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THE SPECIAL YEARS : 50 AND BEYOND: THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE : The Money Market : Companies Used to Fear That Targeting Older Consumers Would Saddle Them With a Dowdy Image. Now They Are Targeting the Age Group That Marketers Like to Refer to as Silver or Golden

May 04, 1989|JEANNE BOYER | Boyer is a Riverside free-lance writer.

Instead of showing teen-agers frolicking on the beach, a new Coca-Cola Classic commercial features actor Art Carney, 70, as a grandfather discussing Spin the Bottle with his grandson.

"Almost every age group is interested in Coca-Cola Classic, so it makes perfect sense to have an older person in the commercial," says spokeswoman Georgia Camp.

Companies haven't always thought this way.

Instead, they focused on a younger audience, "with no one really wondering what happened to someone once they turned 50--they just drop off the face of the earth," says Treesa Drury, 52, advertising standards director for the American Assn. of Retired Persons.

The attitude toward a once-invisible market is changing as retailers realize that the 65 million people over 50 control more than half the nation's discretionary income. And fast approaching their 50s are the first members of that trend-setting generation, the baby boomers, with their unparalleled purchasing power.

If older consumers have so much money, why haven't companies bothered with them before?

Companies used to fear that targeting older consumers would saddle them with a dowdy image that would turn off younger shoppers.

People used to joke that it was a "dying market." Now it's a growing market, and you can expect to see more "oldster commercials," says Scott Montgomery, 38, partner and co-creative director at Salvati Montgomery Sakoda, a Costa Mesa advertising agency.

"It's not like you're 50 and you've bought everything you need," Montgomery says, although the myth persists that older people are miserly. Recent research shows that it ain't necessarily so. Instead, it reveals what people over 50 have known all along: They have money and are willing to to spend it. More firms are targeting the age group that marketers like to refer to as silver or golden.

But please don't call them "50 Plus" or even senior citizens. "Mature" and "adult" are the preferred terms.

Or you could try "suppies," (short for senior urban professionals), a term mentioned by Ken Dychtwald in his new book, "Age Wave." Dychtwald, a mere kid of 38, is the guru of a new senior consciousness. The Emeryville communications, marketing and consulting firm he founded three years ago--also called Age Wave--enlightens corporations about the trend toward older consumers.

"We're like the Paul Reveres of aging America," says Greg Gable, 32, Age Wave's director of media projects. "We've awakened a lot of people."

Age Wave isn't the only company shouting, "The senior spenders are coming!"

Two months ago Richard J. Balkite started Mature Market Network, a Greenwich, Conn. consulting firm. His seminars, "How to Mine Gold from the Gray," describe marketing to the suppies instead of their yuppie children, who are burdened with mortgage payments and child care costs.

"Companies just can't grow with the under-49 market now," Balkite, 47, says. And if they want to grab a share of the over-50 market, they need to change their game plan.

Older consumers are looking for value, Balkite says. They're willing to switch brands, but you have to give them a good reason.

Demeaning television commercials were one of the top dislikes mature people mentioned in a 1987 study, Balkite says, running a close second to hard-to-open packaging.

Until recently, not many people in their prime made it to prime time, and the few who did were often goofy grannies, marketing experts note.

Men, meanwhile, had two roles--the feeble, decrepit old codger and "the wise man telling the dopey broad what side is up," says Harold Kassarjian, 59, professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Management. After all, "any 60-year-old man knows a hell of a lot better about laundry soap than any 25-year-old housewife."

Now "it's OK to have a little bit of gray hair showing, even for women," says Walter Henry, 53, associate professor and associate dean at UC Riverside's Graduate School of Management. "Maybe Barbara Bush is helping this, too, bless her heart."

Companies have to be careful, however, because some ads have aggravated instead of attracted older viewers.

Take the Denny's commercial that has two "over-55" sisters debating about dinner. One sister can't get the name of the restaurant straight and keeps calling it "Lenny's." AARP's Drury is among those who contend that the ad reinforces a harmful stereotype of older women as frumpy and senile.

Not at all, says Sue Henderson, Denny's vice president of marketing. "Most people see it as a bit of humor," Henderson says. "To suggest that you can't have humor in any specific group is very demeaning."

Henderson acknowledges receiving "a few isolated complaints" about the ads, and quite a few compliments. "Seniors are a big part of our business, and we have no desire to offend any of our older customers," she says. "Humor is very subjective, but humor is also very memorable."

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