Sweeping aside old prejudices

An in-depth study of the way viewers spend their leisure time shows that TV companies underestimated the over-50s, says Claire Salmon

Of the many changes I have had to wrestle with in moving from advertiser to media owner – like having to totally reinvent my wardrobe, get a Freeview box and watch a lot more television – one of the most striking differences is the way commercial broadcasters measure audiences compared with the client world.

In previous jobs, the talk was always of hectic householders, carefree casuals or urban sophisticates. Arriving in TV-land I suddenly found myself talking about 16 to 34s, housewives with kids and ABC1s.

Of course, BARB is the currency in which we trade and is invaluable, but the segmentation work we have been doing at ITV recognises it is time for a view of the audience that takes into account attitudes as well as demographics. If you looked at classic BARB data, you’d find Michael Howard and Mick Jagger in the same bracket. Now, I could be wrong, but I would wager that the lifestyles, attitudes and consumer choices of those two might differ somewhat.

Is it useful to lump together a music-mad, MySpace-literate, broadband-loving teenager and a married 32-year-old accountant with a family and a passion for gardening? Is it realistic to assume that at 35 everyone trades in their Jimmy Choos for a pair of slippers? I think you get my point. The segmentation work developed at ITV has this principle at its core and is about challenging assumptions we have made about age and social class. In 18 months we have undertaken a study across 6,000 viewers to better understand their entertainment needs, looking not just at their viewing habits but their discretionary time as a whole. We needed to work out if we were competing for their attention with Sky One, the pub, an evening of yoga or championship mud wrestling. As a result, we can now group our audience in six broad segments based on their behaviour and attitudes to all their entertainment needs – not their age, class or gender.

The outcome is a highly predictive model where the answers to 20 attitudinal statements can give us a statistical probability of more than 90% in predicting viewing habits.

This information has been fused onto the BARB database to give us a much deeper understanding of the audiences we are selling to our advertisers. The data is also mapped onto TGI and other tools to identify which consumer brands our different segments have a propensity to buy.

As an industry, we have been guilty of making more sweeping assumptions about the over-50s than probably any other category: they slow down as they get older and are unwilling to try new products; they are mindlessly brand-loyal and reluctant to switch from tried and tested brands; they are wedded to "own-label" products and do not respond to advertising.

Research by MindShare for ITV disproves these assumptions. Over-50s have time pressures, too. Some 32% (source: TGI data, 2005) still work and those that do not are juggling new and increased leisure pursuits with holidays and travelling, looking after grandchildren and taking on voluntary work. Why wouldn’t they be interested in time-saving convenience products? According to TGI data, a high proportion of over-50s enjoy shopping, are willing to try new brands and love gadgets and appliances. They are very discerning, place high importance on quality and are likely to find an alternative if they unsatisfied.

If over-50s weren’t influenced by advertising, it’s unlikely that John Smith’s would have spent more than £2.5m on TV campaigns aimed largely at them. And advertising to this demographic doesn’t have to be the preserve of Stannah stairlifts and Saga holidays. Messages that respect experience and wisdom, and speak to people in an inclusive way, have the potential to be powerful.

Like anyone else, over-50s have interests and lifestyles that draw them closer to some people and further away from others. They, too, live fragmented lives, are suffering from technological overload and the increasing burden of choice. And they are reacting to the on-demand world by becoming more active, less passive.

It’s important to speak to this audience in a language they are comfortable with, but it doesn’t mean we should be treating them like a bunch of housebound oldies with no consumer needs beyond elastic-waisted trousers, health insurance and hearing aids. Maybe it is time to stop patronising this growing audience of technology-savvy, sophisticated and affluent over-50s and remember that they are human first and baby boomers second.

Clare Salmon is ITV’s director of marketing and commercial strategy. She will be speaking at Swinging 60s and Baby Boomers, November 7-9, London: www.60sbabyboomers.com