Ageism in Media Buying: The $4 Trillion Missed Opportunity

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By Danielle DeLauro, Executive Vice President at VAB

In today’s media landscape, a massive disconnect exists between the shifting U.S. population and many brands’ targeting priorities. The problem stems from the fundamentally ageist mindset that has dominated the marketing industry for decades now, and every year, it continues to cost brands more in missed opportunities.

Within the advertising world, there is an inherent stigma associated with targeting older consumers. Too often marketers believe their next job lies in reaching young, hip consumers rather than focusing on the customers that are going to translate to the most sales today. At the same time, the power and relevance of these older, often-ignored audiences are growing every single day, even as it relates to emerging product categories and direct-to-consumer business models.

Let’s take a look at what the data tells us about the reality of today’s consumer spending and how advertisers can unlock an additional $4 trillion in buying power by focusing instead on the buying power of audiences.

Outside the 25-54 Bubble

While many brands continue to fixate on younger demographics, they’re almost entirely ignoring the fast-growing 50+ segment. Within their media plans, advertisers are particularly obsessed with the 25-54 demo. However, if brands open their buys to all adults, they can immediately unlock access to nearly $4 trillion in annual buying power—about 45 percent of total U.S. spending. Most of that power sits with the 55+ crowd, which alone translates to $3.4 trillion in yearly spending.

What’s particularly interesting about the buying power of the 55+ crowd is not just its sheer size but how fast it’s grown—and is continuing to do so. Since 1999, 55+ consumers’ share of annual expenditures has grown 46 percent, translating to a $2 trillion increase in annual spending. That’s just in the past two decades. Indeed, this isn’t a demographic of waning importance; it’s an under-tapped and fast-growing consumer powerhouse across all product sectors.

Today’s 55+ crowd is working later into life than ever. These aren’t “retirees” with limited spending power. They’re active buyers whose household incomes have outpaced the national average increase for the past 20 years. With more time and disposable income on their hands than other age groups, they collectively spend more on consumer goods and services than any other demographic segment.

Younger, Data-Savvy Brands Embrace Older Consumers

So how can advertisers adapt their media strategies to keep pace and unlock new sales? Leading brands in the direct-to-consumer space offer some insights in this arena, having embraced media strategies that prioritize sales and conversions over basic age and demographic targeting. Consider taking the following pages from their playbooks.

Lean into TV

Today’s DTC brands have been leaning heavily into TV advertising in recent years, and they haven’t let traditional-age demos guide their marketing in this channel. That’s proven to be a huge win for them. In the pandemic alone, DTC brands have seen adults over 50 flocking to their platforms, with the greatest gains achieved by those brands with strong TV presences. These include Carvana, which saw an 89 percent increase in monthly digital platform visits by 50+ consumers between April and September 2020, compared to the year-ago period. Similar increases were seen by TV-focused DTC brands like Blue Apron (+35 percent), DoorDash (+30 percent), Warby Parker (+35 percent), Wayfair (+30 percent) and others.

Think Multiculturally About Older Audiences

In pivoting to address the growth of older audiences, media strategies must also recognize that these audiences are also increasingly multicultural. Over the next decade, multicultural audience segments will account for 78 percent of the total 50+ population growth. By 2030, 10 million more multicultural people will have aged into the adult 50+ population, and future growth will be driven primarily by these segments. As a result, successful campaigns will reflect more diversity and inclusivity.

Focus on Audiences, Not Demographics

Audience-based buying is now a reality in media. Even in so-called “traditional” channels like TV, marketers can now buy based on consumer buying habits or viewing behavior (programs, genres watched), which is a more accurate surrogate for target customers than a prescribed age bucket. By focusing media buys—particularly multiscreen TV buys—on audience vs. age demos, brands unlock access to $4 trillion in purchasing power outside of traditional buying demos like adults 25-54. This audience-driven strategy has powered impressive growth for savvy DTC brands that, thanks to sophisticated consumer profiles and first-party data, recognize that age isn’t what defines their customers.

Don’t let it define yours either.

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