The Elastic Generation; A Missed Opportunity

In 2015, J. Walter Thompson published ‘The Elastic Generation’. The report turned the spotlight on a much-misunderstood group of the British people; those aged 50+. Despite the popular stereotype that when you reach half a century, you lose touch with all current affairs and start planning for the next chapter which is of course; the inevitable… The trailblazing study stated that being 50+ actually inspires a new lease of life. ‘The Elastic Generation’ eloquently brought to light the need to change conversations around the ‘middle-aged’ and the need for the advertising industry to recognise the potential of the contemporary 50+.

In this blog, I explore why brands continue to underserve those over 50 years of age, despite the research and real-life feedback around this group being incredibly passionate, talented, and an engaged audience with significant purchasing potential.

Those over the age of 50, also known as ‘baby boomers’ are generally more affluent, accomplished, have mostly the same interests as they did 20 years ago and more time on their hands after working long and rewarding careers. In short; they are a lucrative audience for brands to engage with. Despite this, a whopping “78% of those aged 50+ feel under-represented or misrepresented by advertising, with 49% saying they actively avoid brands who ignore them.”

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It’s been four years since ‘The Elastic Generation’ was published so why are brands still failing to engage with those over the age of 50?

An on-going challenge for brands over the last few years has been how to stay ‘relevant’ to continuously evolving audiences. The digital revolution has given the consumer more power than ever before and in a transparent territory, there is nowhere for a brand to hide. A brand can no longer just rely on their product to generate sales; they now have to have a ‘purpose’ – no matter the target generation. They need to be sustainable and/or environmentally friendly and/or promote employee welfare and/or favour all LGBT rights and/or be kind to animals and/or tick all of the ethical and political boxes possible and remain authentic whilst doing so… Not the simplest of tasks but still at the heart of most recent client briefs that I see all the time in my role as an account manager.

A common misconception to a brief of this kind is that the request to ‘modernise’ and to ‘rejuvenate’ means that a brand must ‘stay young’. This is based on the common belief that young people keep up with the latest trends, they are digital natives, they are ‘the future’ and they are, therefore ‘contemporary’.

From this assumption in the early noughties, came a stream of cringe-worthy campaigns from brands desperately trying to stay ‘relevant’ – Microsoft, Pepsi and Trident all ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ in the form of advertising.

As quickly as the campaigns were released, was the backlash that they received. Not just from digitally savvy younger generations who could see through a purpose led campaign like cling film due to their overexposure to advertising in their lifetime. (Their cynical judgement of digital marketing makes them one of the hardest audiences to target, let alone engage with.) But, backlash also from those over the age of 50 who felt ignored and patronised.

In comparison, a recent survey by UniDAYS claimed that 64% of its Gen Z respondents were planning to take a break from social media, and 34% wanted to kick the habit altogether. Therefore, to focus campaign attention to younger audiences only will miss opportunities left right and centre.

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Historically, demographics have been segmented by age. In order to avoid ‘long-term brand decay’, there is a need to analyse audiences based primarily on experiences and interests with age as a secondary focus.

The real challenge is how to sell a product that is specifically designed for a specific age group, without making them feel like they are being targeted as part of a segmented age group… I.e. SunLife; who sell funeral plans to those over the age of 50. How do we sell a post-death plan to an audience who are sick of being treated as if turning 50 means you’ve got your zimmer frame incoming via ‘next day delivery’?

Sunlife’s 2017 campaign ‘Welcome to Life After 50’ challenged stereotypes by shedding light on the different attitudes, behaviours and activities that those over the age of 50 enjoy. Winning Marketing Week’s Masters Award for financial services in 2017, the campaign helped increase brand consideration by 8%. Since then, the brand always keeps a finger on the pulse for audience insights, has dedicated hours to refining their tone of voice and has invested significantly in digital marketing, realising the online potential of those over 50. SunLife have done their research and they’re investing in the right areas. They know who their audience is without age being a defining factor.

With the creative industry’s average age being 32 years old, is it any wonder that we are lacking in rich audience insight for those over the age of 50?

However, here at Six, we take pride in our balanced environment from gender to opportunities to age that enables us to always be in tune with the latest audience insight and current trends that allows us to offer a unique approach to client briefs.

Amy Nicol

May 9, 2019

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