We've looked at life from both sides now

Posted: Jun 04, 2002 12:00 AM
What do they mean, they don't want my money? The beardless youths at the television networks and the advertising agencies have gotten that uppity toward their elders? The Tom Brokaw story (he's shuffling off to retirement in two years) brings this development to light. The Dallas News' Ed Bark notes that "the median age of network newscast viewers remains north of 55. As most network executives and advertisers will tell you, that's too old to be counted among the living, namely the 12- to 54-year-old 'demographic' that fits most of Madison Avenue's needs." Thus the 62-year-old Mr. Brokaw's departure after 2004, followed by the advent of Brian Williams, age 42. The story gets drearier: "When our advertising people sell our product, they sell to 25- to 54-year-olds," said Erik Sorensen, president and general manager of the somewhat younger-skewing MSNBC news network. "There's not an advertiser in America, except maybe for Viagra, who shoots for the 55-plus crowd." Oh, I don't know; there's prune juice. In a sense we have had this coming to us, we members of the "55-plus crowd." Just over three decades ago, it was conventional to dismiss those whom somebody recently -- indeed it was Mr. Brokaw himself -- hailed as "The Greatest Generation." "Never trust anyone over 30," went the aphorism back then. Of course, that was all flourish and humbug, but it made an impression. Age was bad; gray hair was bad -- worse still, the white kind; long, collective memory was bad. I duly recognize the advantages that attach to what was called "the generation gap." Not to be young is not to be solicited by advertisers trying to part us from our money (except the ones from whom we regularly hear -- financial planners offering lunch to hear their pitch, marketers of on-the-golf-course retirement villages, cruise lines wanting to convey us to the Caribbean). Inevitably, you wonder what beverages the advertisers are sipping as they concoct their strategy. It is regularly reported that the 55-plus crowd is loaded, financially speaking. Less loaded, perhaps, than before the kiddy dot.com-ers let us, and our investments, down; still, our poverty rate is exceptionally low. One possible explanation: After several decades of effort and children, we're pretty much stocked up. One can easily understand advertisers not laboring to sell us sofas or golf clubs -- though motorcycles are a hot item among us. (A longtime and beloved friend turned up on our doorstep the other night, helmet tucked under arm, "hog" tethered at the curb.) A second possible explanation comes to mind: Thirty years' exposure to advertising breeds a certain ... shall we call it "sales resistance"? We have been, you see, around the track. No commercial virginity is left to our crowd. Happiness, we were formerly assured, is "the taste of Kent." There was Brylcream to inspire us with amorous possibilities, such as, "The gals'll all pursue ya -- they'll love to get their fingers in your hair." "Doctors, " we learned, approved of everything sold in America. At any rate, individuals dressed in white coats, and looking intently into the cameras, gave that reassuring impression. Maybe the advertisers assume they've nothing new to say to us old hands. If we need something, we'll figure it out for ourselves -- could that be it? The blessings of age and experience just multiply, it would seem. Know why our "crowd," back in the '60s, resisted trusting anyone over 30? Because, after 30, people get harder and harder to impress. Information accumulates, memory lengthens and crazy wacko notions seem, well, crazy and wacko. Wonderful to contemplate are the oft-despised antennae of the free marketplace. These sense with some accuracy when customers are listening and when they aren't. Plainly lots of us have quit listening to particular messages. As Simon and Garfunkel noted back in the old days: "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest." Finally -- do you suppose? -- a dire and troublesome generation gap is closing. With Judy Collins we've "looked at life from both sides now."