Perspectives From Industry and Academic Research on Elderly Adults' Responses to Advertising Summary of a Special Session

Catherine A. Cole, University of Iowa
[ to cite ]:
Catherine A. Cole (1991) ,"Perspectives From Industry and Academic Research on Elderly Adults' Responses to Advertising Summary of a Special Session", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 515-516.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 515-516



Catherine A. Cole, University of Iowa


Demographic trends all point to the increasing size of the elderly market. For example, the over-65 group is growing twice as fast as the general population. By the year 2010, 25% of the total U.S. population will be at least 55 years old; by 2050 this segment will comprise about 33 Yo of the population. Although this segment is an attractive one, marketing professionals cannot always expect to use the same types of communications strategies with this group as with younger consumers.


This session brought together researchers from academic settings and industry to discuss developments in advertising to the elderly market. The four papers focused on ways in which elderly adults' cognitive, affective and behavioral responses toward advertising differ from and resemble those of younger adults. We also discussed what these differences and similarities imply for theory and practice.

To develop focus questions, we used the literature from life-span psychology which identifies three types of influences on humans in later life: normative age graded, normative history graded and non-normative life events. Normative age graded changes are biological and environmental influences that are closely related to chronological age in terms of when they start and how long they last. They are normative because they happen to everyone. For example, some of us will have some degree of hearing loss in the third decade of life, but by the 70's all of us lose some hearing. This literature suggested that we use the following question as a focus question: How do elderly adults' responses to advertising differ from those of younger adults? Why do they differ?




Harlan Spotts, Northeastern University

This talk reported on an experiment assessing age differences in cognitive responses to two versions of a print ad for a fictitious cereal product. In this experiment the target print ad, which was either concrete or abstract in content, was embedded in a magazine. Respondents read the magazine at their own pace, were shown a reminder headline and then completed questions designed to obtain cognitive response, recall and recognition data. Elderly generated fewer total thoughts and fewer product oriented and neutral thoughts than younger adults. While not statistically significant, the directional trend for the elderly was to generate fewer negative and more positive thoughts than young adults. In the analysis, education was a significant covariate having a positive influence on cognitive response generation. Age effects, however, were still significant in light of education effects. Advertisement involvement, while having a significant main effect, had no interactive effect with age on cognitive response. In addition, elderly recalled and recognized less material from the ad than younger adults.

From a theoretical perspective, the study suggests that at very low exposure levels, regardless of the type of ad, elderly fail to elaborate spontaneously on print advertising messages. This failure may result from a general slowing of processing- speed, a normative age graded change which is highly correlated with aging. Future research might explore ways of redesigning ads to increase the amount elderly elaborate on messages. From a practical perspective, this study suggests that to generate high levels of learning among the elderly it may be necessary to increase repetition levels of messages in advertising campaigns.




Joyce Wackenhut, D'Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles, Inc.

This talk began with slides summarizing demographic and psychographic trends in the elderly market. These data emphasized that the 65+ plus market should not be characterized as impoverished, inactive or sickly. Instead, the market can be described as diverse and active. The speaker argued that advertising targeted to this market should communicate meaningful benefits about the good or service. In fact, the procedure for developing good creative concepts should be the same as that followed for developing creative concepts for the younger market.


Several currently running commercials were shown. The successful spots avoided stereotypes of elderly and showed clear benefits from brand usage. The unsuccessful spots negatively portrayed elderly and used a overly general life style appeal.

The second set of influences on development, normative history graded, are biological and environmental forces that are associated with an historical time and are related to cohort. These influences are considered normative because they tend to occur in a highly similar way for all individuals in a given culture or subculture at a given period of time. Thus, for example, people who were teenagers during the depression may have different attitudes toward risk than people who were born at the start of the depression even though both groups are now over 60.

The third influences, non-normative life events, are biological and environmental and do not occur in any normative or universal way. There is a lack of consistency across time and individuals about these events. Illness, accidents, loss of a significant other, and retirement are all examples. Both these last two influences suggest a second focus question: Is there heterogeneity among elderly adults in their responses to advertising? What causes this heterogeneity?




Bonnee Wettlaufer, Peter D. Bennett, Sung-Soon Lee

Pennsylvania State

This paper assessed age differences in cognitive responses to a print advertisement for a newly developed product designed to help people remain in their homes as long as possible. In a result contrary to the Spotts' study, elderly generated more cognitive responses than younger adults, suggesting that for highly involving products elderly may elaborate more extensively than younger adults do for relatively uninvolving products. However, the content of the thoughts indicated that the younger adults were processing the information more deeply than older adults, supporting previous work on encoding deficits among the elderly.

A unique contribution was the discussion of the cognitive age variable, used to asses "felt" age, which may be the result of non-normative influences on development. The authors classified elderly adults into three groups based on the size of the difference between their chronological age and their felt age. They found that subjects who felt the youngest generated thoughts at a deeper level of encoding than those whose felt age was close to their chronological age, but there was no effect of felt age on the number of thoughts generated. Thus the encoding deficit varies among the different segments of the elderly market.




Seth Ginsberg, J. Walter Thompson

The presenter discussed the unique perspective provided by cohort studies in targeting marking strategies to members of the mature market. He described a specific study and explored the relevance of the findings to the financial services category.

In the presentation, he reviewed the philosophy guiding cohort analyses. Cohort membership is a function of shared social history, not age per se. Assumptions about the world shared by cohort members form the basis for their future expectations. He also reviewed a cohort based model of the mature market. By seeing the mature market in terms of three cohorts, and understanding their experiences (or lack thereof) with the world before the Depression, the Depression and the postwar American ascendence, one can predict may of their attitudes--particularly those concerning financial matters. He also reviewed a study of financial attitudes among members of these three cohorts. He demonstrated how the cohort centered approach revealed patterns in mature citizens' attitudes about saving and investing money--helping the agency to more effectively target an advertising campaign.


The final focus question was: What are the implications of these differences for theory and practice. At least three generalizations about elderly adults' responses to advertising can be made. First, like younger adults, elderly adults respond well to message appeals that promise clear unique benefits from brand usage. Second, elderly adults appear to think less about advertising (i.e. elaborate less) than younger adults. Even though in high involvement situations they may elaborate more on messages than younger adults, the content of their thoughts suggests that they are not encoding material deeply. Finally, the elderly market is a diverse market. Possible segmenting variables include actual age, which will capture birth cohort, and felt age, which may rapture cognitive functioning.

Moschis concluded by arguing that (1) there is a need for continued research on the elderly market from both industry and academics and (2) there is a need for researchers to continue drawing on aging models from psychology, sociology and communications.