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The Art of Empowerment Marketing
Old-school inadequacy marketing is still aimed at older people. It’s even less effective than on younger people
Hello, and welcome to Longevity Gains!
First up … the podcast is on hiatus this week. As some of you know, my wife was in Israel when the war with Hamas broke out. She’s home safe as of last Wednesday, but it required an 8-hour trek from Jerusalem across the border to Jordan and a rebooked flight out of Amman to make it happen after four tense days.
So, the regular production schedule has fallen a bit behind, but we’ll have a new episode for you next week. In the meantime, I’ve temporarily unlocked one of our recent Premium lessons for everyone:
Who Do You Think You’re Talking To?
To better serve older consumers, you must understand them better than they understand themselves. The counterintuitive way to do that is to start with you.
Make sure to leave a comment and tell me what you think, or ask any questions. Thanks!
The Irony of Inadequacy Marketing to Older Consumers
In the final chapter of our free Longevity Fundamentals ebook, I contrasted old-school inadequacy marketing with the more positive (and powerful) empowerment marketing that’s become the norm since the rise of the internet and a shift in psychological findings:
Along with the rise of the internet and social media, there has been a concurrent shift in the psychological philosophy behind most marketing. Empowerment marketing is based on principles of positive psychology — a discipline focused on meaning and satisfaction instead of addressing weaknesses and abnormalities. In contrast, inadequacy marketing was the norm in the days when Freudian abnormal psychology held massive influence over marketers of the last century.
And then I revealed the exception – older people. Except for the majority of the time when they’re simply ignored, older consumers are still marketed to with inadequacy messages:
However, the limited amount of marketing and advertising that’s aimed at older people seems hopelessly mired in that 20th-century Freudian style. And the reason is simple – we've been culturally trained to view older people as inherently inadequate. From this perspective, getting older is not about living; it’s about a series of problems that must be solved or, more likely, simply managed until one mercifully departs this mortal coil.
But here’s the irony. This negative form of marketing and advertising is even less effective on older people than the rest of the population. That’s because as we get older, our brains (specifically the amygdala, the area of the brain that consolidates emotion and memory) are less responsive to negativity than the brains of younger people.
In The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, author Jonathan Rauch cites the science:
That would help explain experiments finding that older people are more likely than young people to focus their attention on happy faces than on negative or sad ones; that they are more attentive to positive memories; that older adults’ brains, when observed in MRI machines, show comparatively less neural responsiveness to negative stimuli and less encoding of negative material.
Now factor in a healthy older person with positive attitudes about aging. These type of people are not only unpersuaded by inadequacy, they’ll actively punish your brand:
Not only are Americans over 55 more likely to feel misrepresented in advertising, but they’re also more likely to turn their backs on a product or service whose advertising neglects or portrays them in an objectionable way.
Also, never forget that although the slogan “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” entered the popular culture, it’s not because the message worked as intended. The advertised product was generally a failure.
The originator of both the device and the catchphrase went out of business in 1993 after only four years. Their successor was LifeAlert, a different company that resurrected the slogan for a similar product. Even then, the product failed to catch on beyond a direct marketing niche with the intended over-65 audience, because who wants to be associated with such a cringe indicator of age and impending mortality?
Meanwhile, the Apple Watch contains fall detection functionality and a whole lot more, marketed as an empowering asset to a healthy lifestyle. People over the age of 50 are one of Apple’s largest customer segments, and I expect that to grow – because Apple gets it.
If you’re interested in learning more about an empowerment approach, we’re continuing to work our way through the Empowerment Marketing Framework in Longevity Gains Premium. This week we’re exploring the different approaches to motivation that need to be accounted for when marketing to older consumers.
A Boomer Manifesto
70-year old Michael Clinton was the publisher of GQ magazine from 1988 to 1994, before becoming an executive at Condé Nast and later Hearst Magazines. He “retired” in 2020 (he’s still senior media advisor to the CEO of Hearst), only to release the book ROAR: Into the Second Half of Your Life (Before It's Too Late) in 2021 along with a complementary business.
So yes, expect Michael to be on the podcast soon. In the meantime, check out this intriguing essay Clinton wrote for Esquire that acts as a call to action for his fellow Baby Boomers. It’s chock full of illuminating attitudes about the new longevity, the perception of his generation, activism, and retirement.
For starters, Clinton addresses the massive amount of money the Boomers hold:
In America, more than 70 percent of all assets and wealth are held by people over fifty-five. That’s $92.3 trillion dollars. We came of age in a time and economy that allowed many of us to grow those assets, as we built our American dream. Not everyone had that good fortune, but for those who did, what is the plan?
As we discussed on the podcast episode with Bradley Schurman, Clinton believes that his generation should spend their money rather than hoarding it for future generations. In a twist, he thinks social activism is part of what that money should be spent on:
My suggestion is to stop obsessing about amassing and to also stop obsessing about leaving big inheritances to our children. We need to put that money to work for social impact now.
A big part of that activism has to do with changing the perception of aging, leading to a new intergenerational workforce that embraces older workers:
Seasoned employees can bring enormous value through mentoring and advising in all kinds of new work models. It also means that instead of moving people out in their 60’s, companies should find ways to retain people in that life stage with new kinds of assignments.
When it comes down to it, Clinton is calling on Boomers to set an example of what the “new longevity” looks like as the “new normal”:
Through us, future generations will see what the possibilities and choices are that can happen in the second half of their lives in new and exciting ways. As the saying goes, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” Maybe that is the final piece of our legacy of agitation.
Here’s one final reason to read the essay: Clinton is marketing to the intended audience for his new business. It’s a mix of empowerment and advocacy, and if you’re planning to make Baby Boomers your primary audience, this is a good place to start to get a sample of the attitudes that resonate with people over the age of 60.
The Rise of Gentelligence?
Speaking of an intergenerational workforce, I ran across this interesting piece by Megan Gerhardt, author of a book called Gentelligence: The Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergenerational Workforce. To get a feel for the big ideas, her Harvard Business Review article was just included in HBR’s 10 Must Reads for 2024:
Age-diverse teams are valuable because they bring together people with complementary abilities, skills, information, and networks. If managed effectively, they can offer better decision-making, more-productive collaboration, and improved overall performance — but only if members are willing to share and learn from their differences.
As I say, older people are people too. But to ignore the fact that people of different ages have different attitudes based on the time period they occupied is silly. At the same time, shared values are more unifying than people think, once you get past the different ways we may express them.
That’s all for now. See you next time!