Why Marketers Neglect People 50 and Older for Gen Z — And How Ad Leaders Are Trying to Change That

You probably won’t read this story. It’s not about Gen Z but the 50-plus market, a demo most of you don’t care about—but should.

Since the Mad Men days, when the Don Drapers of the world aggressively pursued young people inside and outside agency walls, the ad industry has been obsessed with youth. Arguably, that made sense in the 1960s, when the U.S. population graph was more like a pyramid, with lots of young people at the bottom. The Great Depression had thinned the ranks and drained the net worth of older people. The ranks and wealth of twentysomethings were booming numerically and economically. Life expectancies were barely in the 70s, so winning over the relatively small number of people 50 and older didn’t provide much customer lifetime value.

But by 2020, the population pyramid in the U.S. and much of the world looked a lot less like a pyramid and instead appeared thick in the middle. Gen X and Boomer adults are in their 50s through 70s, and even older millennials are hitting their mid-40s. Life expectancies, despite a two-year hit due to COVID, remain at 76. People in their 50s and 60s have vastly more disposable income and net worth than people in their early 20s struggling with student loan debt, starter jobs and making rent.

Yet the ad industry’s focus increasingly is on Gen Z, which is obvious from the money pouring into paid and organic TikTok marketing, young influencers and industry conferences. The cutoff for desirable TV demographics remains 49, as TV networks get punished financially, and complain bitterly, because Nielsen ratings push more of their inventory into the 50+ range.

This comes even though declining birth rates since the Great Recession in 2008 have seriously thinned the ranks of Gen Z and Gen Alpha. College administrators are painfully aware of this population trend and the resulting likelihood that many institutions will be forced to close starting in the back half of this decade. Marketers, though, just keep chasing the youth market, by whatever name it may go.

Older adults, when they’re in ads at all, are often portrayed patronizingly or as punchlines, as golden agers strolling down the beach, forgetting their pants, racing grandmothers, or, obliquely, as the parents young homeowners seek counseling to avoid becoming.

Yet, placing a bet that reason and economic reality will win out over ageism and the industry’s hardwired obsession with youth, a handful of agencies are emerging to help marketers reach the 50+ market. It’s an uphill battle, but they’re also betting there’s ultimately growth in a large, growing market of people who can better afford to buy things.

A small but growing agency focus

One of the latest agencies to specialize in marketing to people over 50 is Five0, a strategic consultancy formed earlier this year by three ad veterans. The reason is obvious, said CEO Brian Martin, given AARP research that the so-called “longevity economy” of people over 50 represents about 34% of gross domestic product and 70% of the wealth, and that by 2030 the U.S. will become a “mature society” with more people over 65 than under 18.

“We realized how universal the trend is going to be,” Martin said.

Sure, prescription drug and financial services advertisers are all in on the market, but Five0 is looking to help the rest of the marketing world that largely overlooks people over 50. The agency’s research found that 67% of people over 50 felt talked down to in advertising. Research from the AARP found that 24% of the representation of older people in ads is negative, compared to only 4% of representations of younger people.

The problem starts upstream, Martin said, “because, by the time you get to the creative executions, all the thinking has been done. We feel what’s most needed is to bring this into business planning, into the development of products and services.”

The industry’s growing focus on Gen Z has, somewhat paradoxically, also helped spawn another industry initiative to focus on older people, from Edelman.

The Longevity Lab is a joint venture launched this month with the U.K.’s National Innovation Centre for Ageing to counsel clients on the untapped market potential of people 55-plus. It was created in part because of the success of Edelman’s Gen Z Lab over the past two-plus years, said Jackie Cooper, chief brand officer of Edelman. That lab was spawned by input from chief marketing officers whose “common denominator of fear” was their lack of understanding about Gen Z, Cooper said. And it’s been “an extraordinary success,” she said, logging $37.5 million in business and attracting 50 clients.

At the same time, Edelman noticed from its Trust Barometer research that Gen Z and the “Boomer Plus” market have a lot in common in terms of making brand decisions based on brand trust, concern about sustainability and other issues, Cooper said. And the 55-plus group is huge, at 2 billion people globally, while attracting relatively little marketing spending.

“The spending tends to go toward the middle” of the age range, Cooper said, “which is somewhat ironic and painful, given that the middle has the least money, least influence and least time.”

‘Creative death sentence’

These new 50-plus focused agencies aren’t the first, but they’re part of a small cohort. Peter Hubbell, a Saatchi & Saatchi veteran, founded Boomagers, focused on marketing to baby boomers, in 2016, but hasn’t seen much competition in the niche, at least until recently.

That’s not because there’s no opportunity, he said, but more because it’s hard to get the marketing world to want to seek it out.

An exception was one of Boomagers’ first assignments, as agency of record on Procter & Gamble Co.’s 2017 launch of Always Discreet products for women with adult incontinence. It’s not a sexy category for agency creatives, for sure, which made turning to a specialty shop the best option, Hubbell said.

“You’re a creative person aspiring to win awards and you walk into the creative director’s office and are told that you’re going to work on diapers for adults,” Hubbell said. “You’ve just been given a creative death sentence. So you’re in that purgatory. The only way out of it is to do something outrageous. Something funny, something to try to get around the taboo nature of the subject. And then what you end up doing is laughing at the aging consumers’ condition instead of laughing with them, and denigrating it, and making them feel pity about their embarrassing state.”

At the same time, finding senior creatives at agencies who wouldn’t mind such an assignment is never easy given the industry’s long history of shipping older creatives out the door, Hubbell said. Age is the one aspect of diversity that rarely gets talked about in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, he said.

But older creatives bring experience and aren’t likely to be put off by an adult incontinence assignment. They’re also more likely to find the right insight, Hubbell said. With Always Discreet, that was “Pee Happens,” which portrayed bladder leakage as a small if normal part of life for women to deal with as discreetly and conveniently as possible, rather than portraying the women as “sufferers.”

“We realized that if we normalize the condition, we’d get more women to actually use incontinence specialty products, rather than using menstrual products” to deal with bladder leakage, Hubbell said.

Going beyond the 18-49 demo

Sexy market or not, for P&G, Discreet turned out to be a growth market for an Always brand facing the prospect of an aging U.S. and global population and the inevitable decline in the number of menstruating women.

But P&G reaches out to the 50-plus crowd in categories well beyond adult incontinence or other aging-endemic brands, such as Fixodent. It’s looking at older consumers as it expands its media reach and consumer bases for all of its brands.

“Why do we miss out on so much reach?” P&G Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard asked in a speech to the Association of National Advertisers Media Conference on March 19. “One reason is habits,” he said. “Consider the target audience of women, ages 18-49. Does that mean women over the age of 50 don’t do laundry or brush their teeth?”

Pritchard said he used that sort of target audience definition decades ago as an assistant brand manager on Sure deodorant, and that demos can be useful. “But think more broadly—to grow markets, expand to reach all potential consumers.”

In an interview, Pritchard said many P&G brands do try to reach as close to 100% of the population as possible, because they’re relevant to everyone. “You need some demographics, because definitely the skew is going to be helpful. But my encouragement typically to people is just think more expansively. Don’t cut yourself off at a certain age or gender.”

Consumer Cellular’s focus

Consumer Cellular is one brand that has focused on the 50-plus market even as most of its competitors don’t, and it’s paying off, said CMO Craig Lister. The brand has had a partnership with AARP for 15 years, and its recent “Freedom Calls” campaign from agency Alto, starring Ted Danson and other actors 50 and older, aims to portray them as active (such as bicycling) without hackneyed or patronizing portrayals.

Lister recalls being asked by some people when he joined as CMO about whether he was going to take the audience younger. “My question was why?” he said. “There’s a huge population of people out there who need wireless and cell phone service at a fair price. Until we think that market is saturated, we’re going to continue to attract and communicate with that population.”

Part of the success of Consumer Cellular, he acknowledged, is that competitors are afraid of reaching out to its audience.

“They generally fear that the minute they start to cater to an older audience that would lessen the appeal to the younger generation,” he said. “That leaves a wide open space for us and a moat.”

The 50-plus audience is “not on their last chapter, they’re on their next chapter,” Lister said. “The insight for our campaign, ‘Freedom Calls’, is that it’s a group of people that are free with their time, their money and their experiences to enjoy all the fruits of the next chapter of their lives.”

Driving past bias

Behind much of the ad industry aversion to marketing to people 50 and up is simple bias, Boomager’s Hubbell said. He recalled his experience moderating a panel at an auto show for the luxury sector, which focused on the reality that millennials and younger rarely have the money to buy expensive cars, and many have eschewed car ownership entirely in favor of public transit and Uber.

Even so, automotive marketers often target younger consumers anyway to make their customer bases younger and chase longer customer lifetime value, Hubbell said.

So he called on one of the younger members of a panel to ask if she had to choose between marketing to a boomer or a millennial. And she said: “I would pick the millennial because I don’t want to sell a baby boomer their last car,” Hubbell recalled.

That doesn’t represent the view of all automotive marketers, especially since the median age of new car buyers is 53. Speaking at the ANA Media Conference, Trisha Ripperger, CMO of the Tom Wood Group, a Midwest dealer group, noted that the company’s target is people 45 and up. So the dealership group focuses on local TV, though Ripperger said she sets aside 10% of the budget for connected TV, largely to reach younger buyers with an eye toward long-term brand building.

Reluctance to target older consumers “gets back to that bias that’s never going to go away,” Hubbell said, some of it driven by the belief that older consumers are set in their ways and hard to convince to buy new products or switch brands.

There is some truth to that seen in a CivicScience survey on brand switching. The survey of 1,699 adults found those 55 and up were the least likely of any group to say they’re open to switching. Even so, 27% described themselves as very open to switching, 60% as somewhat open and 13% as not open at all. That compared to 37% of people under 25 who are very open to switching, 50% who are somewhat open and 14% who are not open at all.

CivicScience also found that older consumers are a potentially more lucrative market because they’re more likely to buy national brands rather than store brands. People 55 and older were least likely of any age group to say they buy Walmart private-label brands. But, perhaps in a sign of being open to switching, they were also the most most likely age group to report they’ve been buying store brands more often recently.

“We’re seeing the opposite” of the set-in-their-ways paradigm, said Five0’s Martin. “There’s a big openness to new products and services.”

One of the drivers of that is research that tracks people’s relative happiness through their lives, he said. People under 50 tend to be weighed down by child rearing and other responsibilities, and happiness tends to rebound starting at 50, Martin said.

“Children are out of the house. School is paid off. Your house is paid off. Suddenly you’re an empty nester, and your happiness is increasing,” Martin said. “You’re enjoying life more, and you’re spending because you have the resources.”