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Boomer Ads Demand Intricate Playbook: Target Life Stages, Not Ages; Avoid Nostalgia Trap

Selling mutual funds to the nation's largest and deepest-pocketed demographic, or those 77 million Baby Boomers with spending power of more than $1 trillion, would seem so easy. Just portray a bunch of 50-something actors in a variety of exciting lifestyle environments, cue a favorite rock-and-roll anthem from the 1960s and then deliver the marketing pitch.

Not so fast, experts say.

Marketing to a group of people as broadly aged, as large in numbers and as varied in personalities as the Boomer generation demands a strategy that's far from formulaic. For starters, the assumptions that marketers might make about a 60-year-old Boomer from Gary, Ind., would likely differ greatly from those that could be made about a 42-year-old Boomer from Greenwich, Conn.

And while some Boomers are ready to embrace the slower pace of retirement, others are gearing up for what could be the busiest days of their lives.

"There's just no typical 55-year-old," said Matt Thornhill, founder and president of The Boomer Project, a Richmond, Va.-based marketing research and consulting company. "Some are retiring, some are starting a new business, some are empty nesters, some have kids in college, and some have young children."

Therefore, marketers should target Boomers not by their age, but by their life stage, suggested Thornhill, a former Madison Avenue advertising executive whose work combines psychological, sociological and anthropological research.

In fact, he added, most Boomers feel about 14 years younger than their actual age. They're extremely optimistic, too, as they came of age during a time of relative peace and economic calm in America. That means a successful marketing campaign would likely combine 40-ish-looking actors and a positive message that's emotionally appealing.

It also means, conversely, that marketers shouldn't try to scare Boomers into action.

"They will not pay attention to negativity," Thornhill said, recalling a recent campaign from St. Louis broker Edward Jones that depicted a man leaving home in a snowstorm, clutching his briefcase and clad in Bermuda shorts and sandals. The message was that not planning for retirement doesn't make much sense, either. "It's exactly the kind of ad to avoid - negative image, negative message. A double-negative and imminently ignorable."

A new study from Deloitte & Touche in New York would seem to confirm Thornhill's theory. According to "Wealth with Wisdom: Serving the Needs of Aging Consumers," Boomers have long fought against advertising and cultural stereotypes of aging that depict older Americans as frail, burdensome or disagreeable. Boomers, the study says, are focused on products, services and information that speak to their search for healthy lifestyles, diet, exercise, comfort and image.

"We already see advertising pointing to different aspirations and lifestyles, from the material to the spiritual," said Ajit Kambil, a research leader at Deloitte.

That's because as people age, Deloitte observes in its study, they undergo psychological changes in several areas, including cognitive capability. In particular, an aging person's memory and information processing capabilities can change, which can impact various cognitive processes underlying brand awareness, attitude formation, information searches, comparison of alternatives, point-of-purchase behavior and post-purchase satisfaction.

Among the changes to a person's information processing capabilities is a noticeable decline in their ability to ignore "noise," or irrelevant stimulus, the study says, whether it's visual, aural, tactile or language-related. In other words, as some people age, their ability to tune out catchy visuals or audio and hone in on the marketing message is greatly compromised.

Kambil said a current commercial from Ameriprise Financial is "suggestive" of how to effectively seize a Boomer's attention without relying on noisy stimuli.

Part of an integrated campaign from the New York advertising house Saatchi & Saatchi, the spot doesn't use actors. Instead, it goes for the realism hook by featuring stories from everyday Boomers that exemplify individuality and distinction. Boomers are portrayed enjoying a wide variety of spirited lifestyles, from surfing to gliding, as "Gimme Some Lovin'" from the Spencer Davis Group plays.

Launched last fall as Ameriprise transitioned from American Express Advisors, officials said it highlights the fact that financial planning is about the individual and that the Minneapolis firm has a unique strategy for each person's retirement goals.

Thornhill gives the spot a "thumbs-up" for portraying Boomers differently than previous generations over 50, but offers a "thumbs-down" for pandering to the audience.

"All the commercial does is hold up a mirror to Boomers and say, Aren't you great? And since we're saying so, don't you think we're great, too?'" he said.

In addition, Thornhill said the Ameriprise commercial further reveals a tendency among financial services companies - he also cites recent spots from Allianz, Wachovia and Lincoln Financial - where a disconnect exists between the companies' marketing department and the sales and distribution department.