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Ads Look Good, But Do They Hit Home?: Boomers Say High-Price Campaigns Miss The Mark

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.-Alice Smith is a Power Boomer. A 53-year-old Medicare specialist with a graduate degree, Smith has amassed a stash of cash for retirement, and has a husband with his own account.

When it comes time for the Smiths to roll their money out of their qualified retirement plans, mutual fund companies and other financial institutions will probably come clamoring, offering rollover products to help. Smith will be looking for the company that will offer her a sense of security-but that none has come close yet.

When she thinks about retirement, she gets a warm feeling, but it's not fuzzy, she said. "I can't tell whether it's hot flashes or anxiety," Smith quipped during a panel of regular folks at Financial Research Associates' IRA Rollover Retirement Summit here last week.

So all those ads depicting rosy retirements with silver-haired couples doing the cha-cha, or those set to 60s rock music showing retirees scaling mountains aren't resonating with Smith.

And she's not alone. Smith was one of five people age 50 or older on a six-person panel who said that for all their focus groups and advertising campaigns, financial services companies still fail to communicate with them.

"Instead of being slick, they've got to hit home," said Paul Grew, a 50-year-old just now starting a second career as a registered nurse.

Most fund companies' campaigns, Grew said, convey an image that ignores the reality that most Boomers approaching retirement don't really understand principles as basic as what a stock or a bond is, let along how a variable annuity might work. "I think they're missing the mark," Grew said.

The rollover retirement market is a big target to miss: $500 billion-a-year big, said Ron Bush, principal and co-founder of consulting firm Brightwork Partners in Stamford, Conn. And those numbers don't stop with the coming wave of Boomers. Gen-Xers aren't a small crowd, and are likely to have higher account balances since, unlike the Boomers, will have their entire working lives to save. The 401(k), after all, is only about 25 years old.

"This business is up for grabs in a way we've never seen," said David Macchia, president of Wealth2K, a financial services marketing firm in Hingham, Mass. Most companies are fumbling the opportunity, he said.

Without effective communication, companies risk alienating an investor class that is either too fearful or distrustful to act, or simply downright disengaged, Macchia said.

What investors want, is not "slick" ads or idyllic images, but basic education, better options and solutions that reflect their realities, panelists said.

"Don't show me what if, show me how," Smith said. What companies have been offering thus far is insufficient and confusing, panelists said.

In a survey of 600 so-called Power Boomers, or those over 50 with $100,000 to invest, 17% said they are confused by fund companies' communications, and they wished for simpler, clearer language, said Laura Varas, managing director of Mast Hill Consulting in Hingham, Mass., and a frequent collaborator with Boston-based Financial Research Corp. In the same survey, honesty and communications tied in terms of importance when earning Boomers' business, she said.

And that's a problem not only for Boomers, but for the companies vying for their business, Macchia said.

None of the conference panelists had a written financial plan, and none have worked with an adviser.

When asked how much of their portfolios they thought they should plan to spend in retirement, answers ranged from between 1% and 10%, to "I don't have a clue."

Such uncertainty may be one reason why so many retirees, when it finally does come to retirement, just cash out of their plans rather than roll over, Macchia said.

"They are going to other pastures that are not necessarily greener," Macchia said. "The value proposition [rollovers offer] is not being understood," he said.

Effective communication can affect investor behavior, Varas said. In a survey of 600 retirees and 600 Boomers approaching retirement, only half had sought professional advice, she said. Of those who did, half changed their portfolios significantly, with two-thirds investing more aggressively, she said.

But trust and uncertainty, for the most part, kept panelists frozen.

"I haven't had the time to do the research," said Grew of finding an adviser. "There's just too much terminology I'm not getting."

Don Simenson, a 57-year-old former Massachusetts state trooper, said he once sought the advice of a financial planner offered through his defined benefit plan. Despite the three term life insurance plans Simenson already held, the adviser spent an hour trying to sell him insurance. "My first experience sitting down with someone was bad," he said.