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Isabella Rossellini was 43 when Lancôme told her that it no longer wanted her as the face of the brand because she was too old. Twenty years later, the cosmetics house has rehired her. This year, aged 65, she will star in a major new campaign.
It is a pleasing story. Lancôme was willing to admit it made a mistake in letting Ms Rossellini go. And the actress showed evident delight at the client’s about turn. “They tell me my name comes up in their market research still,” she said. “And now I am new again!”
The episode is another step in the slow progress the marketing industry has made in coming to terms with the fact that old people exist, and in great and growing numbers. For decades, marketers skewed campaigns towards a young demographic — roughly speaking, people in their twenties. This emphasis made sense in the 1950s and 1960s, when the populations of industrialised countries were much younger and disposable incomes were on the rise.
Today, almost the only people with a lot of money to spend are over 60. The young are squeezed between the necessity of saving for a mortgage that may be permanently out of reach, and slow wage growth.
Yet even now, many marketers are still myopically focused on reaching millennials. If you think there must be a reason for this, you may be placing too much faith in the capacity of marketers to think clearly. When outsiders criticise the tactics employed by advertisers, they often assume the industry is run on a set of semi-secret, quasi-scientific principles. From Vance Packard’s 1957 polemic The Hidden Persuaders, to the current fuss over the methodology of data analysis group Cambridge Analytica, we tend to think that brands are marketed with brutal efficiency. Anyone who has worked in the industry knows this to be a flattering calumny.
In truth, most marketers are well-meaning people who make decisions based on a mixture of guesswork, unexamined assumptions and inherited rules of thumb. One of those rules has been that brands should focus on youthful consumers as “the future of the business”. Older consumers have already formed their buying habits — and anyway, why target people who are soon going to be dead?
This may have made sense when turning 40 meant you were well into the second half of your life. But these days retirees have long futures too, and many empty days to fill with shopping. As the industry expert Bob Hoffman has pointed out, Americans aged 75 and over will buy more new cars than those aged between 18 and 35. You would not guess this from looking at car ads.
The other reason for this outdated obsession with youth is even simpler: most people in advertising are either young or wish to believe that they remain so. We spend most of our time with each other. Other than visiting grandparents, few of us spend much time with older generations. Old age is like Czechoslovakia to Neville Chamberlain: a far away country about which we know nothing.
As populations age, this is bad for business. But marketers should be curious about the old because they should be curious about all their consumers. The idea that brands should target certain age groups is itself dubious. The difference between a 65-year old Londoner who shops at Liberty and a woman of the same age living in Bavaria or Detroit is far greater than the gap between either and her children.
In interviews, Ms Rossellini seems blissfully uninterested in talking about her age. She has no interest in recapturing her youth, or pretending to the wisdom of elders. She is just a woman who likes clothes, make-up, documentaries and organic food. Maybe marketers should worry less about “reflecting” their supposed audience in ads, and more about making products that appeal to as many people as possible. Good stuff never gets old.
The writer is an advertising strategist and author of ‘Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It’