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Season Five.
"Ageism In Advertising"

Airs Saturday May 28th and Thursday June 2nd, 2011.

This week, the Age of Persuasion looks at Ageism in Advertising.

For the past 30 years, the advertising industry has worshipped at the altar of youth - because people 18 to 49 have the most disposable income. There's only one small problem with that - it isn't true. People 55+ spend the most money in almost all categories. They buy the most cars, spend the most on electronics, and control the most wealth. Yet advertisers aren't chasing them. Join us this week, as we try and figure out why a touch of gray keeps advertisers away.
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All of the TV commercials and print elements we referred to in the episode, as well as some bonus materials, are below. Enjoy.

The TV show Gilmore Girls premiered on October 5th, 2000.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit premiered in 1999.

It was the first spin-off of Dick Wolfe's highly awarded Law & Order series.

In 2001, Gilmore Girls placed 121st out of 158 TV shows in the ratings.

Law & Order: SVU was number 14.

Yet, Gilmore Girls charged almost as much as Law & Order: SVU charged for its ads. Even though it ranked 107 places lower on the ratings.

The reason: Gilmore Girl's audience was younger.

"Youth" is the Holy Grail in advertising. There is nothing so desirable as a young target market.

Yet people 55+ spend more money in more categories than any other group.

The history of TV ratings is interesting. The A.C. Nielsen Company began rating radio shows in 1942, and then included television shows in 1950 when the medium was beginning to explode:

The growth of television was extraordinary. Households with TVs went from less than 19% in 1946, to 55.7% in 1954, to 90% by 1962.

In order to distinguish itself from other media - including radio - TV networks attempted to attain the largest viewing audience possible.

For virtually 20 years, from 1955 to 1975, CBS ruled the primetime ratings. It had a treasure trove of highly rated programs, like The Lucy Show, Gunsmoke, and the one show everyone gathered around the TV to watch every Sunday:

CBS had a stranglehold on TV ratings and NBC came second, with a smaller but similar audience, with shows like Bonanza:

Both networks owned the older, established viewership.

At the bottom of the heap was the ABC network. So ABC chairman Leonard Goldenson decided to change the rules.

What he did would impact ratings for all time.

Since he couldn't compete with CBS and NBC when it came to attracting an older adult audience, Goldenson decided that ABC would create a different market that he could win.

So in the 1970s, ABC decided to go after the youth market.

Goldenson made a convincing case for young viewers, and crafted an argument that has become the defining framework for advertising to this day.

He said that the younger the viewer, the more brand loyalty was up for grabs. That brand loyalty had to be won early, while the viewer was "tender." And that younger consumers were more impressionable, more focused on quantity, and they bought with impatience.

For the 1969 season, ABC only had two shows in the Top 20: Marcus Welby. M.D. and The Johnny Cash Show. But within a few years, ABC became a programming force with shows like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and The Six Million Dollar Man:

ABC aggressively lobbied advertisers to adopt the 18 to 49 year old viewers as the new ratings yardstick. It was an easy sell, as youth symbolized excitement, edginess and above all, sexiness - and what advertiser didn't want to be associated with those characteristics?

Since then, the advertising industry has focused on the key 18 to 49 target, believing that young people were most likely to develop lifelong loyalties to certain brands.

But, a RoperASW study found that people over 50 were as likely as younger consumers to switch brands for things such as banks, airlines, computers and even bath soap.

Another report showed that when it came to other product categories, like athletic shoes, home electronics and cellphones - older consumers were even more open to switching brands than younger ones. As a matter of fact, 78% of people between 56 and 90 are "likely" or "very likely" to try new products.

Conventional wisdom says young people have the most disposable income. Yet more than 80% of the wealth in North American financial institutions is in the hands of people over 50, giving them 2.5 times the discretionary spending of the coveted 18 to 34 age group. They spend an estimated $2 trillion per year on products and services.

Media buyers estimate that 55% of the $20 billion spent in television primetime advertising is directed at the 18-49 age group.

Yet only 10% of all advertising is aimed at people 55+.

Most of those campaigns presume there's something wrong with them that needs fixing, such as age spots, wrinkles or erectile dysfunction:

Every car ad you see is populated with young people. Yet according to a USA Today study, consumers 50 and older spent $87 billion on cars last year, compared with $70 billion by those under 50.

Even Jaguar, whose primary customer is over 50, doesn't choose 50+ actors for their ads. While Jag used a Deep Purple music track in this commercial, the actors in it are about 35. Yet the average age of a new car buyer is 56. They buy more new cars, spend more on the cars they buy, and buy cars for their kids and grandkids.

Coke's Heart Truth for Women campaign is a great cause. It reminds women that heart disease is a concern beginning at age 55. But they chose 36 year-old Heidi Klum as a spokesperson:

By the way, according to consumer research company NPD, people 50+ buy 60% of all carbonated beverages.

Not only did the Hallmark Card company turn 100 years old itself last year, but it sold over 85,000 Happy 100th Birthday cards. People are living longer, and have many more years to spend their money.

Here's a funny commercial from financial planning company Raymond James that discusses aging in an amusing way:

If the age-old axiom is to "follow the money," why isn't advertising's famous ability to do that kicking in?

There are three possible reasons:

One: The average age of ad agency people is around 30. So if the people advising advertisers where to spend their money are young, it's not surprising that companies are being convinced they should be targeting the young. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Two: Marketing's lack of attention to 55+ is cultural. Ignoring older people is tolerated. If society feels that way at large, and if advertising follows the parade, why should marketers feel any different?

Third, the advertising industry has institutionalized the youth strategy. While it has recently shifted that demographic slightly to reflect ages 25 to 54, a lot of media thinking believes the 55+ consumers will be reached with the "spill" of their 25 to 54 media buys. But even the word "spill" suggests a lack of focus and respect. So advertisers continue shutting the door at age 49, or even 54, despite the fact that the 55+ market would probably grow revenues dramatically.

Maybe New Yorker magazine said it best. In an article on ageism in advertising by James Surowiecki, he surrenders to the point that there is a demographic of genuine stick-in-the-mud types, who have decided what they're after and are resistant to all arguments to the contrary.

They're the ones who work in advertising.