03.16.10

The Great Untapped 80-Something Market

We're here, we're old, and we're ready to spend. Syndicated columnist and Wowowow.com cofounder Liz Smith on why Madison Avenue ignores octogenarians at its own peril.

Nobody likes growing old, except when considering the alternative. I wish I were still the dewy, sexy, young thing who landed in New York fresh from the University of Texas back in 1949, asking, “Which way’s town?”

I found the heart of “town” and I’ve had a grand ride, but, incredibly, I grew older and older. I didn’t much like it, and I have endeavored heartily to “stay with it.” And now, I am advised—while still working at age 87—that I have a good actuarial chance of living and functioning for another 10 years.

All my life, the cycles of existence invariably passed to the more youthful among us. Unlike the Chinese, we Americans have always worshipped youth, beauty, energy, and sexuality, and somehow I sense we always will.

Click Here to Read About Other Octogenarians Rocking Our World

Madison Avenue, in its advertising heyday (and still), continues to cherish the demographic of appealing only to the young to establish future buying choices as they grow up. Television, growing older itself, still makes a big distinction between the desired viewer’s age and what they have inherited—a geriatric audience that is an advertising bonanza of health aids, Viagra, erectile dysfunction, etc. (The joke the children of pre-high school age now make is invariably about the latter—kids know it’s funny even if they don’t know exactly what it is.)

The collapsing print media might manage to survive if it forgot the youth demographic and concentrated on older readers who still like to hold books and magazines in their hands. This goes double for newspapers, still giving us youth, beauty, and unknowns, while the youthful, beautiful, and unknown wouldn’t look at a newspaper if they got it free. They simply don’t.

Maybe old age will grow upon and dawn upon the demographic lovers of youth advertising. Maybe they’ll eventually get the picture that for the next 10 or 20 years, at least, they are stuck with a flood of us geezers.

I do see a little movement in a more realistic direction. Dr. James Ausman and his wife, Carolyn, ages 72 and 71, have, according to Variety, started producing a half-hour lifestyle program through a public TV station, KVCR in San Bernardino. It has picked up more than 100 PBS outlets.

The 13-episode series, The Leading Gen, deals with everything from health to finance and is targeted at those aged 40 to 100. Dr. Ausman asks, “How do you educate someone over 40? They don’t go to school and they don’t like lectures, but they do watch lots of television.” When the Ausmans shopped their idea to Hollywood talent agencies, they were told it couldn’t be sold. But it has sneaked in past what columnist Brian Lowry calls “the media’s blind eye toward older Americans.”

Not that Western civilization has never embraced the mythical Inuit practice of leaving the old out on an ice floe. Betty White has just been invited to host the pointedly youthful Saturday Night Live. And we were diverted last year by a vibrant Cloris Leachman cavorting on Dancing With the Stars and being a super-good sport, still talking about sex at 83. The other day, the last living star of Gone With the Wind, Olivia de Havilland, now living in Paris, put herself on Facebook at age 94.

I won’t even name the late-sixties, seventies, and eighties people I know who are still running the world because they are everywhere and many of them, yesterday’s tycoons, are still at the peak of their games. The other day I heard that David Rockefeller, 94, still exercises three days a week, is building a yacht which he won’t see completed for at least two years, and is begging his pals to travel with him on an around-the-world tour.

And, just before Kitty Hart cooled in all her beauty at age 96, I read recently that my pal, Warren Beatty, was interested in adding Kitty to his collection. (I, myself, run with people much younger and seek them out avidly. I like youth and beauty and auras of sexual possibility as much as the next person.)

In 2009, 78 million Baby Boomers retired, swelling the ranks of the elderly, who are now omnipresent. We are everywhere, with our walkers, our face lifts, our slow exercising, our sports sneakers, and I’m afraid you kiddies and all the celebrity names on Page Six (that I personally don’t recognize) are stuck with us.

I think if I had a business, I’d establish it by aiming at this growing group. I could count on about 20 years of catering to this possibly debilitated but still buying class. We are trying to keep up, and adventurous souls could cash in by helping us since they can’t get rid of us.

But I’m a realist. I know those of us with one foot in the grave (tapping, but there!) are going to be around for a while. Some of us have quite a bit of money to spend; others are less affluent but still consumers. Whatever we are, we are your customers and your audience.

So you’d better pay some attention to us—as buyers of your wares, if not as inspirations.

Liz Smith is a syndicated columnist and the cofounder of Wowowow.com.