Listen Up, Marketers: I'm Not My Father

A few years ago, I turned 55.  In the real world, this was not considered a notable occasion.  No one threw me a surprise party, and I did not feel I had just reached a major milestone in my life.  In the world of marketing, media, and advertising, however, it was a birthday of great significance.  

After aging out of the mythical 18-49 age group five years earlier, I was now moving out of the key 25-54 demo and into the dreaded and nebulous 55+ category (any demographic group with a “+” at the end is, by definition, nebulous).  All of a sudden I was no longer in the target audience for products and services that I still used as much as ever, despite having more disposable income than ever.

Too many media and marketing executives see me as though I’m part of my father’s generation, with the media and buying habits he displayed when he was in his late 50s, early 60s.  I am not.  Ignore me and those like me at your own risk.



Some things to consider:

-- My dad grew up during the Depression and its immediate aftermath.  I grew up during the 1960s and ‘70s, the heart of the middle-class Baby Boom generation.  The way we relate to money and the purchase of things we want (rather than just need) are dramatically different.

-- When I was growing up, my parents’ friends were mostly within a narrow age range.  Virtually all of them were married to their first spouses, and had kids who were around my age.  Life stage didn’t mean anything when measuring media audiences back then, because people of a certain age were usually in the same stage of life. Once you knew a person’s age/sex, there wasn’t anything else you really needed to know.

-- Today, some of my friends have kids the same age as my 17-year-old son, some have kids who long ago graduated from college, some have no kids, some are married, others are divorced or never married.  I also have friends 15 years younger than me with kids the same age as mine.  In other words, I have friends in many different life stages, with age not being the major determining factor it would have been 30 or 40 years ago.

-- Whose media and buying habits are closer to my own?  When it comes to music, probably someone closer to my age.  When it comes to a whole host of other products and activities, there are likely more similarities to younger parents with kids the same age a mine.

-- My TV viewing habits are probably somewhere in the middle. My favorite shows include “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds,” “Major Crimes,” “The Last Ship,” and “The Blacklist” (all of which might fit my age profile), but I also like “The Walking Dead,” “Homeland,” “Fargo,” “Family Guy,” and “South Park, which Nielsen would tell you have much younger age profiles.

About 10 years ago, when I was on the Council for Research Excellence, we produced the landmark Video Consumer Mapping Study, which dubbed 45- to 54 -year-olds “Digital Boomers.”  This group tended to be heavy TV viewers, similar to the next older age group (55-64), but used new technology and mobile devices more like the next younger age group (35-44).  These Digital Boomers are now 55-64, and are vastly different from their parents at the same age, both in terms of media access and usage, and in willingness to switch brands.

The bottom line is that I’m part of a completely different generation from my father, with a different mindset, different experiences, different media access, and different spending habits.  Advertisers, marketers, and networks should take note, as should TV measurement services, who too often simply lump people together in broad categories that no longer represent cohesive behaviors.

13 comments about "Listen Up, Marketers: I'm Not My Father".
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  1. Eric Brandt from Destination Media Solutions/Tahoe TV, LLC, October 12, 2016 at 11:56 a.m.

    Timely post, Steve. I was just thinking about this exact same scenario in my life. Mid-fifties and in most ways entirely different from where my dad was at the same time in his life. The difference in my situation is that my dad was an early adopter and on the forefront and in the same location and environment as those that forged the early efforts of what is now our digital age - computers, phones, media, etc. In many ways, he helped me be more aware and ultimately an active participant as I grew in to my "middle" age. Still a different generation, but connected. In either case, I agree wholeheartedly that the mass lumping of "audience" or "consumer" types is not effective. We are becoming more and more undefinable. Our own island in a sea of media and digital technology.

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, October 12, 2016 at 12:03 p.m.

    I feel your pain and I just turned 66 yesterday, but marketers can't worry about us outliers. I watch South Park very week, too, but I'd guess very few of my cohort do the same. Marketers need to simplify their plans, not account for the exceptions to the rule. If I was an advertiser selling to 55+ viewers, I'd put most of my money is NCIS, even though I personally never watch it.

  3. Steve Sternberg from The Sternberg Report replied, October 12, 2016 at 12:14 p.m.

    Doug, I suspect we are not the outliers services like Nielsen would have us believe.

  4. James Smith from J. R. Smith Group, October 12, 2016 at 12:29 p.m.

    Steve:  I wonder about "digital boomers."  Are we vastly underestimating the size of this group? It's pretty much common to find age/sex variables "not" being the first data cuts in targeting. But a healthy number of marketers using age-based cohorts are still lusting after 19-49s.  The platform shift to digital is partly driven by supply and demand...with supply for greater niche product increasing and demand for mass appeal product decreasing.  

  5. Michael Pursel from Pursel Advertising, October 12, 2016 at 1:32 p.m.

    I'm glad Doug is WAY older than I. I turn 62 this weekend.  I watch South Park, not every week, but it is funny.  Can't stand idiots like Colbert and their smug self-righteous attitude, but I enjoyed John Stewart.  I enjoy Fox News. And I watch Golden Girls now and then, along with Big Bang.   Go figure.  It is difficult as a media buyer to sift through all the nuances of every group.  That is another reason we use ComScore for our TV placement.  And Steve, I use my mobile to watch live TV, Radio (Local streaming).  Us boomers have the cash, just not the youth.  I've been banging this drum for the last twenty years... older consumers DO shop, spend and can be convinced to shift their buying habits when presented with info that makes sense.  My clients who heed this have been very profitable, thank you.

  6. Jeri Cohen from Chatter PR, October 12, 2016 at 2:48 p.m.

    Steve, great piece! Demographics stopped working a long time ago as technology and choices continue to evolve --as do people! 

  7. James Siciliano from Channels:360, October 12, 2016 at 4:01 p.m.

    Steve, couldn't agree with you more.  Using pure gender/age demos for marketing and media buying should be relegated to the history books along with analogue television.  Effective targeting requires qualitative based targeting.  Factors such as lifestyle, worldview, product consumption along with type of target media consumption are key.  Anything other leads to missing the mark and a lot of wasted impressions.  As a media strategist I've been using qualitative data as the foundation for building plans for the last 16+ years.  Marketers and their agencies need to begin to negotiate media placement and costing based on qualitative parameters and scrap the use of pure gender/age demos - media sellers will need to accommodate this.  Another issue, as you've stated, is the stereotyping of "Boomers".  Truly, this segment's product consumption, media usage and lifestyle(s) are not those of their parent's. To not understand this and the purchase clout this segment has is a colossal mistake on the part of marketers.   

  8. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, October 12, 2016 at 4:22 p.m.

    @James. I couldn't agree more. However in the case of national TV, the upfront "corporate" purchasing system, which melds all of a company's brands into one s big GRP tonnage buy, is the primary stumbling block as a single audience metric is required for the buyer to gain "protection" via audience guarantees. Under such circumstances, it is inevitable that a broad age/sex definition like adults aged 25-54 be utilized---even if it is a generalization and is not brand-specific. We have analyzed the pros and cons of the TV upfront in a recent "Mediology" report and believe that the trade-offs favor continuation of this system, but with some entirely feasible improvements. Net, net: your best bet is to use much more refined metrics after the big buy goes down, to allocate commercial positions more effectively for the individual brands. That is far preferrable to each brand going its separate way as this would produce chaos---thousands of big and small deals to negotiate all at once--- and would tilt the odds heavily in the sellers' favor.

  9. Mark Van Patten from Retired, October 13, 2016 at 1:08 p.m.

    Rather than divide the population by standard demographic definitions. I recommend dividing the population by how they use the word fuck and how often.
    Constant Effers - the word is a part of language just like like and ya know.
    Periodical Effers - the word is used in a wide variety of iterations. Noun, verb, adverb, adjective, gerund, etc.
    Injured Effers - the word is only used when a physical or mental injury has occured.

  10. Robin Solis from replied, October 30, 2016 at 6:41 p.m.

    We are 60 and 72 and binge watch South Park on Hulu!

  11. Robin Solis from replied, October 30, 2016 at 6:43 p.m.

    Dude! Don't forget radio!

  12. Robin Solis from replied, October 30, 2016 at 6:45 p.m.

    LOL, "The Osbournes" changed the world.

  13. Hedda Schupak from Hedda Schupak, March 7, 2017 at 9:55 a.m.

    This issue is equally frustrating in the fashion world, which hasn't responded any better than the media world. Apparel and even shoe designs that are fresh and new are typically designed and cut for women in their 20s--but priced for women in their 50s. Women in their 50s (and 40s), meanwhile, either don't fit into it or they'd feel silly wearing it. When they do go shopping--with, as Steve points out, the highest income of their lives--the choices presented to them are either shapeless and drapey, or if they do find some nicely tailored pieces, those usually don't look much different from the things they already own, giving no compelling reason to buy more. Yes, there are some fit considerations to make for the middle-age customer, but most of us, especially those in the workforce, are still quite style conscious. Like Steve says, we're not our mothers. We're not looking for coordinated stretch-pant outfits (unless it's athletic gear!). But with the exception of a few key brands, the apparel industry hasn't responded at the level you'd think such a significant customer base deserves.

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