When my father was in his 60s, he was able, for the first time in his life, to afford a new car. Up to then, he had always bought used.
He was not unusual in this. Most new car buyers are over 50. It’s an expensive purchase, and when you’re younger other things like mortgages and children eat up pretty much all your money.
But at last, my father was in a position to buy new. All he had to do was decide what he wanted. So naturally, he started to pay attention to car advertising.
He was completely bamboozled. He told me that half the ads he saw on TV made no sense to him at all. Often he couldn’t even tell that they were for cars until they were over. If it was obvious they were for cars from the start, he said they had so little information in them that he was none the wiser at the end anyway. And as far as he could tell, all of them were meant for badly-shaven young men, or flirtatious young women, or both.
Print ads were better in as much as they showed a picture of the car, but the words that went with them were so ridiculous and fanciful that they actually put him off. In the end, the best you could say was that all the ads were equally useless to him.
My father had a first class degree from Cambridge, and had just retired from a very senior position in the Treasury. But the advertising made him feel stupid. Then profoundly alienated, and finally, as if no–one wanted his money.
He wasn’t stupid. He was just old. The stupid ones were the people who made and paid for the ads. Who were so in love with their own ideas they forgot the point of what they were doing, which was to sell cars, and never even considered who might be able to buy them.
I said he was old. And in our society, we know what that means. Past it. Out of touch. Decrepit. In decline. Losing his marbles. Someone you can ignore, and hope will go away – and who will, though maybe not fast enough.
And because those are the prevailing opinions, the fact that our population is aging is routinely described as an impending disaster. There are now 21 million people over 50 in the UK - a third of the population.
Well, it would be a disaster if it were true that older people are a mere burden upon the earth. But what if it were discovered that the human brain performs better between the ages of 40 and 68 than it does in its 20s and 30s? What if its performance improves during that time, so that in our 60s we are mentally able to do more, and do it better than younger people? And what if analysis of the brain showed it physically growing and improving into our late 60s? And if it were shown that mental decline after 70 is not inevitable, but is much less likely to happen if you are well educated, and continue to learn throughout your life?
These ideas run so counter to our youth-obsessed culture that they sound utterly ridiculous. But they are in fact the precise findings of neuroscientists studying the aging process. Not one neuroscientist, but many, working independently, and looking at both brain performance and physiology.
These findings, and many more, are described in ‘The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind’,by Barbara Strauch. What she makes clear is that many of our preconceptions about our brains are wrong, and that we could all benefit from considering what we gain from the gifts that age brings, rather than worrying about what it takes away.
Read the book if you’re over 40, and find out why you can expect to make better decisions, be more optimistic, and deal with problems more confidently as you age. If you’re in your 50s, you’ll be pleased to discover why you feel more intelligent than ever. You are. If you’re older still, read it to remind yourself that experience is a valuable asset and there’s no short cut to it. And if you’re still young, read it and see what you can look forward to. Don’t worry, it’s not too hard to understand – even a 35-year-old could manage it.
All of this is profoundly important for marketers. My father’s experience when trying to buy a new car was not unusual. Advertising, in all its forms, seems to be made by young people for young people. Or by people who imagine themselves to be young, for young people as they are imagined to be.
Is this just plain stupidity, as I suggested earlier? Can it be that older people, who are numerous and wealthy, are just ignored because they’re so not cool or sexy? It seems incredible, when people like my father have money to spend – more than ever before – that nobody wants to help them do so.
Let’s be kind and suggest that it’s not stupidity, but ignorance. Our society is segregated, not by class, or race, but by age. Old and young don’t mix. We don’t live with or, often, near our parents. How many older people do most of us spend time with – people who are ten or twenty years older than we are? Very few, I would guess.
So we assume, quite naturally, that the outer signs of aging are paralleled within. As our skin sags, so do our minds. Our culture supports this view, and we fear that as we age, we will essentially be a deteriorating version of what we are now. There is no need to make the effort to empathise with older people, and try to imagine how the world looks to them. Sympathy is the most we can manage, at best.
It’s all wrong. Not only does the latest research challenge every one of our prejudices about age, but so too does the experience of aging, if we pay attention to it. I mean in ourselves as well as in others. I used to think that when I reached 50 I would be in most respects the same as I was at 40, or 30, or 20. More experienced, of course. Fatter, probably. Creaky and wrinkly, maybe. Less bendy in the middle, and probably paying the price for some of the things I did when younger.
What I did not expect was to feel like quite a different person. Inside my head. But I do. It didn’t happen suddenly, of course. But I am aware now of seeing the world in a different light.
I asked a friend who is 72 if she had felt the same as she passed 50, and if further changes came with more years, other than the obvious ones. She described many. She agreed that she was quite a different person from her younger self, and that there had been a watershed at around 50. One change is particular may explain why advertising fails to connect with older people.
She said that she had come to particularly dislike anyone who spoke too fast and said too much. Not because she had any difficulty understanding them. She did not. But because she was aware of paying a great deal of attention to the way in which things were said, as well as to what was said. This had come upon her more after 50, and had become completely habitual. It means she wants more time to listen than before, because she is responding more deeply.
Her way of listening tells her a great deal about the person speaking to her, in addition to whatever information they might be trying to communicate. And she finds this immensely valuable. It means she comes to more profound and accurate assessments of people than before, and quite quickly. But if the person speaking to her tries to overload her with information, she will only attend to the style of their communication, not the content. Her impression, based on that style, is often that such a person is not actually interested in her, but only in him or herself. And thus she will dismiss them. As for whatever it is they might be trying to tell her, she hasn’t heard it, and is no longer interested in it, given the source.
I don’t know if her experience is common. It resonated with me, though. If it is widely true of people over 50, it is hugely important for advertisers to understand. Because as a description of what advertising does a lot of the time, talking too fast and saying too much seems pretty fair. And as my friend concludes, ‘People who talk like that – they’re not really saying anything anyway.’
I should repeat, since the stereotype of older people is so ingrained, that this is not a problem of comprehension. It’s not that we have to speak slowly to older people because they’re losing their marbles. On the contrary. What my friend is describing is a deeper way of listening. More complex, more perceptive and, one might conclude, wiser.
If you want this in a soundbite, you could say she has not only an acute bullshit detector, but an equally sharp bullshitter detector. Which means she spots bullshitters even when they’re not bullshitting. A useful talent.
The challenge for advertising – in all media, and all forms – is clear. You need to find a way to communicate with people over 50 that is good enough – intelligent enough, and respectful enough – to make them want to listen. You also have to not just avoid bullshit, but not be a bullshitter. That may be quite difficult.
But the prize is worth winning. In my friend’s case, anyone who does engage her attention has it fully. She doesn’t look away to see if anyone more interesting has wandered into view. She doesn’t glance at her mobile to check for texts, or God forbid, take a call. She doesn’t push the conversation towards a different subject, more interesting to her. She does not, in effect, say, ‘That’s enough about you. Now what about me?’
That kind of attention is golden. Especially if you’re trying to sell something to someone who can afford what you’ve got, and is in the market for it.
This article originally appeared in Campaign.