Age is Just a Number

17 January 2013 | Blog

Back in December, Les Moonves and Irwin Gotlieb went head-to-head on whether the target demographic should be updated or not. 18-49 has long been the purported magic bucket for many advertisers. Moonves, however, objected—as Weisler Media reported, “his opinion is that it is time that 50 year olds get recognized because they have more buying power than 18-49 year olds.” It’s a trend that’s only going to accelerate as the bulk of the Boomers continue to move out of the magic bracket. Perhaps their parents did not wield much influence in the marketplace, but Boomers continue to have strong brand opinions, large financial resources, and a tendency to chase the next shiny thing, even if they’ve aged out of the limits that used to traditionally define buying power. Moonves suggests changing the target to 25-54 to follow the demographic shift.

Gotlieb, on the other hand, believes that 18-49 continues to be the most influential bracket, not because of who is actually included, but because that is the age everyone wants to be: “where a 12 year old aspires to be like a 17 year old and a 65 year old aspires to be a 40 year old.” It’s not a bad point—most Boomers share a strong desire not be treated as ‘old.’ Marketing to a younger demographic may well continue to sweep up their elders in their attempts to still feel young and relevant. If Boomers still picture themselves as belonging to that 18-49 bracket (regardless of what their mirrors may be trying to tell them), then perhaps advertising aimed at that bracket will still feel relevant to them.

But it’s the relevance that’s key. Advertisers just want their ads to reach the people who might actually buy their product, regardless of what year they were born. This is why the entire demographic debate is a distraction. The demographic brackets were devised back when we didn’t have anything better to work with. Now, we do. Better data makes it possible to look for the correct audiences for an ad based on more relevant data; on lifestyle, including purchase habits and content consumption. If a skateboard enthusiast is receptive to energy drink ads, does it really matter if that person is 15 or 30 or 68? In a recent Ad Age article “It’s Time to Kill the Day-Part in TV Advertising”,  Dave Morgan points out that “[c]urrent data tells us that day-parts are no longer the primary descriptors of the types of viewers or shows or scales of audiences on TV today.”  While it used to be possible to predict audience demographics just from the time of day alone, the old days of housewives in the daytime/family viewing in prime time have passed. The old categories just don’t make sense anymore, and that traditional age block is among the worst offenders.

In a way, Moonves and Gotlieb are both right. Advertisers cannot afford to continue to ignore potential customers just because of age, and customers’ chronological age matters far less than the age they identify with. The solution is not to tinker with age definitions, though—the solution is to meet the customers where they actually are, and identify them by characteristics that are more relevant than a birthday.