In a column in the Sunday Times recently, actress and comedienne Meera Syal, commenting on the lack of decent roles for women of a certain age, said: “It is the supreme irony that once a woman really comes into her own – sexually, emotionally, financially, ripe with wisdom and wit – in TV Land, we become invisible.”
Syal should take comfort from the fact that TV Land is not the only media enclave that shuts down at the thought of an older woman. Meryl Streep has long complained about decent roles getting rarer as she gets older. If you are a 25-year-old woman, the variety of magazines to choose from is confusing, if you are 45, the shelf is practically bare.
But, certainly in publishing terms, this looks set to change. The idea of the “grown-up woman” is gaining currency in the publishing industry which, when it comes to women’s magazines, has not experienced any significant circulation growth in the past ten years.
This lack of growth shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s all to do with demographics. The median age of women across Europe is 37. In this country, 32 per cent of the population is over 50, and in 20 years time every second person will be over 50. This year, 48 per cent of the female population will be 40 or over.
The fact is, those magazines which aim squarely at 18-35-year-olds are seeing their market getting older before their eyes, and they are not being replaced in equal numbers. Nor are the magazines evolving to keep hold of these readers. There are fewer and fewer women, numerically, who want to read about sex, how to get a man, and what to do to ensure your dress size never rises above the age of a young child.
The grown-up woman banner has been taken up by National Magazines, which has pulled together research, from various sources as well as its own Good Housekeeping Grown Up Beauty Research, that proves that older women have significant purchasing and decision-making power, and advertisers are ignoring them at their peril.
The recently installed editor of Good Housekeeping Lindsay Nicholson says that during the first 18 years of her 20-year career in magazines, the constant mantra was there is no point marketing to older people.
“It was thought that once you reach a certain age you are set in your ways and have already established certain patterns of living. That has turned out to be completely flawed. For my 40th birthday, I went out and bought myself a Porsche,” says Nicholson.
So what is forcing people to think differently? It is largely the impact of the Baby Boom generation who, having revolutionised each of the life stages from teenagers to 30-somethings, is now looking at what is available for them in media terms. As far as many women are concerned, they are not happy with what they see.
Nicholson says: “It’s a painful truth that what changes attitudes is money.”
Every woman knows that she has more money at her disposal in her 40s, even with a family in tow, than she did in her early 20s. A report called Tomorrow’s Women, produced by Demos, reflects on the spending power of women: “As consumers, women may have more power than they realise. Women have long been more confident and capable purchasers of basic household items and food than men, largely due to experience.”
The Demos report also refers to Gail Sheehy’s book New Passages where she suggests that women are increasingly developing new interests and identities later in life.
Why then are publishers and advertisers incapable of addressing this obviously powerful market with any intelligence?
Mainly because it is difficult. Sue Tibballs is a communications strategist specialising in gender issues and corporate responsibility. She has just produced a report for design consultants Bamber Forsyth called The Sexual Renaissance: Making Sense of Our Sex in a New Era. She takes issue with advertisers who ignore older women, but also those who try to address this market and fail.
“Take handbag.com, for example,” she says. “Its advertising campaign shows a woman standing in what looks like the Highlands under the line ‘A Woman is lost without her Handbag’. Why? Is her brain in it?
“Its conception of what it is to be female is not based on reality but on the mythical female borne out of advertising and now resident chiefly in women’s magazines. You know the lady in question. All fashion, make-up, cellulite-free, looking good in the office and being bad in bed. We may all dip in and out of daft women’s magazines, but I don’t imagine many of us think they reflect and express life as we know it.”
Nicholson adds: “Advertisers and editors get this market wrong because they are much more difficult to speak to than a younger female audience. A woman in her 40s could be a grandmother, on her first marriage with children, in a second marriage, or single. You can’t pigeonhole her.”
But even if advertisers have not yet discovered the rich seams that can be mined from this market, some publishers have. IPC is relaunching Nova, probably the original grown-up women’s magazine; the BBC is working on Project Urma, what it calls a grown-up women’s magazine; Gruner & Jahr is working on a magazine to be called Vital; Eve Pollard’s Parkhill Publishing is launching Aura; and the US magazine success In Style is soon to launch a UK edition.
But will these magazines be able to convince advertisers to play ball? Ex-Cosmopolitan editor Marcelle D’Argy Smith is doubtful. She said in the Evening Standard recently: “Everyone’s known this, but as most male-dominated advertising agencies and beauty companies don’t want to talk to someone they don’t want sex with, it’s practically impossible to attract a good enough volume of ad pages.”
D’Argy Smith believes there is a desperate need for a magazine for women who have been around the block. “Women need a magazine which reflects their lives,” she says, but adds: “It’s not an easy call, however, and these magazines will be sitting alongside Cosmopolitan and Elle, which are crammed with ads.”
D’Argy Smith accuses advertisers, and particularly cosmetics companies, of bullying magazines and unduly influencing editorial content. “The managing directors of the big four cosmetics companies push women’s magazines around. These companies have staff whose job it is to count up how often their products are mentioned editorially – if they don’t think it’s enough they telephone the publisher and complain.
“If magazines for older women are going to succeed in terms of advertising, it is going to take someone in marketing who is sophisticated enough to think outside the confines of their marketing department.”
Of course the irony can’t be lost on D’Argy Smith that during her editorship of Cosmopolitan she turned the desire to know about sex, fashion and beauty into an art form. But like her readers, she has moved on and wants something different and is having difficulty finding it.
Myth:Older women are not brand promiscuous and will stay brand loyal.
Fact:Grown-up and younger women do have their main brands but they also experiment with other brands, especially skincare products and fragrance;
Younger women are just as likely as older women to have been using the same brands for years.
Myth:Older women do not spend much on cosmetics and do not buy a variety of products.
Fact:Grown-up women are spending more on cosmetics and do buy a variety of products;
Grown-up women are less influenced by free gifts than younger women;
Grown-up women are more likely to believe in the importance of taking more care of their skin after the age of 30.
Myth:Older women are not influenced by trends.
Fact:Grown-up women are more likely than younger women to change their make-up colours and products to adapt to changes in their skin (66 per cent compared with 51 per cent).
Myth: Older women are less influenced by marketing and advertising.
Fact:Grown-up women cite magazine advertising as the main source of finding out about beauty products, closely followed by magazine editorial features.
Source: Good Housekeeping Grown Up Beauty Research