Giving Boomers the Right Impression

Marketers need to keep things real if they want to effectively reach baby boomers

By John Obrecht

Abbey Lossing for the ANA

They were still in their 20s when the Rolling Stones famously lamented, "What a drag it is getting old." Their No Filter tour last summer certainly belied that sentiment, as the iconic band of 70-somethings performed in 14 cities across the country — not long after lead singer Mick Jagger underwent successful heart surgery. Going along for the ride was the Alliance for Lifetime Income, the U.S. tour's exclusive sponsor. The nonprofit organization, comprising 24 large asset managers and insurance companies, wanted to reach people ages 45-72 to spark discussions about retirement planning and investing in annuities. To reach this baby boomer-dominant demographic, the marketing crew at the Alliance for Lifetime Income couldn't get better satisfaction than a nationwide tour by the age-defying rock group.

"Our point with the sole sponsorship of the Stones was to get access to their 15 million concertgoers and their 25 million social media followers," says Jean Statler, executive director of the Alliance. "It was the biggest event of the summer in the United States." But the Rolling Stones offered something much more than numbers. They represented the new ideal of aging that many baby boomers embrace wholeheartedly. "They embody the new retirement," Statler says, referring to the Stones. "You don't retire. You just continue doing what you love."

In making such a big play for baby boomers, the Alliance is in somewhat exclusive company. Although boomers possess an estimated 54 percent of the household wealth in the U.S., the demographic gets scant notice from most marketers.

Indeed, advertising and PR company Havas found that, as of 2017, only about 5 percent of advertising in the U.S. was aimed at people over 50 years old. Jeanie Caggiano, EVP, executive creative director, and creative studio lead at Leo Burnett, calls that meager share "unbelievably stupid."

"These are the people in America who have all the money," Caggiano says. "That's a huge, ignored market."

Baby boomers, technically those born between 1946 and 1964, still number more than 70 million. And it's only this year that they were projected to fall behind millennials as the largest generation in the United States. This is the generation that profoundly altered perceptions of growing old, but one wouldn't know it judging from the attention marketers give to boomers. "They're changing what retirement looks like," Caggiano says. "They change everything they touch, because they're so huge. … They're not used to being invisible, but advertising is treating them that way."

To counter prevailing stereotypes about aging, the Alliance for Lifetime Income created a series of videos showing people thriving in demanding, risky careers, including jet-car racer Elaine Larsen and oceanographer James Moskito. "The concept is you live with risk throughout your life but you don't want to retire with risk," Statler says.

One of the videos features Dale "Opie" Skjerseth, production director for the No Filter tour. "When we sponsored the Stones tour we wanted to find a roadie who was swinging from the rafters and doing all these dangerous things," Statler says of the choice of Skjerseth, who had the added appeal of owning annuities.


Perception Versus Reality

Such debunking of stereotypes is key to reaching baby boomers. The first, and most obvious, is that boomers have had their day, that they're long past their prime. "Pretty much every ad you see that features boomers treats them like they're old," Caggiano says. "That's a mistake. This generation does not think they're old.

"There's a disconnect between the age you are and the way you feel," she adds, citing research that found older people generally feel about 20 percent younger than their age. "Successful boomer marketing markets to the age people feel, not the age they are."

General Mills goes well beyond the 20 percent mark with its "Happy Hearts" campaign for Honey Nut Cheerios, which shows older adults happily playing with children and their toys. "We know heart health is a serious problem, so for us, it was really about reframing the conversation from problem-filled to joy-filled," says Kathy Dixon, brand experience manager for Cheerios. "We approached the work with the levity, charm, and positivity that Cheerios is known for."

Cheerios is certainly a brand that resonates with boomers, being named to the top 10 list of best-loved brands among the generation. "Baby boomers are in a new phase of life," Dixon says. "With this change comes the realization that they need to be healthy to fuel their next chapter."

Leo Burnett offers a fresh take on marketing to the age people feel with a commercial for UnitedHealthcare that shows a boomer couple's beach wedding ceremony going awry when a seagull attacks the groom. "Humor is a fabulous thing to market to boomers. Why wouldn't it be?" Caggiano says. "To assume that boomers don't like humor is treating them like they're old." Humor can be especially disarming in addressing "scary" categories such as insurance, says Caggiano, who led the launch of Leo Burnett's classic and ongoing "Mayhem" campaign for Allstate.


The Perils of Being Too Pollyannaish

Rachel Plein, brand strategy director at mcgarrybowen, says that to find success in marketing to boomers, brands must capture and reflect reality. Too often, she says, the ads aimed at them are filled with "shiny happy people," when the reality is many boomers are feeling stressed financially. "This stage of life is very different for this generation," Plein says. "They were hit the hardest by the recession. Most have not recovered." But that would be hard to realize judging from the bulk of the ads targeted at them. "They show people who do not have a care in the world," Plein says. "Everyone is married. They're with their significant other. Everybody has great hobbies — golfing, gardening. Everybody has grandkids."

Such overly optimistic advertising, Plein contends, can actually be counterproductive for marketers. "It kind of makes people feel bad about themselves," she says. "They kind of feel, 'I'm failing. I'm not living up to that.'"

Instead of trying to be "hopeful and aspirational," marketers should be "helpful and real," Plein says. As an example of this approach, she points to mcgarrybowen's "Rest Easy" campaign for Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield featuring actress Téa Leoni. The wry commercials show Leoni in various situations allaying boomers' insurance fears. The campaign, launched in 2017, helped drive impressions up by 179 percent year-over-year and landing page visits up by 227 percent, according to the agency.


Media Agnostic Marketing

Another stereotype about boomers that doesn't ring true is that they aren't technologically savvy.

"In our experience, boomers straddle old and new media and are not necessarily exclusive to one or the other," says Billy Kingsland, group director of brand communication at brand strategy firm Siegel+Gale. "They grew up during the heyday of network television, so traditional TV advertising remains an important channel. As do print-oriented channels, like direct mail. But social channels — Facebook in particular — can be equally if not more effective, depending on the content being delivered."

The Alliance for Lifetime Income takes advantage of several media forms in its marketing, including social media and drive-time radio. Its television ads run on CNN, HGTV, and during live sports, including Monday Night Football and Professional Golfers' Association tournaments.

Face-to-face proved particularly effective during the Rolling Stones' No Filter tour.

The Alliance stationed a truck with exhibits at the main gate of concert venues and engaged concertgoers in discussions about retirement issues. Statler says the "surprise factor" of such outreach can be effective. "That element is a key to any great marketing campaign or program," she says. "That is, to open up their eyes and follow through with all the information and education."

Whatever media marketers choose to reach boomers, they should be bold in their efforts. "One thing we've learned is that boomers can be far more open to creativity and boldness in a brand than they're assumed to be," says Kingsland. "Resist the urge to tone things down, as it were."


Shattering Myths

Caggiano attributes some of the shortcomings in marketing to baby boomers to the typical age demographics of agencies. This was made clear to her a few years ago when she convened her team of creatives to kick around ideas for a vitamin aimed at people over 50. The team skewed to the younger side and their ideas hewed to the cliché. Caggiano says that after listening for a while, she exclaimed, "You're treating everyone over 50 like they're retired, have gray hair, and use a walker. That's not even near the truth. I'm over 50!"

To improve her team's insights, Caggiano convened a pair of focus groups in Chicago, one with people ages 50 to 65 and the other ages 65 to 80. Most of the members of the first group were still working, as were a surprising number of the second. One participant was two-thirds of the way through her quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Another was spending her winters helping disabled children in Florida build a one-sixth-sized replica of Noah's ark. "The boomers had much more going on than the younger people in the room," Caggiano says. "After that I got very different ideas from the creatives. It basically changed all the work we did for them from then on."

A recently announced joint venture between AARP and Getty Images could help shift how older people are depicted in advertising. The two organizations in late September introduced The Disrupt Aging Collection featuring 1,400 images they said offer "a more authentic look at how people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond live."

"This stereotype-shattering collection reflects the reality of what aging looks like today," Martha Boudreau, EVP and chief communications and marketing officer at AARP, said in a statement. "The Collection shows the 50-plus community in the workplace, traveling, entertaining, and living active, healthy lives — an important step toward helping brands more accurately reflect this vast demographic."



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