The tendency to neutralise age provides a key reason for their "lack of knowledge" regards over 50s females. I.e., studies targeted at both men and women almost always focus on the under 50s, whereby the over 50s are somehow deemed to be genderless: they are identified by numerous labels such as woopies or grey panthers, but hardly get noticed as men and women.
Still, the tendency does not stop at seeing over 50s men and women as gender neutral. Indeed, the over 50s are often tossed into the same category as 80 year olds. And this despite the fact that the difference between 50 and 80 year olds is at least as large as the difference between 20 and 50 year olds – and no one would ever think about tossing those two groups into a hat together!
Talking up the over 50s
At the same time a lot is researched and written about these gender neutral creatures. People do not tire of stressing how interesting this elderly target group is – not only will it grow to become huge in the future, they keep reminding us, but is already very well heeled. Psychologically, however, it is precisely this over-emphasis on the group’s attractiveness that is striking: if this group was really of as much interest to advertisers and marketers, surely they would continually single it out in new research?
Studies on teenagers, for example, do not seem to need justifying - they describe the character, the problems and needs of young people of both sexes in today's culture. Their interest and appeal as a target group is never questioned, on the contrary it is seem to represent a given. The discussion around the attractive ‘over 50s target group’ however is more reminiscent of the cliché about unattractive people having good characters.
With a few exceptions, up to now a rational motivation to addressing this supposedly attractive older target group seems to have been driving this. Hence, genuine emotion or passion where the over 50s are concerned is extremely difficult to find. Likewise, the approach taken to this group is rarely serious or psychological. Instead, researchers tend to gather dull facts and data with which to then compile neutral reports devoid of any emotion. Our society pursues a kind of secret rationale that sees the over 50s as a group that is bereft of fun or pleasure in life.
But things only become attractive, exciting and inspirational if they are vibrant and kept that way. To achieve this, collecting increasing numbers of ever more detailed facts is not sufficient. On the contrary, it is necessary to dedicate time to the attitudes, preferences, problems, fears, desires and needs, the life histories and memories, and particularly the day-to-day lives of this group. Almost every 20 year old gets this opportunity to reveal themselves in this way. But for the over 50s the opposite is the case – studies do not make them more vivid and lively, but more neutral and matter-of-fact instead. In short they become a huge wafting and undifferentiated mass!
Uncovering the unpleasant
From a psychological perspective tarring the over 50s with the same brush, neutralising and talking them up, represents an act of concealment. Declaring the over 50s to be a financially strong but ultimately toothless target group distracts us from what we actually associate them with. We carry an image of age in our heads that we are reluctant to recall. We find the image that enters our minds unpleasant and embarrassing. We closely associate age and aging with inexorable decline: old, smelly, wrinkled and uninviting. When asked during in-depth interviews - apart concerns about health and outward appearances - one of the most common fears respondents express is that they might begin to smell unpleasant!
Advertising and brands as ‘good Samaritans’
In most cases, brands and advertisers participate in a secret image of age: by praising the attractiveness of the group they avoid real interaction with it. At the same time, they help to conceal the unpleasant aspects of ageing: they start with product offers and advertising that is largely aimed at a satisfying a growing need for help on the part of the over 50s. Via their offerings brands and advertisers position themselves as good Samaritans. The result is advertising that is especially aimed at the elderly, such as that for impotence and incontinence products. But a one-sided approach of this kind fails to look at the over 50s in a serious or differentiated way. This attitude fails to recognise that passing 50 is not the beginning of physical and emotional decline, but is above all a period of ordinary life replete with all the joys and hardships that other periods of life contain. People do not get dementia at the drop of a hat and suddenly need ‘nurturing’. As before they are still looking for serious interaction with the outside world - even with advertising. And our depth interviews show this clearly - that the over 50s expect equally serious interaction with brands and advertising beyond that of stereotypes and generalizations.
Change at the push of a button?
If you accept the current way of looking at things, then over 50s women would be different at the drop of a hat: They would dress differently, consume differently, their attitudes would change, they would see advertising differently and would no longer switch brands - because they would now belong to the broader group of seniors. Accordingly, advertising that was targeted at them would have to be different!
Of course, this idea is absurd. It is immediately obvious that the transitions here are fluid and that we finally need to bring ourselves to consider looking at the stages of life we go through after 50 in smaller increments. Indeed, it is quite possible that a decade represents an overly long time span and that focusing research on 5-year periods would make a lot more sense. Currently, however, is it possible to put any kind of a slant you want on things – the over 50s belong to the seniors and thus to the elderly. Or put another way: the over 50s are no longer categorised as men or women, or as belonging to those groups of consumers that marketers scrutinise more closely. Society seems to want to draw a line at 50, and actively pursues its implementation.
The vast majority of people sense this and put a lot of emphasis on pushing back the magic boundary – at least in terms of their appearance: they are proud of looking younger and being seen as such. And this is not only to do with the fact that youth is becoming increasingly rare in German demographics. On the contrary, it is because the over 50s are much younger and much more vibrant than many would like to see them as being. Understandably, the over 50s feel closer to 40 year olds than they do to 70 or 80 year olds. From a psychological point of view this is also the case.
Turning eroticism into taboo
Equalizing and neutralizing the over 50s in this way, ultimately makes them uninteresting and lifeless. As genderless people, love and eroticism is also a taboo subject for this age group. This works along the lines of parents or grandparents should not be having sex. At a time when we barely have any sexual taboos left we have surreptitiously introduced a new taboo: We are embarrassed by older people having sex and see it as pretty unappetizing. This is because sexuality is currently associated with youth and flawlessness to a yet unprecedented degree. It has been almost completely freed of sensuality - which means it no longer smells of sweat and is no longer dirty. On the contrary, sexuality should be aesthetically appealing - perfect bodies, as pictured in magazines and on television, fuse in practiced poses. It extends to the point that young people often feel ashamed of their sexuality since they do not perceive themselves to be beautiful or perfect enough.
Herein lays another hidden meaning of age neutralization: we would prefer to see age de-eroticised. We want to differentiate ourselves from the elderly and where eroticism is concerned under no circumstances do we want older people to appear similar to us. We want the elderly to behave as we see fit: devoid of a sex life and possessed of a frugal and strictly moral attitude, that is lived out in their behaviour. And at the same time we do not really want to know what its like for over 50s men and women. While most 7 year olds are fully conversant with the subject given sex education in school – we want to stick to a birds and bees notion of sex where the over 50s are concerned.
Why should the ‘Love Generation’ change?
But in day-to-day life things are obviously very different. Seniors are much more vibrant than studies describe them - something that the young in particular complain about. While in the past older people complained about the young, nowadays they are very tolerant of them. The reverse is not true however – the young are not tolerant of the old. According to children, their parents simply do not want to grow old - they are fun-loving, bold and enjoy consuming. And this goes against the grain because it disturbs them in their own developments. They want to differentiate themselves from their parents and that is definitely easier when parents are old.
But what did we actually expect? Why should a generation that has always rebelled, fought for emancipation and in their youth marched under the banner of ‘make love not war’ behave on a moral par with their grandparents? No, they aren’t doing that, they are rebelling and continuing to enjoy life and love - just as they have always done.
Advertising needs to take account of exactly this phenomenon: it needs to reappraise and re-adjust itself to each new generation of over 50s. Just as it does to every new generation of young people. They cannot and should not squeeze the over 50s into a mould or stereotype. They simply cannot afford to address older people as old.
Advertising for over 50s women: Pro-age not anti-age
We are all the more astonished attractive nude photos of older women touch us - as in the Dove Pro Age campaign. We are torn between fascination for the pictures and the unusual breaking of taboos regards age and sex. We just want to look but do not feel self-assured enough to do so in public – in order to study them in more detail we are more likely to look at magazines featuring pro-age ads in secret.
The Dove Pro-Age campaign represents an exception - it represents advertising for mature women - but not only that, it is also aimed at younger women and women in general in spite of its specific slant. Moreover, men exist which find the advertising particularly noteworthy.
The Pro-Age campaign initially reveals that:
Advertising that provides people with value is good advertising - regardless of whom it is targeted at age-wise. Put differently: a bad advertisement is not made better by attempting to target a specific group. First of all, advertising needs to do its "homework" - it must meet universal criteria.
What now defines valuable advertising? From a depth psychological point of view, advertising that works needs to work on two levels:
It needs to contain a relatable open story - Cover Story – and at the same time a concealed or supporting mind state - Impact Story. People have a very clear sense of these different mechanisms - even if they cannot always articulate them, they reveal themselves in initial responses to an advertisement. "I do not know exactly what it is, but something about it bothers me." Or vice versa. "They are all just stereotypes, but I like it anyway well”.
The function of the cover story is to provide specific information on the product and brand wrapped in a comprehensible story. The cover story ideally provides the centrepiece for the action and has a certain psychological stringency - but it does not necessarily have to be ‘sympathetic’, ‘loud’ or ‘active’. As a rule it can be depicted using quantitative methods.
In the case of the Dove Pro-Age campaign, the cover story can be summarized as follows: Now there is a new series of Dove care, especially suited to mature skin which emphasises the beauty of age.
The impact Story is the heart of good advertising: it is what touches and moves people - and ultimately that which makes an advert unforgettable. The impact story fulfils several roles: 1 it addresses - mostly indirectly - the underlying triggers to product and brand usage. 2. It transports the secret logic of the brand - beyond reputation and popularity these are characteristics that are not recognisable at first glance. As with a person, you have to look very closely to see what these are for the brand. 3. They correspond with the zeitgeist, i.e. the current spirit of society.
Relevant issues and values are addressed. Currently in
In particular, this third level of the impact story does a good job of picking up on the Pro-Age campaign. The ads stir us primarily because it adds a new dimension to age: Above all it conveys the women’s joyful attitude to life - despite their age. Aging, says the advertising’s message, is not just about struggle. Age is beautiful - in two senses of the word. It's beautiful but especially livable - and this despite the fact, or perhaps because of it, that older women are not completely perfect. But perhaps women of this age are self-assured and know how to enjoy life.
What is more, the campaign avoids three typical mistakes made by advertising aimed at older women: 1 consideration - older women are not vulnerable beings in need of special care and protection. They are much more self-assured and secure in what they do than many younger women. 2. de-feminisation: - older women are not gender neutral. At 50 they are first and fore most women with typically female needs that are aware of their femininity. 3. de-eroticisation - older women have not turned their backs on eroticism. On the contrary, they want to live out and enjoy their sexuality. Of course, they do not want to be reduced down to eroticism – but they do not want to be excluded from it either!
This article by Ines Imdahl first appeared in the magazine "Planung & Analyse", issue 4 / 2008.