The Baby Boomer generation has been used to being very vocal, setting the pace and making change.

When Marie Stafford and her Planning Foresight group at JWT London started researching consumers in their 50s and 60s last year, most of the Boomers they talked to couldn’t have been more different from the stereotypes so prevalent in media and advertising. We talked to Stafford about her findings while researching Retooling for an Aging World—the idea that brands must adapt to the globe’s aging population and a new mindset among 50-plus consumers—for our 10 Years of 10 Trends report. Stafford discussed how attitudes toward aging are changing, what many brands are doing poorly, what a few are doing right and what all should be doing going forward.

What are brands doing to connect with Boomers?

It goes wrong quite often. A lot of the time, they have no empathy with the generation. They don’t really understand what it’s like to be that age. There is this perception that 50 and older is all the same. There is no distinction made between someone who’s still quite fit, working and very engaged in the world, and someone who’s 80 or 90. That’s probably why so much communication is going wrong.

Is that directly tied to the fact that many people working at ad agencies are young?

Though it shouldn’t be the problem—it’s our job to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and empathize with them regardless of age differences—I think it is. If there’s absolutely no one internally who understands what it’s like to be 50 or 60, then it is an issue, particularly if they don’t have the resources to conduct in-depth research with the age group. If you can’t talk directly to the age group or have someone on hand who can offer some insight, it does make it a problem.

We did two focus groups, and it was quite exhilarating to meet people in that age group. Half of them, I thought were in the wrong room. They were very youthful in terms of what they were doing with their time and how active they were—so not like the generation we’re presented with culturally in advertising and in the media. It is quite a striking difference.

Is that because aging is changing as people live longer and more healthy lives? Or is the perception of aging the core issue?

We got a sense in our research that this group feels very different than their own parents. Many of them said, “When my parents were 50 or 60, that was old, and they behaved like they were old. But for us, it’s different.” There are obviously great advances in health care, which means some of the conditions that were making people ill or ending life have been brought under control. So certainly they are healthier and more active.

You’ve got people working longer, so they’re more engaged in the everyday than they used to be. There’s no hard line of retirement anymore. In the U.K., retirement age is extending and becoming much more blurred. I remember my dad retiring, and it was literally the day he turned 60, and that was it. That’s not how it’s happening anymore. People are going part-time, or they’ll retire for a couple of years and then go back and do part-time work or start their own businesses. It’s huge in the States as well—people in their 50s and 60s are launching businesses in record numbers.

Plus, they are of the Baby Boomer generation, which has been used to being very vocal, setting the pace and making change. It’s almost like, now they’ve gotten to this age and they’re changing the status quo yet again. They’re not going to do it how their parents did it, and they’re not going to do it how we expect them to do it either. It feels completely new, a new generation we haven’t seen before.

In lots of work I’ve been looking at, advertising that targets this age group portrays people aged 50-plus all the same. They’re all white-haired, always in couples and always laughing on a beach. It’s very generic. It’s very stereotyped, and it doesn’t reflect how their lives are changing. They might be single, they might be divorced, they might be married again, and they’ve got much more complicated family situations than ever before. I don’t think much [advertising] has kept apace with them and their lives, and that’s why it seems so anachronistic.

Why are perceptions so out of date? Do marketers not care about this group, or have they just not noticed the changes?

The most striking statistic, and one of the main reasons we wanted to do this project, is we came across a stat in Fast Company that said worldwide, only 5 percent of advertising budgets target consumers over 50. There aren’t many campaigns being created specifically for them. Why that is is quite difficult to say. It’s difficult to find great case studies people can model after. There’s not much out there you can learn from. So there’s not much work being done, and the stuff that is being done is not teaching us how to communicate well.

Did you find some campaigns targeting Boomers that were done well?

We did workshops with people in this age group and found a few that they liked. We also found a few we thought were doing it well. One was T.K. Maxx. They did a campaign called “Me. By Me,” which had some print, TV and in-store work that crosses all age groups. They recruited real customers and asked them to appear in the ads. There’s one lady in her 60s. It’s lovely, because she’s treated the same as everyone else. She’s included with people of all ages. But she actually models a swimsuit, which is something our interviewees were like, “That’s great, why shouldn’t someone our age advertise swimwear? That’s something I’ve never seen before.” They loved it. She looked healthy and happy.

That’s one of those things the groups talked about all the time: Why do you never see older people in advertising in hair salons, for example? People over 65 spend more on getting their hair done than any other age group, and yet you go to the salon and it’s all young images that are presented and young hairstyles. I think [50-plus consumers] just love the idea that there is no age limit on style.

They all talked about how ads targeted at them focus on negative things—ads for death insurance, walk-in baths and stair lifts. It’s all about decline and being inactive or housebound. There is very rarely humor, and they’re quite a fun-loving group. They’re very confident and have a really refreshing attitude to life: “Whatever happens, I can deal with it. I’m OK with the good and the bad, it all makes me who I am.” But no one uses humor to talk to them, and they feel its absence.

There’s quite a nice ad by Jaeger, a fashion brand here, where they’ve used current models but photographed them with their mothers. The models are in their early 30s, people like Jasmine Guinness, and they’re all wearing Jaeger clothes, which is quite inclusive, presenting it as timeless and appropriate for any age. There’s the Centrum commercial that’s like a mini-film, and its basketball scenes where a group of guys in their 40s to 60s play a series of games against a younger team. The older guys win, and it’s all about their experience. It’s really nice to have a contrast to those images of decline and how, when you hit this age, it’s all downhill. This presents a much more vital and energetic alternative.

What were some of the most interesting or surprising findings that came out of your Boomer study?

Around communications, it was how disengaged this group is and how they felt that most communications targeting them was patronizing or stereotyped—82 percent told us they didn’t recognize themselves in advertising that targets them. That’s a really big number. There was lots of commentary around how they feel that advertising only cares about young people.

The overarching question is, How is it that such an enormous potential in this generation is not being recognized or tapped into? In the U.K. market, the Baby Boomers aged 50 to 69 account for 29 percent of the population, so they’re strong in numbers. They’re also where the money is. In many categories, the over-50s are the biggest spenders—things like new cars, eating and drinking out of home, and appliances. They are where all the wealth is. The real killer statistic is, the over-50s control 80 percent of wealth in the U.K. If you put that into context with the fact that only 5 percent of advertising money is going towards targeting them, there’s a huge disconnect. We’re missing the trick really.

That carries through into lots of categories. For example, in fashion, the people we met were very stylish, and interested in looking good. Yet they find it really difficult to find clothes. Quite a lot of them said they felt like there is a need for a new store for them, because whilst they can go into some of the more youth-targeted stores, very often pieces are just not cut for older figures. It’s a fact that when people get older, their bodies do change. They also have different concerns. They might want a lower hem, and they definitely want sleeves if they’re wearing dresses. Yet so few designs are cut to fit or flatter them. It’s quite a frustrating process for them to buy clothes, and yet the appetite is there, and the money is there, and the interest is there.

You mentioned that these consumers have much more complicated family situations than once was the case?

The way we used to live our lives was quite linear. You would get married, you’d have kids, you’d retire. But people have gotten into the habit of having kids later or perhaps remarrying—there’s been a big rise in the number of men becoming dads in their 50s or later —so people still being in family-life stages in this age group is getting more common. Equally, taking sabbaticals, going back to study or even becoming an apprentice is more common than ever before. There is this sense that life is not linear anymore, that it’s more looping, and people are inserting or revisiting stages in their life where they will.

Without that linear progression, this is a pretty difficult group for marketers to target, isn’t it?

In our interviews, some people said that when you get older, you get more diverse as a group. People get more different from each other, not more similar. One of the things we found about this group is they are very individualistic, they don’t follow trends, they don’t want to be grouped, they do their own thing. That does make it much more difficult.

We struggled with this when writing the report, because it feels inherently wrong to describe their characteristics and qualities as a group; they are so unique as individuals. We couch it in terms of, these are thought starters and guidelines, but each brand will need to get to know its own consumers directly. The whole life stage thing is incredibly chaotic, and that’s the main reason the white-haired lovely couples just don’t work anymore, because people’s lives just don’t look like that. It’s a challenge, but if you get it right, the rewards are potentially huge.

What should marketers be doing to address this group?

There’s no substitute for understanding your consumer. Having people in your organization who are in the age group can only be helpful, even if it’s only on a consultancy basis. Just having that person around who gets the language or gets the sentiment is a really helpful thing to have. But there’s no substitute for really understanding them, both as individuals and as a group.

A common assumption is that older people are set in their ways, that once they’ve found a brand, they’ll stick to it. But we found that’s not the case at all. Most consumers were using different brands now than they were 20 years ago, something like 6 out of 10. So they are very open to change. The idea that the Elastic Generation would buy purely out of loyalty is at odds with their values.

They’re really deal-driven. Because they know they have this very long retirement ahead of them, they’re quite savvy about how they spend their money. Not necessarily because they don’t have the money, but instead it’s a positive choice. They’re deciding not to spend because either they want to make sure the money they have lasts a long time, or they want to be convinced of value. They’re going online and price-comparing and researching, just like other age groups.

What about people working longer now? What’s the opportunity there?

Another thing we note is this rise of people launching their own businesses. [But] I couldn’t find a single venture capital firm that focused only on older people launching businesses. Their businesses are apparently very successful, a lot more resilient, because obviously they have a lot more experience. But it’s not immediately clear where they might find funding. That’s potentially another area where there could be innovation.

Travel is a category that seems especially relevant for Boomers?

Travel is a huge passion for this age group. And interestingly, they have quite similar motivations as Millennials, relating to travel. It’s all about discovering new cultures; they want to see the world, and they want to broaden their experience and minds. They say all the same things as Millennials, but the crucial difference is comfort. They’re not prepared to rough it anymore. The people we spoke to told us they’ve earned the right to be comfortable and stay somewhere really nice. And they all seem to want to go on these long-haul, see-the-world holidays. We also found that more of this age group research travel online than Millennials or Gen X.

One thing that’s interesting is this concept of multigenerational travel. Although this generation does travel a lot with their partners alone, they also travel with their families, and quite often, they are funding the trips too. This is a discussion in the travel industry: the increased demand for multigenerational holidays and providing suitable accommodation and services for several generations traveling together.

There is a broad perception that this age group doesn’t really understand technology, but you found otherwise in the study?

This generation gets the impression that many assume they are a bit bewildered by technology. They’re really not. A typical comment was, “We’re the generation that invented technology, so don’t patronize us.” They certainly don’t want things especially designed for them or made easier for them; they’re very comfortable with it.

The motivation for this age group is communication and staying connected. A lot of them are grandparents and stay in touch with their grandkids via social media. Especially with extended family overseas. It’s been a real motivation for getting online and getting involved in social media.

How do you see marketers evolving when it comes to this age group?

What I hope happens is a broad reappraisal of this group and a recognition that life is not over when you hit 50. You don’t go into an immediate decline or stop being a consumer. You don’t stop being interested in the world and buying things and going places and learning. I do feel there’s still a bit of a stigma around associating with this group. Can we get past that? It would be nice if, as a society, we could agree that being 50-plus can be a positive thing, even aspirational.

That’s what I hope will happen. In the future, I hope younger generations will get quite excited about hitting this age group—the same way we see youth now. Could we potentially see being 50 and 60 as being great? We talk quite a bit about ageism in our report, and you’re starting to see this being tackled head-on. I read a lot about it being the last “ism” to fight, and ironically it’s actually the only one that could affect every one of us.

You’re starting to see a little bit of reappraising. We’ve seen a lot of brands, particularly in the beauty space, starting to use older women. Nars used Charlotte Rampling, who’s 68, last year, and currently Tilda Swinton is the face of the brand, aged 54. Francois Nars’ attitude to aging is very lovely; he says, “I don’t see age, I just see beauty.” With the women he’s hired, it’s all about their experience and the lives they’ve lived, and to him, that’s beautiful. It would be lovely if other industries could see that too and shift to an equally celebratory interpretation of this age group.