Neither Nor
January 2009

by Ron Steinman

Think of Madison Avenue. Mad men for real. Imagine all those creative minds at work trying to get inside our heads as they produce advertisements for all media they hope will move us to purchase the products they want us to buy now more than ever in this severely depressed economy. Step back for a moment. Then get in touch with reality, if that is possible.

It's tough enough these days for the average American to make ends meet, pay off a mortgage, handle college bills, and buy needed drugs and health insurance. But it doesn't stop the manufacturers and the stores that sell their products from rah-rah tactics to make people buy, buy, buy. Advertising gurus are doing everything they can to influence our buying habits as they parse the metrics they hope they can use to sell everything from diapers to high-priced watches. Most of the time advertising agencies are successful, except when they face problems such as an economic situation that is beyond their control. Gloom and doom aside, advertising, one of the machines that makes the economy go, is never at a loss for words, or for that matter their use of metrics, the numbers behind advertising in all media.

Advertisers target different age groups they believe will spend the most money even if they don't have any money to spend. It got me thinking about these targets – who they are, who they are not, and who I am. The desirable age group varies. Some in advertising say it is 18–29; others think it is 19–54, or even 25–54. Whatever the age range, 54 is where advertisers end the spread.

I am not 19. Nor am I 54. I hardly remember what it was to be 19 years old. Just as well. They were messy years, anyway. Frankly, neither am I any age between those anointed numbers. I do not live in a bubble that quarantines me from reality. Neither do I exist in an empty parenthesis ( ). No pollster has ever interviewed me about what I consider an important subject. I never filled out a questionnaire about my likes, dislikes and desires. How does anyone know my buying habits or political leanings when I have told them nothing about the life I lead? Yes, I know and understand that every time I enter a site online, a computer somewhere records the time I spend, how many clicks I make, what cookies I leave for someone to bombard me with mostly useless information. I am on a no-call list. Pollsters know better than to annoy me at dinnertime or 8 in the morning, sacred times of the day. Can anyone really figure me out based on what someone else in my age and economic group says? In the end, I do not trust anyone to analyze my thoughts based on a few clicks on the Internet.

That age spread, 25–54, or maybe 19–54 -- pick your poison -- according to everything I read encompasses the desirable group the majority of advertisers seek to sell their products. I dare anyone to claim that for a fact about those who watch TV. We know that fewer in that age group might read newspapers. I still read a newspaper but unless the publisher has embedded a device to calculate what ads I look at or linger over, I doubt anyone knows how I really think.

People do, though, spend time on the Web and they do it more than they ever did in the past. They are far easier to target and quantify. I wonder how advertisers know if any age bracket they target is true. I can only envision a version of a Mad Man wannabe, probably a former physics or math major, sitting in front of a computer screen trying to get ahead in the competitive world of advertising. Are these the same people who created all those impossible to understand economic instruments that have put our economy in jeopardy? Are they persons looking for a cheering slap on the back instead of the notoriety that comes from making the wrong bet? You be the judge.

More pointedly, why do the strategists ignore the age group that falls below 19 and the one over 54? Has either group done anything to anger the pollsters to so blithely dismiss its spending power, or at least the power each had before the current economic failures roiled the economy? Is it because those two groups have less money economists refer to as disposable income to satisfy the companies that advertise? Whoa. Do not take us for granted. We do not enjoy it. Ignore us at your own peril.

But, hey, if I can speak for the over- and under- here, we don't really care. We ignore your inane commercials on TV and your feeble ads in newspapers, magazines and the increasingly annoying motion-filled, rich media advertisements on the Web. We end up shopping for what we want, eating where we want, seeing the films we want when we want and where we want with no help from the geniuses behind the label, 19–54. Sure, we are most likely not shopping, eating, and watching what and where the advertisers prefer we do, especially these days, but maybe that is because they are selling fluff and nonsense and nothing substantial. Perhaps a larder filled with what we really want or need is preferable to one filled with things we don't care about or need to get us through the day.

But, wait. There is yet another important age group those in advertising want to reach – the 18–34 male viewers, a slightly different spread that overlaps and "underlaps" those between 35 and 54. These are the so-called "real guys" who thrive on beer busts, the fun of "punking" someone, an inability to connect with a woman as represented in recent movies about inept youth, and all the other movies filled with explosions, speeding cars and professional football. Supposedly, this group watches only sports, quaffs beer and high-energy drinks and eats only pizza and tacos. It is not a bad way to live, though an hour a day in the gym would probably help unclog their arteries before they reach 35. I do not disdain the young and the lives they lead. The ads skew in their direction because the researchers apparently do not realize that guys will say anything to anyone just for the sake of making a statement. Apparently researchers do not know the fakery that goes into answers and take all statements on faith.

Then there is my grandson, Nate, now 2, who is I am sure already in the sights of some copy writing whiz, a future target for the good of mammon. Is there no escape? Fear not Nate, I'll protect you. That's what grandfathers are for. You have my word.

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks at Ron Steinman's