The Trouble with Good Old Sex

Marketers have a sex problem. They slather it liberally onto any brand surface where it might stick – the ultimate consumption aphrodisiac. No one gets fired from a marketing job for saying, “sex sells.” But at the same time, they ignore or alienate the source of half of all U.S. household spending because sexy older people well – that’s ridiculous.

The failing of marketers is that we tend to prematurely sexualize young people, and prematurely desexualize older people.

Teens and pre-teens, soaking in their volatile stew of hormonal dysphoria, are bombarded with images and messages they can’t or shouldn’t understand, with dangerous ramifications that they are massively unprepared to deal with. The marketers’ message: “Think sexy, be sexy, be sexier. No, even sexier.”

Meanwhile, mature adults equipped with the intellectual, emotional and financial resources for romantic relationships are sent a very different message by marketers: “Act your age. Don’t be gross.”

After Madonna sang about needing more erotic satisfaction in her Grammy performance of “Living for Love,” she was slammed for inappropriate sexual behavior. Inappropriate, because she’s too old. As Piers Morgan tweeted after the performance: “50 Shades of Granny. #Madonna”

The underlying message: libido expires at 50. People who don’t adhere to that cultural imperative are portrayed as desperately clinging to their youth rather than simply maintaining a healthy part of human life.

This pejorative view of mature sexuality – especially female sexuality – is just one of the many flawed stereotypes marketers perpetuate (click to tweet). The advertising world defines the “key demographic,” the only group that really matters to them, as 18-49 year olds.

But as Ketchum’s ReMovement research on the 50+ market shows, such absurd stereotyping is not only a massive missed opportunity, it’s also a massive turn-off. 50+ has more money than any generation in history and is hungry for relationships with people and brands that enhance their lives.

If your spouse said he or she intended to stop having sex with you at age 50, would you have married them? Would you stay married to them? After age 50?

Some would, many wouldn’t, because sexuality is fundamental to the lives many people want to live. But marketers – most of them younger than 50 – recoil at the idea of the 50+ being sexually active. They are affected by their perception bias. And, consequently, they perpetuate the asexual 50+ mythology.

Part of that argument is that young people are more attractive. Periodically, we see stories about someone 50+ who is still sexy, by which it is meant they don’t look 50. If the world really lived by that Hollywood standard, humanity would be long extinct.

The answer is that attractiveness is highly subjective. In Japan, where one quarter of the population is over 65, consumers pay a premium (to the tune of $8 billion U.S. a year) for both cinema and television depicting 50+ men and women in seductive (even explicit) situations.

In contrast, North America’s demographic shift and appetite is catching up to Japan’s, yet our marketers’ sentiment is not. If there is a sexual gray-hair in a role, that character is usually the comic relief – the laughable lascivious granny stereotype (think Betty White’s career).

Ironically, it may be the 50+’ers who are responsible for today’s cult-of-youth. In their break with their parents’ generation, Boomers championed slogans like “Never Trust Anyone Over 30,” and embraced anthems like the Who’s My Generation, with its lyric “I hope I die before I get old.”

As it turns out, most of them didn’t, and now that 50+ generation – the free love generation – is inventing a different last act. It includes romance, sex and the full richness of human experience for nearly 110 million Americans, who represent half of all household spending annually.

Brands – ignore or insult them at their own peril.


Related links:
10 reason women in their 50s are the hottest dates (Huffington Post)

Global view on 50+ from IMF World Spring Bank Meetings (CCTV)

50+ driving a creativity and invention boom (New York Times)

Sex sells, but at what cost? (Karen Strauss, Ketchum blog)

“The media decides when you’re no longer believably f**kable” — Amy Schumer with Tina Fey, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Patricia Arquette (Salon)