No fool like a young fool when it comes to the old greys test

The ad industry is at its wits’ end as to how to market to the old boys and biddies and their 80% hold on the consumer purse. Try employing a few…

Cartoon-5-3-07.gifAs the population ages, the generation gap is becoming a gulf. Older people look with bafflement at the young and marvel that so many could be so tone deaf; the young look at the old and are astonished that anyone over the age of 50 can tie a shoelace let alone use a computer.

The mutual incomprehension is a function of numbers. When old people could be relied upon to hand in their dinner pails without standing upon the order of their going, the presence of those few remaining passed largely unnoticed. But now the blighters are everywhere: strolling the streets, driving cars, ducking in and out of shops, working out at the gym, trekking the Serengeti, and generally blowing the children’s inheritance with shameless wantonness.

Advertisers have dimly perceived this phenomenon, the so-called grey pound, but have yet to devise a satisfactory means of wresting it from liver-spotted hands. Every creative director knows that the over-50s – currently 20 million strong and growing fast – hold 80% of the nation’s wealth; the problem is how to reach this market: according to Age Concern, two-thirds of elderly consumers think that advertising portrays them negatively. This is hardly surprising when advertising is a young person’s game; live beyond the age of 40 in an agency and you become of historic interest. This preponderance of youth has two effects: first, much of advertising is juvenile, especially the humour, and second, when it is necessary to reach out to older people you hire June Whitfield.

Since young creative people have no idea what it is to be old until it’s too late and they are old, agencies should hire more mature people. In doing so they ought not to fear either a lack of vigour or a slowness of wit. Encouraging examples abound. Consider Sir Ranulph Fiennes who, at the age of 59 and after heart surgery, had the courage to run seven marathons, in seven continents, in seven days and now, at the age of 62, has the fortitude to climb the north face of the Eiger; or deputy prime minister John Prescott, who in his 60s had the courage to punch a constituent in the eye and the fortitude to put his hand up his secretary’s skirt.

The most astonishing case of all, though, and one which should have every creative director thinking again about the phenomenon of age, is Buster Martin, who at 100 years of age, is Britain’s oldest working man. And ‘working’ means not just that his eyes open and shut but that he turns up five days a week to valet a fleet of vehicles for Pimlico Plumbers.

Since making his first appearance in the national press last autumn, Buster has continued to delight and astonish the nation. The facts of his life, as recounted by him, are these/ he was born in France in 1906 but came to England and was brought up in an orphanage run by nuns in Cornwall; they put him out to work at the age of five and threw him out at the age of ten for "eating too much and growing too fast"; he moved to London to work in Brixton market, joined the Army at the age of 15, the same year in which he fathered the first of his 17 children; he rose to the rank of sergeant major, and then switched to a long career in the Navy; after that it was back to Brixton market until the age of 97; retirement proving too boring he took up his present job of car washing.

If all this sounds a little – how shall we put it? – far-fetched, perhaps it is, but you cannot fault its creativity. Buster Martin is a living urban myth and of his own making. As each new journalist, young, wide-eyed and moist behind the ears, turns up at his door eager to glean yet more information from the wondrously animated and self-proclaimed centenarian, he is happy to oblige. Thus we learn that he eats a full English breakfast, does press-ups in the morning, smokes like a trooper, drinks beer, jogs down the stairs at work, and trains twice a week at a boxing club. Recently, on his way home from a night at the pub, he thrashed three young muggers, "I pushed one and kung fu-kicked the other one between the legs. They ran off scared." They should have read the cuttings. Only weeks before he had told the BBC: "The last proper fight I had was when I was 92 and some young fella tried to mug me. He came off worse. I had to go to the hospital to visit him."

That’s the trouble with the young, they never learn.

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