The average age of Americans is rising. As companies respond to this shift in consumer power, PR's role in marketing strategy is ever more prominent.Before he became a gerontologist and business consultant, Ken Dychtwald earned a PhD in psychology, which helps explain the language he uses when critiquing what he describes as America's Menudo complex. "We've had such an obsession with youth, older people have been seen as profoundly unappealing consumers,
he says. "We have had a neurosis towards maturity. Marketers have developed the mentality that if you can continue to stay 12, you win."
The problem with that thinking, Dychtwald contends, is that the hard data has long indicated otherwise. The latest evidence can be found in a recent study by the AARP, which concluded that - contrary to common belief - shoppers 45 and up are as open to new brands as teens and 20-somethings. "The notion that only young people are still forming their purchasing habits - and once those are set in stone, you've lost them - is a myth,
says Stephen Frost, research director for the organization's publications division. "The fact is that over-45s are just as likely to switch as younger consumers."
The demographic Frost refers to, already more than 93.7 million strong, will only grow over the next 20 years. Today, 38% of American adults are over 49; by 2020, that figure will swell to 47%. Meanwhile, "the traditional target of those aged 18-44 is actually going to shrink," says Frost.
"And not only will the numbers not be there, but their spending power will decrease - not that compared to older consumers they ever had a lot of spending power to begin with."
Despite those trends, companies still pay a premium to reach younger audiences. ABC's pursuit of David Letterman was driven by the fact that his viewers - just five years younger, on average, than those of the network's long-running Nightline - are good for an extra $100 million in annual ad revenue. In all, Dycht-wald estimates, Americans over 50 account for half of the country's discretionary spending, yet receive less than one-tenth of all its ad messages. A decade ago, just one to two of every 100 spots targeted the half-century club.
"There's been a huge amount of progress in both understanding and communicating to older consumers,
says Dychtwald, who examines the ramifications of such developments in his new book, Age Power: How the 21st Century Will Be Ruled by the New Old. "But the movement in the media has not matched the reality in the market.
And therein lies a tremendous opportunity for PR.
A shift from youth to maturity
To explain how marketers developed their fixation on fledgling clientele, Dychtwald conducts a brief role-playing exercise. "Pretend it's 1945, and I tell you that there's a baby boom about to start. Now let's do some investing,
he says, then proceeds to rattle off a list of companies that were about to take flight: The Gerber company, Johnson & Johnson and its new Band-Aid, Clearasil, and a certain restaurant chain founded by one Ray Kroc. "Back then, youth was where the action was,
he says. "Had you aligned your money with the tremendous growth of that demographic, you could have made a trillion dollars."
As recently as the 1980s, skewing young still made sense when designing campaigns. "Up until the middle of that decade, the older generation, having grown up during the Depression, was extremely frugal. When it came to their purchasing habits, they were set in their ways, and inclined to stick with the brands they had always used,
Dychtwald explains. "If we were having this conversation 20 years ago, and you asked whether you should pay much attention to older consumers, I'd say, probably not.
"The 55-year-olds of today, by contrast, came of age in the period of great prosperity that followed World War II, and are therefore very free-spending,
he continues. "It's now normal for people in their 50s to surf the internet, for 70-year-olds to train for marathons, for 65-year-olds to fall in love. That period of life is now seen as a time for new beginnings, exploration, personal growth - not a stage where you just carry on."
Even as the population at large has shifted, the makeup of the marketing profession remains largely unchanged. "Our industry has largely been a young industry,
says Marian Salzman, chief research officer for Euro RSCG. "There are a lot of bodies from 25 to 30, fewer in the 30 to 45 range, and - except for the most senior managers - almost nobody 50-plus.
"Sometimes we lose sense of just how much the definition of old has changed,
she adds. "I think the marketplace understands it better than the marketers."
PR's opportunity to shine
In Salzman's view, the evolution of senior lifestyles represents "the best thing to happen to PR in ages.
She believes that the blurring of traditional categories - at one New York school she knows of, the parents of six-year-olds range in age from 27 to 84 - should only increase demand for the type of integrated marketing that advertising alone is ill-suited to provide. "There's a growing need for layered messaging,
she contends. "It's rare that you can do that with a single glossy ad."
Kelley Skoloda, SVP and associate director of Ketchum's Pittsburgh office, cites her agency's work on behalf of Just For Men hair coloring as an example of a PR strategy that has succeeded because of a savvy reading of the attitudes of mature buyers. "Sports figures index very well with men 45-plus, but we have found that there are nuances,
she says. "The key is that the celebrity providing the endorsement still has to be active in the game of life. We've used Joe Theisman and Walt Frazier,
two former stars who have gone on to become successful broadcast announcers, "and we've gotten a tremendous response. This audience will really relate to someone who has had success in their post-sports career."
Skoloda's results fit with the findings of Dychtwald's research. "It's a less-cluttered zone,
he says of older consumers as compared to their younger counterparts. "When a company hits them with a message of optimism, hope, or enthusiasm, Geiger counters chirp, buzzers go off. You can really hit the bull's-eye."
"Older consumers are more responsive to effective PR than younger ones," he adds.
Last year, Merck and Pharmacia alone spent a combined $250 million on their rival Vioxx and Celebrex osteoarthritis treatments. As the pharmaceutical industry - together with financial service firms - clues other sectors into the undeniable clout of the silver set, Dychtwald predicts a concurrent increase in innovative PR campaigns crafted with those shoppers in mind.
Until that happens, he is left to wonder about the opportunities that so many marketers are already missing.
"There are 65 million grandparents in this country. But can you tell me when Grandparents Day is?
Skoloda asks, before answering his own question.
"I can't either. I think it's in the fall. But the point is that not one company I know of has come up with an interesting promotion to tie into that day. It's a potentially multibillion-dollar day, but it has not been PR-ed.
"There used to be a game show called Supermarket Sweep, where the contestants would run through the aisles and grab as much stuff as they could in a certain time limit,
"That's how it is with older consumers and PR - it's that wide open."