The elephant in the room


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Two friends of mine recently cycled from one end of the British Isles to the other – Lands End to John O’Groats.  When you have gone half the distance you are nearly out of England.  In that respect Scotland is a bit like being over 55.  It’s a massive green/grey area, and a bit… quiet.

There are more old people than ever and they watch a LOT of TV.  When you get to 55, you’ve only watched half the TV you’re going to watch in your life: the older you are, the more you watch.  Pity the television executive determined to deliver a young profile. Unless they actively upset older people with lashings of gore (it’s partly squeamishness, but they also don’t like to suffer when being entertained) or schedule the great discriminator, Top 40 music, they’re stuffed.  Older people will turn up uninvited and enjoy it just as much.  And why not, as Barry Norman, member of the Old Person Hall of Fame might say.

But it is one of the curiosities of ‘the way the world works’ that over 55s are so undervalued commercially – they are said to attract only 5% of advertising spend.  It’s even worse in the US, where over 55s are often not even reported when audience figures are published. Which is odd when you look at a typical night’s audiences – most of them are way over 55.

When London Live – the new TV channel dedicated to London – launched earlier this year, it officially targeted 16-34 year-olds which, in a city full of people who retain their youthfulness well into their.. 60s… was utterly bonkers.

Over 55s watch a lot of TV for the same reason we all do – because it fits their needs.  And, while younger people watch less TV because their engrossing social lives get in the way, they do use TV to enhance these social lives (something to talk about and to help them bond with the gang).  By contrast older viewers watch TV to replace their social lives.

The systematic undervaluation of older people – at great cost to the medium they spend most time with – has persisted, perhaps because they have lacked smart people to fight on their behalf.  (Or they’ve focussed on the political sphere  where MPs are easier to intimidate than advertisers).

Two smart people come to mind.

The first is Bob Hoffman, aka the Ad Contrarian, who writes a brilliant blog bewailing the behaviour of marketers who ignore fundamental truths.  When he is not appalled by the depth of their obsession with social media, he rages at marketers’ love affair with young adults, when it is older people who have all the money.  He has the data, and his consultancy Type A promotes older people as a worthy target for advertisers.

Bob Hoffman: aka the Ad Contrarian

Bob Hoffman: aka the Ad Contrarian

Prof Byron Sharp: Expert

Prof Byron Sharp: Marketing Science Expert

The other is Professor Byron Sharp, the marketing scientist who runs the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute in Australia and wrote the amazing How Brands Grow.  It advises marketers on the basis of what actually works (and what doesn’t).  His data doesn’t actively promote older consumers as a valuable target, but seems to say it implicitly.

Watching the emerging bromance between Byron and Bob has been fascinating – they are so different, and yet so similar.

One fights (largely) with the trusty sword of creativity and the power of imagination, and the other with the trusty shield of empirical data.  One swears, the other proves. (We are put in mind of romantic Hector and dispassionate Irwin from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys). Rather than be distracted by the pizazz of advertising, or by ivory tower academic theories, they both care about the bottom line… sales: what actually matters.

And they are effective because they tell the truth in an entertaining way, just like television, the advertising medium that both value the most.

Ad Contrarian (front), Marketing Scientist (back): Two approaches, one vehicle.

Ad Contrarian (front), Marketing Scientist (back): Two approaches, one vehicle, coming over the horizon, like a miniature cavalry, to help marketers.

What the media world needs, and given its core audience what the television industry really needs to be putting some serious money into, is research to show how to a) mobilise older consumers through creative programmes and advertising, b) the case studies and data to prove that such an effort would be worthwhile to advertisers.

It’s awkward though. In my first job in TV, at CBS in New York, I helped put together a sales pitch for daytime TV – yes it had an old audience, but so what, they had money to spend. Even in 1989 it felt like a dangerous point to prove because sentiment in media is so skewed to the young.  No medium wants to be labelled as old unless it can prove that this is a good thing and force change.

So the enormous older audience to TV is the elephant in the room because broadcasters are reluctant to risk talking about it, even though there’s really nothing to be embarrassed about.

The truth is starting to catch on.  The launch Editorial director of London Live, Stefano Hatfield went straight from overseeing an unnecessarily youthful channel, to editor-in-chief for a website aimed at over-50s.  It took me four years to go from MTV to working at BBC News while his conversion took a few days.

But this feels like just the start…   the elephant in the room is not only big and grey, it can’t be ignored any longer.


How Old can be Gold