Watch what you say to over-50 consumers

Anger 2

Before you talk to a target audience of 50-plus-year-old adults, you’d better relearn how to talk to them, an August 5 MediaPost post (link unavailable) advises.

This is particularly important because, as the Python Generation, they’re already a growing plurality, if not yet a majority, of American consumers.

“Knowing the preferred terms when talking about particular groups of people is important from both a human and marketing perspective. The wrong word or phrase can alienate your target audience overnight,” Kevin Williams, president of, told the online publication.

That’s because today’s adults over the age of 50 are different – different from people their age in previous generations and different from each other.

Not your father’s grandfathers

Adult consumers have always pictured themselves as 10-15 years younger than their actual age, and today, for adults over 50, that perception is backed by reality.

Baby Boomers’ “perceptions of themselves are very different from the previous generations,” says Long-Term Living magazine editor Pamela Tabar. “They don’t consider themselves old at 60.”

That’s largely because they aren’t, as a 1,114-respondent survey by Williams’s company demonstrates. In it, 55 percent percent of respondents aged 55 to 65 prefer to be called “active adults” or “55 plus.” About half disliked the terms “senior” and “boomer.”

“I’m 60 and in better shape than my 20-year-old grandson,” one respondent commented.

“I’m not my grandmother,” said another.

“I’m 67 and I don’t want to be a senior,” a third added. “I’m still a middle-aged woman.”

While 75 may not quite be the new 45 yet, it is true that, unlike in previous decades, people who’ve reached official US government retirement age aren’t frail, aren’t sitting around on their rocking chairs waiting to die, and, in many cases, aren’t even retired.

“I’m 78 and still working full time and having a ball,” 78-year-old Maria Dwight told the Chicago Tribune. “The landscape has changed terrifically.”

Some, in their 60s, are not only working full time, but also caring for their parents, who are in their 80s.

Different from each other – and from stereotypes

“[T]he 49+ crowd are not all alike,” MediaPost points out.

They are more diverse than any other market segment, spanning those at the peak of their careers, to active, independent seniors, to the elderly in need of care. It really doesn’t matter what product or service is being marketed. Effectively approaching Baby Boomers and older customers demands knowledge of their values and purchase motivators and converting that knowledge into images and copy that connects [sic] with them.

That’s why it’s essential that your advertising talk to them as individuals

Watch your language

At the same time, though, it’s equally essential to avoid words and expressions almost universally tick them off as a group:

  • Addressing them by first name in emails, direct mail and telemarketing – To Millennials, that’s a sign of friendliness, but to people raised in the 1940s and ’50s, that’s a sign of excess familiarity and disrespect. Better to call them Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Dr. [last name] in person, and by first name only with permission. In emails and paper mail, it’s also okay to address them behaviorally, as in “Dear Sports Fan” or “Dear Movie Lover.”
  • Aging in place sounds to many as if you’re treating them like potted plants.
  • Continuing Care Communities sounds like they’ll be dependent for the rest of their lives.
  • Any kind of “facility” sounds like an institution. The euphemism “community” sounds better, because while people hate being institutionalized, they like being part of a community.
  • “Retirement” or “successful aging” – Both are passé.
  • “Golden age” – “It gives the idea that the sun is going down and life is waning,” Tabar explains, while “at 65 there’s still plenty of life left.” In fact, at age 65, most Americans are just reaching the two-thirds mark.

Talkin’ to my g-g-g-generation

Thinking in advance about what you say to the audience is even more important than watching how you say it. You need to “connect with [their] motivations and values,” says Jim Gilmartin, president of interactive marketing company Coming of Age, and “to assure the product or service meets their lifestyle/living needs.”

He calls this demographic cohort “the New Consumer Majority,” so you’d better treat them with respect. Specifically:

  • Don’t condescend to them or treat them as children.
  • Act their age, but don’t remind them of it. (Remember, adults all perceive themselves as younger.)
  • Depict them realistically. If you photograph models using your product, it’s better to use models in their 50s or sometimes even late 40s (see above). But make sure they have at least some graying hair and wrinkles. And whatever you do, show them positively, actively and independently.
  • Build a factual sales argument. While all people make purchase decisions more on the basis of emotion than fact, over-50s still care more about substance than about self-proclaimed coolness or peer pressure.
  • Remember that they read. They’re willing to stick around and read what you have to say, so long as it’s something worth reading – in which event they’ll not only read your content, but appreciate the fact that you provided it.
  • Keep it legible. Owing to biological changes over time, most people over 50 are far-sighted, most over 60 have at least mild cataracts, and all have some degree of corneal yellowing and thickening. They also use the surrounding negative space for help in reading words and letters. So make your type a bit bigger (12 point at least), open up your kern and track, increase your leading, and have plenty of color contrast between type and background (which itself shouldn’t be visually busy).
  • Don’t try to con them. They’ve been around long enough, and exposed to more than enough hype, to have developed very good, uh, baloney detectors.
  • Build trust. As noted above, they’ve seen it all and are understandably skeptical, so you’ll probably have to win their business more gradually.