Grey hairs, spreading bellies and loose jeans
Boomers may be on the forefront of a marketing backlash

A couple of weeks ago, a marketing correspondent took a charter flight to Europe filled with tourists. Many of them were grey-haired fifty-something baby boomers wearing stretch jeans to accommodate spreading waistlines.

Baby boomers wearing jeans well into their fifties comes as no surprise. Canada's dominant generation has dragged many of the accoutrements of their youth -- music, attitudes and consumption patterns-- well into middle age.

But what was notable about the half dozen pairs of jeans this correspondent noticed, was that most appeared to be several years old, and many were private label brands. In other words these jeans were bought not as a fashion statement, but because they were cheap, solid and comfortable.

The thought of baby boomers spending less money on branded products as they get older gives marketers the shivers. Although there has been increasing talk of an anti-marketing backlash, much of it has been highly speculative. But the possibility that Canada's enormous baby boom generation may gear down consumption is real.

For one, there is a noticeable spending slide when consumers turn 55. The house and car are paid for, and the kids are either finished, or well on their way through college. The specter of retirement is on the horizon, as is the realization that these are peak earning years, and if money is not put aside soon, it never will be. Usually when people get older, they also become wiser, and it's likely that aging boomers will be less interested in fads.

And with the first big wave of Canadian baby boomers, -- born into the families of returning World War Two veterans -- turning 55 this year, many of them are now facing these milestones.

But it gets even worse for marketers. After the average consumer turns 65 --which will begin happening to boomers in about 10 years --consumption drops even further. Usually a 65-year old is retired, and income has dropped. On the other hand there is little need for office clothes, and many couples can comfortably do away with their second cars.

Although the decline in consumption by aging baby boomers is probably the biggest threat to marketers, it is by no means the only one.

There are also many signs of frustration among North Americans at the increasing amount of advertising and media noise. One oft-quoted statistic is that the average consumer is exposed to 1,500 marketing messages per day. But that total is almost certainly growing with the spread of billboards, the Internet and greater ad clutter on prime time television.

To pay for the consumption being pushed up them, Canadians are working harder, for longer hours. And they are increasingly stressed out, with people citing lack of time, as opposed to lack of money as their biggest need. To compensate, many are buying productivity enhancing devices such as cell phones, pagers and Palm Pilots. But these only increase stress because many people can now be disturbed anywhere by anyone for any reason. Incidents of road rage and airport rage by increasingly-tense commuters are climbing.

Worse, there are now few places to go to get away from it all. Summer cottages used to cost next to nothing, and a two-hour drive would get you a weekend of piece and quiet. Not any more.

Many cottage areas are now increasingly developed, and lakefront property is rare. When you find it, the lakes are filled with Seadoo and motor-boat riding boors who devote 16 hour days to making you pray for the piece-and-quiet of the Dorval Airport. Worse, you end up running into the exact kind of people you are trying to get away from.

The problem with all the talk about a marketing backlash by pundits such as Naomi Klein, and polemicists such as the Unabomber -- Ted Kozinski -- is that they give a lot of indirect clues, but no hard evidence.

For example, media-darling Klein rails about the abusive practices of brand bullies, and about big bad corporations in general, but remains an avowed fad addict, and a slave to trends.

The fact that according to a Decima Research survey only 10% willing of Canadians are willing to pay for new specialty channels could be a sign that people are fed up with the media noise. But on the other hand, the hours spent by Canadians watching specialty channels continues to rise.

The problem with identifying and dealing with a marketing backlash is that even if companies knew it was coming, it is almost impossible to reduce the amount of advertising and promotion, or else competitors will step in to fill the void. But those gray hairs, spreading bellies and loose jeans are a big clue that marketers have got a lot to worry about.

I'm going on a short sabbatical. The marketing column will be back in eight weeks.

E-mail can be sent to Diekmeyer at: peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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