving a car that is not an old man’s, usually wearing Adidas (Dadidas?) trainers that are only sold online. I’ve even been known to attend shindigs featuring popular beat combos… 

So who are the guilty parties in all of this shoddy advertising practice? The research says 62% of over 50s believe they are ignored because advertisers are too young to understand older folk. Ouch. In another blow to our graduating students, 88% say brands and agencies should employ more older people.

However, with my marketing hat on, I blame a concept that has had its day – if it ever did have a day. And that failing concept is to identify potential customers by, amongst other things, where they live, what their job is and how old they are. That is, their demographics. It never really worked, but it was better than nothing.

Age does not make us the same – it makes us different. And different people buy different things, for different reasons, at different times, for different prices, and from different places."

Some folk argue that there are now better ways of finding out what products I might be interested in than making that decision based on where I live and work. These ways include using the data I leave behind me on my travels – both real and virtual. I have my concerns about the accuracy of this data – and how it is gathered – but that data will tell marketers that I read about, engage in and buy a lot of things that aren’t old people’s things.   

In addition, we have a changing societal culture – in social terms, my mum was much ‘older’ than me when she was the age I am now. Add this to the data trail and you have a recipe for making a lot of money out of an ageing population.

Sunderland Marketing Hub, at the Sir Tom Cowie Campus at St Peter's

I’ll end by reversing the focus and stating categorically that ‘baby boomers’ is not a demographic, and neither is ‘millennials’. To suggest folk aged 20 to 35 buy certain products because they are aged 20 to 35 is just plain stupid. Just as stupid as saying the over 50s all buy the same things because they are over 50. Age does not make us the same – it makes us different. And different people buy different things, for different reasons, at different times, for different prices, and from different places.

Rant over. Oh, and advertisers out there… I already have a funeral plan thank you very much.

Alan Charlesworth is a Senior Lecturer and has been involved in what is now referred to as digital marketing as a practitioner, consultant, writer, trainer and educator since 1996. Alan also writes about and consults on the phenomenon commonly known as the Digital Transformation, a subject that transcends marketing into all aspects of business and management. Read more about his teaching and research interests and studying Business and Management at the University of Sunderland.   

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