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Getting Advertisers to Think Differently About Aging

Views from the ad exec who wrote the 'Truth About Age' report


Do you ever feel that advertisers and marketers don’t understand, or really speak to, people over 50? That they’re missing what 21st century aging is all about? Then you’ll be interested to see what advertising executive Nadia Tuma-Weldon says. She’s the senior vice president and director of McCann Truth Central — a division of the advertising behemoth McCann Worldgroup — and author of its fascinating recent report, Truth About Age.

For this global study, McCann Truth Central surveyed 24,000 people in 28 markets around the world, from to Australia to the United States. “Marketers need to completely rethink the playbook with regard to the way they approach age across the spectrum,” the report said. One reason why: When the researchers asked respondents how old they felt on a scale from 1 (“not old at all”) to 10 (“I feel very old”), the average for people in every decade from 30s to 70s said: 5.

Tuma-Weldon believes advertisers need to think differently about aging and about people over 50. Here are highlights from my interview with her:

Next Avenue: Tell me about Truth About Age. How did it come about and why?

Nadia Tuma-Weldon: Our unit’s approach is to create original research around macro-cultural trends and truths affecting people’s lives. We’d been getting a lot of requests from clients to do an aging study. From the beginning, my vision for the study was that everybody is aging all the time and we should understand what aging means to a 25-year-old, to a 45-year-old and to an 80-year old.

What were your most important findings?

Nadia Tuma-Weldon

If you boiled down the findings to a five-second headline, it would be: Aging Isn’t Just for the Old and Living Isn’t Just for the Young.

We found that young people are far more anxious about getting older than older people and we’re not addressing those challenges.

The other side of the spectrum — living is not just for the young — is that life gets fuller and better over time. But a lot of the messaging conspires to convince people that older people are not vibrant enough or sexy enough to participate in the culture. That’s categorically untrue.

We hope to start to change the narrative with marketers with a new theme: Age is becoming a less reliable indicator of just about anything. You can’t reliably say that at X age you have ‘this’ style or health or ambition or success or aspirations or relationships or family structure. There are style icons in their 90s; you have billionaires who are 25. People are dating in nursing homes.

We’re not saying that demographic measures like age are not important; they certainly are. But they’re not the most important thing and they’re becoming less reliable.

Your report talks about five global attitudinal segmentations on aging. What are they and how do they relate to women and men in their 50s and 60s?

We found five clear attitudinal segments in every culture and in every age group:

AGELESS ADVENTURERS: They see aging as a journey of limitless opportunities and personal growth

COMMUNAL CARETAKERS: They see aging as a time of engaging with community and enriching personal relationships

ACTUALIZING ADULTS: They see aging as a process of maturity and acquisition of adult responsibilities

FUTURE FEARERS: They see aging as a time of anxiety and uncertainty due to risks associated with old age

YOUTH CHASERS: They see aging as a decline and loss of their youth and vitality

So if you look at a very age-positive segment like the Ageless Adventurers, you can be 20 or you can be 70 and still be in this segment because you find the idea of getting older to be thrilling and full of possibilities.

Can advertisers and marketers really change their thinking about aging?

It’s definitely hard to do. The systems have been in place a long time.

Are we telling Procter and Gamble replace your segmentation? No. But we want to disrupt and challenge the segmentations marketers do have.

I gave a talk to a major client who does tech products and their team sent me a photo afterwards where they created big posters with people in their 20s and in their 70s playing online games because our data said that playing isn’t just for the young. Little wins.

Why do you say traditional age-led stereotypes are ‘still rife’ if people are choosing to age across their lives in a novel and flexible way?

That’s the 5 million dollar question. This is no criticism of our clients, but the fact of the matter is people live their lives in one way and marketers talk about people’s lives in another way. We’re always trying to close that gulf; we have come a long way.

What’s an example of a brand that gets it?

L’oréal with Helen Mirren is doing a fantastic job. One thing they didn’t realize is that they thought ‘We have older customers who we think see Helen Mirren as an icon of that generation.’ But what happened that was so wonderful is that younger people were attracted by that. They started to see aging in a positive light.

Chevy talks about new roads, exploration and discovery and features people of all ages discovering new ways to live their life.

On the one end, Loreal talks about age head on. Chevy doesn’t consider it as a prominent demographic; it’s more about aspirations.

You wrote that only 24 percent of people believe the fashion industry understands the aging population. Why is that?

Fashion is a tough one. You have increasingly younger models and skinnier models. But there’s a silver lining: Yes, fashion still skews young and glorifies youth, but there are brands like Kate Spade who feature Iris Apfel, a 97-year-old icon. And luxury brands like The Row [founded by Ashley Olsen and Mary-Kate Olsen] feature older women. This is where fashion is going, but there’s a lot of work to be done.

You’ve talked a lot about women and aging and brands. But what did your survey find about men? How are brands dealing with aging and men?

Great question. Yes, we found a deeply nuanced story regarding men and aging. Men are allowed to age and it’s seen as a badge or sign or sophistication, whereas the physical signs of aging for women are often seen as detrimental to their overall ‘value’ in society. However, we found that while the aging battle that women tend to fight is physical, there is a hidden war going on with men.

Across the globe, men struggle with aging in a deeply psychological way. Men tend to place their sense of purpose, social ties, identity and free time into their careers. And when that is gone — such as in retirement and whatever form that takes — men feel like the rug was swept under their feet, lacking all those elements that once defined them.

With men, no one is talking to them about aging where it really counts.

There is a great [self-care] startup brand called Hims that we think is doing a good job speaking to men, changing the conversation about self-care and being vocal about struggles from a wellness perspective — from something to be hidden or ignored to something to be cultivated and managed.

What will it take to change the way advertisers and marketers talk to older Americans, and when will it happen?

Knowledge is power! The beauty of Truth Central is that our work is based on the beliefs and attitudes of 24,000 people around the world. If a brand wants to play a meaningful role in people’s lives today and into the future, it can’t ignore the fact that a new reality of age is upon us. We really hope this study helps to shape that narrative going forward.

Richard Eisenberg
By Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch.@richeis315

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