A pointless irrelevance or a significant factor? Even women employed in marketing are divided over the importance of age when it comes to effective advertising.
Age can be crucial to brand perception – so women in their late-30s or over know almost instinctively which brands are for people older or younger than themselves. However, for many mature women these are limited to products such as spot cream and teenage magazines at one end of the scale and lavender-scented talcum powder and crimplene trousers at the other.
Lowe Direct account planning director Fiona Blades speaks for many older women when she says: “I will write off certain brands if I think they’re aimed at my mum’s generation.”
For brands to appeal to mature women, the consensus is that ads need to be subtle and sophisticated.
Coley Porter Bell managing director Amanda Connolly says: “A magazine such as Red is meant to be targeted at our age group – but if we’re told something is aimed at us it can be off-putting. There are articles that seem interesting, but the magazine as a whole feels a bit manufactured.
“In the past, there has been a lot of talk about trying to appeal to older people. But if you say a product is for an older or more mature woman, it immediately makes you think it will be old and frumpy. And the reality is it often is old and frumpy. Women are aspirational, but ads still need to be real and honest.”
Blades adds: “Images of older women in ads don’t work for me unless they are aspirational and you’re relating to things other than their age – their achievements or personality.
“So putting Madonna or Cherie Blair in an ad could work because of what they’ve achieved, not because of their looks.”
For some older women ads lack the depth needed to reflect a growing seriousness in their life. Connolly says: “Having a baby changed my life. Now so much marketing and advertising seems superficial, and it doesn’t have anything to do with my life. I subscribed to Vogue for years but now it seems full of young, thin 20-somethings and very superficial and one-dimensional. Today, my life is richer and multifaceted. I want something that feels more real.
“Likewise, in terms of beauty products, I want something that will work, that doesn’t try too hard, that is pared down and simple. I’ve just changed my cosmetic brand to Aveda, which offers that realness.”
While Connolly complains that too many brands lack the depth to appeal to such women, MindShare chief executive Mandy Pooler goes one step further and argues that advertisers’ insecurities about how to reach this sophisticated group of women have left ads in a time-warp.
She says: “In the self-purchase categories, such as toiletries and cosmetics, I find myself singularly unmoved by commercials because the same images appear time after time. They may be of high calibre and beautifully shot, but they haven’t moved on in ten years.”
Pooler suggests the reason for this rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights stance is confusion about how to develop a new approach. She says: “In the main, advertisers seem understandably disoriented (as, indeed, are many men) about what women my age, about 40, are about now. With so many women marrying later, having children later, and having lots of freedom and income, it is hard to pigeonhole us or pin us down.”
The variety of roles that women have in society today is perhaps what makes them particularly hard to categorise. Blades says: “As a consumer, I behave differently in certain roles and at different times of the day. I often don’t think of myself as a woman, and certainly not as a woman of a particular age. You’re as young as you feel and you respond according to your mood, not your age.
“The old distinctions are becoming blurred. There is no point in your life where you say: ‘Oh, now it’s time to put on a tweed skirt.’ For example, when I go to the cinema I want to see ads targeted at young people; I want to feel part of the experience with the rest of the audience.”
Connolly adds: “Advertisers need to appeal to different sides of a woman’s character. You can go from being efficient at work to playing with your children, to going out with the girls and being a bit frivolous and silly. Advertisers can miss aspects of a woman’s character by going down one path.”
This plethora of roles mature women choose to play puts limits on their time, so life becomes a juggling act between home, family, friends and work.
Ironically, this lack of time makes it harder for marketers to target them. Pooler illustrates the problem: “It’s all about time. Ten years ago I would have used certain women’s magazines for a fashion boost, to update myself. Now I get all that from national newspapers – as well as current affairs, hobbies and business news. That undermines my need to buy a woman’s magazine.”
However, some older women don’t think marketers should waste time worrying about appealing to women of different ages. M T Rainey, chief executive of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, is particularly vociferous on this point: “I don’t think of myself as older and different, and needing special treatment. I’m not at all interested in this subject; this is a red herring of an issue.”
There is a degree of consensus over one series of ads which does work: Gap’s. The women interviewed felt the ads had movement and charm that reflected what it is like when you walk into one of the stores.The ads feature different expressions, but what gels them is the colour and movement. The focus is on the brand – there isn’t a woman playing out a role. The ad works because they identify consumer needs but at the same time reflect the more exciting parts of their life.
While Gap may be winning plaudits, too few brands are following its lead. Competition is vital to move sectors out of a rut. Pooler says: “It takes one ad in a category to stick its head above the parapet before anything changes. First Direct, Tango and Orange did it. Now Gap and French Connection are doing it in the fashion category.”
It is clear too many advertisers have limited perceptions of women. They either feel they need to define markets by the specific roles women play or through age brackets, which imposes inevitable limitations on the reach and scope of ads.
The message from older women in marketing is to forget these traditional, and hugely confining, stereotypes and match attitudes with aspirations.