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Modern Maturity Lets Some Ads Act Their Age

January 17, 1989|BRUCE HOROVITZ

Every so often, some titillating story makes the news about a publication rejecting an advertisement. Usually, that ad features a man or woman in some suggestive state of undress.

A racy ad for the Holiday Spa Health Club chain that featured Cher flaunting her belly button was rejected by TV Guide last year. And provocative ads for Guess? blue jeans and Calvin Klein products are occasionally snubbed by magazines and newspapers.

The folks who make the dental adhesive Poli-Grip never expected such a problem. But in 1985, an innocuous ad for Poli-Grip was scheduled to appear in the magazine Modern Maturity. It never did.

Sure, it might have seemed like a perfect match--like placing an ad for Desenex in Runners World. After all, readers of the Lakewood-based Modern Maturity are generally over 50 and belong to the American Assn. of Retired Persons--which publishes the magazine and mails it to all members. It has a circulation of 19.4 million, making it the largest magazine in the country--received by more people than even TV Guide or Reader's Digest.

But shortly after the magazine started accepting advertising in 1980, executives there admit many of its advertisements began to look like something more akin to those found in medical journals. After all, a large number of the ads at the time were for things such as hernia belts and back braces. "We were inadvertently telling our readers that they either needed medicine or funeral plots," said Treesa Drury, advertising standards director at the publication. "We were our own worst enemy."

So, in 1984, the magazine adopted a rigid ad policy, and ads were routinely rejected for a slew of products that the management believed gave a lousy image of aging. Since then, Modern Maturity said it has turned down nearly 40% its potential advertisers. These include ads for hemorrhoid remedies, prostate treatments, wheelchairs, sleeping aids--even page magnifiers.

But when all of these ads were suddenly dropped--in favor of upbeat ads for products such as automobiles and coffee--the magazine's top managers wondered if the decision was a good one. "We had our own internal debate about whether we were putting on blinders," said Robert E. Wood, publishing director. "The ads soon began to look like everyone over 50 runs the 440-yard dash every day or works out in a health club."

Some advocates for older Americans have also questioned the ad policy. "To say that old people never need a laxative isn't a true picture" said Martha Holstein, associate director at the San Francisco-based American Society on Aging. "It's a myth to have only upbeat advertising."

Now Modern Maturity appears to be relenting. "Some advertisers helped me make a complete turnaround in attitude," said Wood. "If a company can be leader by showing an upbeat way to deal with aging in its advertising, why not?"

So, once again--on a limited basis--the magazine is accepting ads for products it once rejected. It all began last spring, when it ran an ad for Depend, adult incontinence pants. That was shortly followed by an ad from Johnson & Johnson for Serenity, a similar product. Late last year, the magazine ran its first ad for a denture product--Poli-Grip. And in its next issue, there will also be an ad for Polident. What's more, the magazine now says it is willing to accept an ad for a laxative.

Even so, the publication will only accept one laxative, one denture product and one product such as Depend per issue, said Drury, "I still don't expect we'll ever again run ads for things like hemorrhoid remedies or prostate treatments."

Executives at the magazine strongly deny that the change in policy is related to an advertising slump that--like most publications--hit hard last year. Ad revenue at Modern Maturity fell more than 10% to $38.4 million in 1988, compared to $42.8 million in 1987, said Peter Hanson, the publication's advertising director. The number of ad pages was down, too. "But," Hanson insisted, "that has nothing to do with changing our advertising standards."

Whatever the reason for these changes, advertisers and aging experts say it's about time.

"We felt that we were wrongly viewed as an embarrassment," said Holly Rosenthal, senior product manager for Polident at Jersey City, N.J.-based Block Drug Co. Concurs Will Repp, associate media director at the Minneapolis ad firm Campbell-Mithun-Esty, which places ads for Depend: "After beating down their door for three years, I think they're finally willing to accept products that can help their readers live normal lives."

Still, the magazine must be careful, points out Helen Harris, a Westport, Conn.-based consultant on marketing to older Americans. "It's good that the magazine is no longer wearing blinders to this," she said, "but given an inch, some advertiser may try to take a mile."

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