Have you ever wondered why there just has to be such puerile junk on television? When was the last time you hit the power button on the remote control and BAM! there was a show designed for...you?
The dumbing-down of television has been going on for years. If challenged, Hollywood immediately blames the advertising community, which, it claims, insists that the younger the viewer, the more it will pay. Older viewers are set in their purchasing habits; younger viewers are more volatile.
That sounds awfully counterintuitive, because the obvious is missing. As Sam Craig, a professor at NYU, tells the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail, "Advertisers want the...18-to-34-year olds, [but] if you look at disposable income, people over 34 have much more money to spend, and they spend it on bigger-ticket items. That's even more pronounced over the age of 50." A July 2000 New York Times piece said that according to author Theodore Roszak, those in their mid-60s and up had double the discretionary income of 25-to-34-year-olds.
Do ads targeting older adults really fall on (figuratively) deaf ears? For quite a while, it's been conventional wisdom in the ad business that the older you get, the less ads influence you. A toothpaste company doesn't want to buy time on a show whose audience skews old because, supposedly, most of those viewers long ago decided which toothpaste they like and, presumably, will keep using it obediently.
I think of my mother's purchasing habits and am tempted to agree. Then it occurs to me that at age 75 she just purchased a VW Beetle after driving a Nissan for years.
The conventional wisdom is not just faulty, it's false. CBS executive vice president David Poltrack remarks to the New Yorker's James Surowiecki that "the least brand-loyal people are...between the ages of 35 and 54." Look at the Lexus, launched in the late '80s, which sold especially well to older adults, even though for most of their lives they had absorbed message after message that some other luxury car was the one to buy. What happened? Instead of marching robotically into the nearest Cadillac or Lincoln showroom, they processed information from various sources - an ad, word of mouth, a newspaper article - and decided they wanted the upstart.
So older adults are ready and able to both spend money and change their minds. Companies should be in hot pursuit of them. Why, then, do young adults - even children - continue to be the top priority for so many advertisers? The reason is rooted not in economics but rather in psychology.
Lately, some prominent journalists have exposed flaws in advertisers' silly standard operating procedure. One such journalist is New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.
"Advertisers," writes Dowd, "are still going by that old saw that they need to hook people at a tender age, before they get set in their buying habits and develop an allegiance to one brand." These days, however, "studies show that young adults have more brand loyalty now than restless middle-aged customers." Moreover, "advertisers base the youth chase on antiquated notions from 30 years ago when older meant more mature. With fickle, prodigal boomers...age does not necessarily bring thriftiness or habitualness."
In the New Yorker, financial writer Surowiecki hits home with his analysis. The "notion of impressionable kids and hidebound geezers is little more than a fairy tale," he writes, and then observes, crucially, "Perhaps companies suffer from what economists call an internal audience problem - the people who create their ads don't look like the people who buy their products. According to a 1995 survey by American Demographics, the average corporate ad rep is 31, and the average ad-agency account executive is 28."
Surowiecki's point could easily be broadened, for an internal audience problem plagues not only advertisers and agencies but also the producers of prime-time programming, who are, as a rule, far younger than those who would watch it. The fact is, more grown-up writing would draw more grown-up viewers, who would buy those bigger-ticket items.
Some in the television business see this, but old habits die hard. CBS's Poltrack tells Surowiecki that "there's now a kind of ritualistic, inertial quality to the way ads get bought...The old categories are increasingly irrelevant, but we keep using them."
One hopes that new categories will emerge soon. They could change the entire landscape of television. No, "Will & Grace" wouldn't vanish, but less-popular raunch would, to be replaced in some cases with shows that would appeal to viewers old enough to remember what it was to watch a television show designed for those who have managed to move beyond high school.