It’s Time to Welcome the 55+ Demo into the Media Mainstream

By The Myers Report Archives
Cover image for  article: It’s Time to Welcome the 55+ Demo into the Media Mainstream

Some topics of conversation in media never get old and that includes the ongoing discussion of the value of older consumers.  For years, many of us in programming, marketing and advertising have been engaged in one long conversation regarding the accuracy of age-based demographic breaks that effectively exclude adults 55+ from the sales value equation.  “We don’t need to specifically target adults 55+,” they will say, “because we can reach them anyway – they are heavy TV viewers.”  Well not so fast, sonny.  Today’s 55+ are not like those of yesteryear. Read part two here.

While this has been argued before, it bears repeating.  According to economic trends, today’s older consumers command much greater buying powercompared to current and previous generations.  Boomers alone represent 70% of the total net worth in America and account for 40% of total consumer demand.  It is time for the media metrics to keep pace with economic realities.

Media Ecologist Jack Myers believes that it is vital for the industry to come together and change the traditional age-demo breaks.  “We need to recognize the economic and societal evolutions that have occurred since the 1960s and embrace a new set of demo standards,” he stated.  He proposes the following breaks:

  • Teens/Tweens (11-17)
  • Gen-Z (18-24)
  • Millennials (25-45)
  • Gen X/Y (45-62)
  • Boomers (63-75)
  • A new combination for sales targeting purposes (45-72)

The History

Let me share some history that will help explain why this makes sense.  It all started out innocently enough.  In the early 1960s when advertisers divided the media pie into simply households and men or women, upstart network ABC, which trailed in overall household performance, had a great idea; why not further divide the population into age breaks?  After all, the younger-skewing ABC argued, younger people were less fixed in their brand loyalties and were more open to change and experimentation.  At the time, they were referring to the rebellious Baby Boomers who were very different psychologically from previous (and future) generations.  Unfortunately, the idea of youth worship based on age alone resonated with advertisers and programmers.  Today it has stultified into dogma.

A sales positioning idea that was initially conceived to more easily categorize audiences into future, peak and declining brand building and spending years has, in my opinion, led the industry astray.  In fact, one could argue that 18-34, 18-49, 25-54 and 55+ breaks never really made much sense.  Did an 18-year-old ever really spend like a 49-year-old?  Does one fall off the face of the economic earth on their 55th birthday?  Of course not!

If there was ever a cohort that should be actively sought by advertisers and programmers, it would have to be psychologically-based, not necessarily age-based.  Who came of age when consumerism was at its peak, when advertising was the epicenter of choice consideration and when media technology was young and experimental?  Baby Boomers.  Today they are still active in the workforce, are in their peak earning years and are as changeable and rebellious as ever.  Maybe it’s time to finally reevaluate the age-break demographic to better reflect the behavioral dynamics of the generations it purportedly represents.

Changing Business as Usual

Older consumers in 2018 are very different from older consumers in 1960. In 1960, if you were 55+ you could have experienced a Depression and two World Wars in your formative spending years.  There were also much fewer brands and the major forms of communication were newspaper and radio.  Today’s older audiences grew up in a time of relative luxury and peace; the grand expansion of media communication and advancements in healthcare has extended not only longevity but also quality of life.  How today’s older adults live and spend are worlds apart from their grandparents and parents.

Getting to Consensus

In this highly competitive media world where reaching the “right” audience is pivotal to success, how do we get all of the players to agree on a modification of the standard age-break ranges?  Megan Clarken, President Watch, Nielsen, understands the dynamics of the marketplace.  “Reaching industry consensus is always a journey, especially when it comes to determining changes to the currency,” ​she said.  “For example, if an older-skewing network pushes for an age-break redefinition, there will be a younger skewing network that would push back.  Our role is to encourage the conversation and provide the data and insights -- whether its age/gender or advanced demographics beyond the standard demos -- that the industry needs to transact with confidence.”

But there is some movement in reaching a new consensus.  “While the vast majority of industry deals remain a demo currency, revisiting demographic breaks is an important piece,” advised Radha Subramanyam, Executive Vice President, Chief Research and Analytics Officer, CBS Television Network.  “Going forward, moving away from age/gender as the foundation of planning and buying seems to make the most sense.  The framework needs to be audiences and audience cohorts, though defined more broadly than some of the segments currently popular in the programmatic ecosystem,” she added.

In a world quickly moving to more addressable consumer segments, some believe that a change in the standard age breaks are unnecessary at this time.  “Given the industry’s continued push to implement purchase-based targeting, I am not sure there is a strong rationale for what looks to be subtle changes,” stated Ed Gaffney, Head of Implementation Research and Marketplace Analysis U.S., GroupM.  “Targeting begins with planning.  The buying teams simply refit the planning target to a demo to facilitate media deals.”

Further, as we head more towards cross platform measurements, Gaffney believes that it will inevitably lead to a new targeting consensus.  “The linear networks will most likely not be interested in moving to different demos when they could move to targets that better align with those used in digital buys (signal based), and digital is not very interested in using age-based targets for anything but comparative purposes,” he added.

Others believe in going further by dropping age-break metrics entirely, even for comparison purposes.  John Rosso, President, Market Development, Triton Digital, an online audio measurement service, explains, “The real question in my mind is this:  why care about age at all?  The digital world has moved on to audience targeting and, through initiatives like Open AP, the traditional media world seems to be embracing more advanced audience segmentation as well.  Do we still need to use demographics as a proxy for behaviors and intents when we can target those things directly?”

Nielsen remains the unbiased arbiter of age-break demographics preferring the industry to decide for itself what metrics work best for the buy/sell paradigm.  Because of this, Nielsen must remain neutral. “We don’t set the rules for the industry,” continued Clarken.  “We rely on the industry to negotiate the rules amongst themselves.  And there isn’t any general industry committee that I know of that actually says, ‘this is the rule,’ which makes it tough to reach a consensus.  Nielsen is a third-party, independent organization so it's difficult for us to do it on behalf of the industry.”

In my next article on this topic, I will explore how outdated and irrelevant media buying and planning tactics are costing the media industry billions of dollars.

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