Group takes aim at stereotypes of elderly

August 20, 1993|By Jane Glenn Haas | Jane Glenn Haas,Orange County Register

Who's that giggling at the TV spots with the addlepated senior digging in to a Grand Slam breakfast at Lenny's -- er, Denny's?

Is it some 30ish ad exec who forgot his pacifier?

It sure isn't the over-50 crowd -- the folks Denny's wants to pack cheek to cheek into its leatherette-covered booths.

Older consumers say they don't identify with ads featuring deafening shouts of "Where's the beef?" or ditzes who don't know where they are, or anything that equates age with constipation.

"Seniors are just as smart as anybody else," says Marti Kent, 61, of Yorba Linda, Calif. "And most of us are pretty active, too."

"We aren't going to keep our mouths shut anymore," says Ken Caines, 66, of Orange, Calif. "Our money and our time are valuable."

Ms. Kent and Mr. Caines are co-chairmen of PLAN (PrimeLife Advisory Network), acknowledged nationally as the first advisory board of 50-plus consumers focusing on how mature adults are portrayed in advertising, public relations and marketing campaigns.

For the past three months, Ms. Kent and Mr. Caines have joined 20 other volunteer 50-plus consumers in two-hour sessions analyzing, critiquing and sometimes trashing advertising designed to pry dollars from retirees' wallets.

Madison Avenue appears to be listening.

"The 50-plus market is different, and advertisers are just starting to examine it," says Ann Cooper, writer for Adweek, a national advertising-industry magazine.

"They are just realizing that it is very different from their concept of the senior market. It's very segmented into different ages and interests."

Frank Conaway has been trying to deliver that same message.

"We have had to educate the business community about this market," says Mr. Conaway, 50, head of PrimeLife, an Orange-based ad agency focusing on 50-plus consumers.

PLAN is Mr. Conaway's concept.

"Everything you read says wait until the baby boomers get older. Well, everyone who says that is ignoring -- and losing -- a huge market of the already-mature."

The advertising industry began to pay attention in July.

Adweek featured PLAN opinions as part of a July 19 feature on marketing to 50-plus consumers. The group "is the only one in the nation ready to critique advertising," Ms. Cooper says.

Not bad exposure for a project only 3 months old.

Mr. Conaway expects to add more seniors to the group, eventually developing a list of people who can react on plans to build senior housing, expand a senior center or add attractions at theme parks, for example.

Mr. Conaway also has taken small steps toward turning his concept into a national venture, working toward a list of 1,000 to 2,000 50-plus consumers in all states that he can call, write or contact to get regional opinions on ads, marketing concepts and new products.

In 1990, the over-50 population in the United States had reached 63.5 million people, Adweek reported.

"By 2000, with baby boomers joining the fray, that figure is expected to hit 76.4 million. These mature consumers are not only the wealthiest members of American society, they're also living longer and thinking younger," according to Adweek.

You'd never know that by watching television or reading magazines, Mr. Conaway says.

"I think the mature market is probably the least researched of any," he says.

Mr. Conaway is building a legion of supporters.

"You listen to us," said Claire Klemme, 70, of Lake Forest, Calif., at a recent advisory board meeting. "It's just terrific, to be asked."

PLAN meetings usually draw about 20 people, ranging in age from the 50s to the 90s.

The heart of the July meeting was a critique session of print ads -- most of them from Modern Maturity, the publication of the American Association of Retired Persons. Many of its ads fall far short of meeting the needs or piquing the interest of their intended audience, PLAN participants say.

Even Mr. Conaway was surprised when the focus group endorsed an ad for an Alzheimer's caretaking facility.

"Is it all right to come out with it? To talk about the fact that you may have to face dealing with Alzheimer's as you get older?" Mr. Conaway asked.

"Well, you have to face things. You can't evade life when you get older," Ms. Klemme said.

Mr. Conaway says he is building a fresh business with advertisers who realize they can no longer evade that their market is aging.

Among PrimeLife clients are the Hilton Hotels Honors System and hospitals in locations such as Cincinnati.

His advisory board is doing special projects, such as an excursion this month to Universal Studios, where the 50-plus crowd will take the tour and visit the new City Walk mall. The board also has been tapped to critique the packaging of prescription drugs.

"It takes time to build this business," he says. "Most ads for this age group are still written by younger people."

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