Grey is not the new black, 2003

A talk from the Market Society’s ‘Grey is the new black' evening was reproduced in Market Leader. It became the definitive guide on how to communicate with the ‘under-80s’ – a misnamed, misunderstood, mislaid group of people: “Even if we had access to your media schedules or your creative strategies, we still wouldn't recognise ourselves. Those grey, silver, evergreen creatures so sensitively described by your account planners have nothing whatsoever to do with me".

Grey is not the new black 

I know it's conventional for speakers to start by saying how pleased they are to be here; and I equally know that nobody believes them when they say it. Which is why I've never said it. 

But I am going to say it this evening and you'd better believe it. 

Because after fortysomething years of going to meetings like this and talking about consumers as them, this evening, for the very first time, I'm not here to talk about them. 

You are here to talk about me. 

That's obviously very gratifying in itself and I'd like to thank you. But it's just possible that you may not be all that pleased by what I have to say. 

For starters, you have absolutely no idea what to call me. You flounder about, trying out and discarding euphemisms on an almost daily basis. This evening's euphemism is grey yet grey is a word that no one would ever use about themselves. Grey is a word that people like you use about people like me. And we don't like it much. 

For some reason, you seem to think that the answer to the problem of what to call me lies in the paint box. If I'm not grey, I'm silver; though I've never been certain at what precise age a grey person becomes a silver person. 

And then, God help us, there's evergreen. You may think I'm flattered to be called evergreen but that just confirms how little you know me and how very important it was for the Marketing Society to hold this meeting. 

Sometimes, particularly if you're anything to do with the Social Services, you call me a senior citizen. You seem to think I'll be flattered by this description; as if I see myself, wrapped in a well-worn toga, sitting on a stone step outside the Colosseum, dispensing wisdom to a circle of respectful youths. 

Well it doesn't work, because I've spotted what you're up to. If all my life I've been a consumer, why, suddenly, have I become a citizen? And if I can be a senior citizen, why can't I be a senior consumer? The answer, as you know only too well, is this: grey, silver and evergreen persons are universally believed not to be consumers of anything. Nobody of my age has ever been on a media schedule for anything other than Stannah stairlifts. (And even then, of course, the assumption is that the stairlift will be chosen and bought on my behalf by a carer of some kind.) 

Some of you indeed believe that I stopped being a consumer and therefore stopped being a person of any interest or value to you at 35. 

I was rung up recently by a journalist from one of the trade papers. He was canvassing opinions on a certain subject, he said, across a broad spectrum of people in the business: from young Turks at one end to … and here he stopped. He had no idea what to call me and I certainly wasn't going to help him out. I rather fancy the word mature featured somewhere. 

The best category name I've come across so far or rather, the least worst category name I collected last week at the UGC cinema on the Fulham Road. The young person behind the desk asked me in a clear, loud voice thoughtfully adopted to compensate for my deficient hearing 'Are you a concession?' 

I do quite like being a concession. It's one of the very few advantages of being a concession. 

Furthermore, if I may say so, not only do you not have the faintest idea what to call me, you flounder even more desperately when you try to depict me. 

Let me start with that road sign that warns us of elderly people crossing. Not being elderly people yourselves, you may not have noticed it. I hope that's not the case, because that sign is in fact addressed at you, warning you that I may be crossing. 

Have you seen what I look like on that sign? Bent almost double, stick held uncertainly in hand, being helped across the road by an equally frail female concession. It's just as well that they took care to warn you, since neither of us looks to left or right. 

And now this word 'elderly'. Elderly is defined as meaning rather old, someone past middle age. So elderly is clearly not as old as old. But looking at the way I am portrayed on that crossing sign, it's hard to imagine anyone being even older than elderly without actually being dead. At which point, of course, mercifully for you, I stop being a traffic hazard. 

When you sit down and wonder how to depict me in your advertising, you become even more bemused and foolish, and the reason is this: you have a childish and deluded faith in the theory of consumer identification. You believe that by casting two very ordinary looking C2 housewives in a washing powder commercial, the viewing audience will respond thus: 

'Aha! I note that New Generation WonderWash is used by C2 housewives not unlike myself. I will therefore and henceforth buy this brand and forsake all others.' 

Nobody in the world responds like this. Nobody of any age identifies with people like themselves. 

I once shared an office with a copywriter who had just finished writing his first novel. Like all first novels, it was transparently autobiographical. 

His mother was a perfectly frightful woman and in his book he had portrayed her with a level of accuracy made possible only by 23 years of closely observed loathing. It was only when the book was finally published that my friend began to fret but there was little he could do about it. So he inscribed a copy with some well-crafted insincerity, sent it off to his mother, and waited. A week or two later, they met. 

'Darling,' she said, 'What perfectly frightful people you do seem to know.' 

When you put people like me in your advertisements, I do not identify with them. When you put people like me in your holiday advertisements, I dislike them intensely. The last thing I want to do is spend my holidays with people like me. I know for a fact that I do not look like me anyway. 

But I do know what I do look like. I bear an uncanny physical resemblance to the young Robert Redford. For a while, I used to wonder why so few other people remarked on my uncanny physical resemblance to the young Robert Redford but then I worked it out. They didn't want to embarrass me and I respect them for that. 

The best part of ten minutes on my feet and not a single percentage so here's one: 43.7% of women under 35 who buy cosmetic shampoos are overweight and 14.3% of them are officially classified as obese. So why, you may wonder, are there no obese women featured in shampoo commercials? (Well, you may wonder but I do not.) 

When designing advertisements addressed to concessions, you do not have to feature concessions in them. No process of identification will take place. A process of alienation is far more probable. 

As I once observed in a more than usually sententious moment: you don't have to be black to identify with Othello; you just have to be jealous. 

What we concessions identify with is problems, predicaments, emotions and opportunities. And, of course, very good-looking young people. 

When you design advertisements for very good-looking young people, you never think it necessary for your headline to read: 'Are you under 21?' 

Why then, when designing advertisements for concessions, do you think it necessary for your headline to read: 'Are you over 65?' 

And, while I'm about it, why do you always put young people into an under category and the notsoyoung into an over category? Don't you realise that we all stop being pleased to be in an over category at the age of 15. After that, we all want to be in an under category. And the further we get from the age of 15, the more strongly we feel about it. Yet you still address us with 'Are you over 65?', or 'A special vitamin supplement for the over40s.' I don't begin to understand why you do this to me. What's wrong with 'Are you still under 80?' That's a headline I'm happy to respond to joyously. 

Yes, yes, I am! Well under 80! 

Please let us be unders because that's what we feel like. 

The trouble with young people like you is that you don't seem to understand that we concessions have a great deal in common with real people. 

We decide who we are, what we look like, which category we belong to. Even if we had access to your media schedules or your creative strategies, we still wouldn't recognise ourselves. Those grey, silver, evergreen creatures so sensitively described by your account planners have nothing whatsoever to do with me. 

Some of you think that I stopped being a worthwhile member of your target group at the age of 35 because research apparently demonstrates that everybody over the age of 35 is permanently and irrevocably committed to brand choice. So why waste money on me, whose mind is already made up, when you can enslave some dithering 19yearold for the same money and another 60 years of lifetime value? 

Well, I'll tell you why. As Andrew Ehrenberg has been patiently pointing out for years, very few of us even we concessions are solus users of anything. We all have repertoires of acceptable alternatives, and one of the most valuable contributions of good marketing is to see that your brand remains in my repertoire and maybe even gains share within that repertoire. Neglect me and I'll turn on you with the kind of vengeance that only very old people know how to unleash. 

And then there are the one-off, high-ticket items. Your actuaries and your research tell you that we concessions have only a very few consuming years ahead of us and you conclude that we are therefore extremely unlikely to buy new cars, central heating installations or DVD systems. Here you go again, making the same old mistake, looking at us concessions from the outside as you see us rather than from the inside as we see ourselves. 

I am as certain that these dry actuarial constraints do not apply to me as I am of my uncanny physical resemblance to the young Robert Redford. 

And, what's more, if I do have a little money in the bank, I'd much rather spend it than leave it to my children, who already seem to me to be behaving in a depressingly middle-aged sort of way. 

So you can see why I really was pleased to be with you here this evening. My only regret is that you won't realise I was right for another 30 years, by which time it will be far too late for you to do anything about it. 

This talk was originally given to the Marketing Society's 'Grey is the new black' event, 10th July 2003.