Single Boomers: Marketing Myths and Mistakes

One of the most significant demographic trends over the past half-century is the ascendence of people who are single. They have the power of numbers -- as a proportion of the adult population, they are closing in on people who are married. As householders, their place is dramatically different than it was a few decades ago: There are now more households consisting of single people living solo than of households comprised of mom, dad, and the kids. (And -- further attesting to their numbers -- most single people do not live alone.) Perhaps the most significant of all of these new demographic realities is the place of singlehood in our individual life stories -- Americans now spend more years of their adult lives unmarried than married.

Marketers -- like much of the rest of society -- have not caught up with the changes that have made single life vastly different than it was before. They have yet to realize the implications of those changes for their portrayals of singles and their pitches to them.

At last, though, the topic is on the table. Last week, the marketing firm JWT Boom hosted a two-day conference on marketing to boomers, including a panel on single boomers. I joined Sarah Zapolsky of AARP, Deborah Blake of Pulte Homes, and journalist and moderator Jane Ganahl to discuss the real lives of 21st century boomers who are single.

I focused on six mistakes that marketers sometimes make in their appeals:

MARKETING MYTH AND MISTAKE #1: What single people want, more than any particular product, is a soul mate. Because (some) marketers believe this, they try to sell their products by selling the fantasy of getting married.

A telling example of this came from a television ad that Coldwell Banker ran over and over again a few summers ago. In it, the narrator, a realtor, said this:

"When Sylvia Maxwell was single again, she came to me at Coldwell Banker to find a new home. I searched high and low and when I found one she loved, she made a proposal to buy it. Larry was a single professor who lived next door, until one day he made a proposal of another kind. Gives a whole new meaning to 'love thy neighbor.' For almost a century, Coldwell Banker has known that real estate is only part of the story."

Visually, the ad introduces us to Sylvia and Larry. By the end, the two of them are holding hands, skipping, and frolicking through the yards of their homes, she in full bridal attire and he in his groom-ware. The bridesmaids and groomsmen follow gleefully behind them.

But never mind the visuals. What really got to me was that last line, about how Coldwell has always known that real estate is only part of the story. So I, a single woman, might go to a Coldwell Banker realtor in search of a home. The realtor, though, will just know that what I really want is a husband.

I started keeping track of all of the ads that feature weddings or brides. Setting aside the totally understandable products such as jewelry, catering, photography, and tuxedos, I also found wedding themes in ads for:

• Cereal, soft drinks, ice cream, chocolate, and cheese
• Dentistry, headache medication, body lotion, and eye drops
• Cars, clothes, and credit cards
• Beer, cigarettes, and wine coolers
• Hotels and life insurance
• Lottery tickets and motor oil. (Motor oil!)

Advertising is matrimaniacal. And yet, consider these results of a Pew Research Survey. Single people (divorced, widowed, always single) were asked:

• Whether they were already in a committed relationship, and
• Whether they were looking for a partner.

The most common answer, given by 55%, was that they were not in a committed relationship and that they were not looking for one.

Related to the mistake of seeing singles as more concerned about getting married than anything else is the vision of singles as living a narrow, constricted life, as if they were waiting to find "The One" before buying homes or traveling the world or pursuing their passions. That's MARKETING MYTH AND MISTAKE #2.

An example comes from advice offered by a boomer woman who is most certainly not leading a stunted or timid life. I'm talking about Suze Orman. In The Road to Wealth, she began a sentence like this:

"If you are a single person, a one-bedroom condo may seem ideal now."

I was excited. I thought she was going to continue by saying that I would soon discover how much I would love having more space, so I should just go for it right from the beginning!

But no. Instead, she continued the sentence this way:

"but if you hope to get married and start a family in the next few years, you'll need more space pretty quickly."

Suze Orman was thinking like the realtor who tried to sell me a town house or condo, after I had come to an open house because I wanted a house. Many singles have told me similar stories. When realtors lead their single clients to smaller and cheaper places than the clients were seeking, they are doing something extraordinarily rare in the business world -- working against their own self-interest.

MARKETING MISTAKE #3 is to portray singles in demeaning and dismissive ways. Here I think single men have it at least as bad, if not worse, than single women.

Remember the "lost another loan to Ditech" campaign? That ad featured a doughy man with ill-fitting suits and pudgy ringless fingers who worked for Ditech's competitor. So pathetic was the guy that even his therapist got his loan from Ditech. One of the ads ends with the hapless bachelor emitting a plaintive wail, "Mommmm!" He's a mama's boy, but even his mother has gotten her loan from Ditech instead of from her own son.

MARKETING MISTAKE #4 is to act as if single people do not even exist.

• Think of all the ads that list prices "per couple."
• Think of all of the greeting cards that express "our" congratulations or "our" condolences.
• Or consider the Magellan catalog. It tries to tempt me to buy a colorful luggage strap with the promise of solving that pesky problem, "Which bag is ours?"

Again, by assuming that people come packaged in couples, these businesses talk past the very people who may be interested in their products. There are millions of us, and those numbers just keep growing.

MARKETING MISTAKE #5: Peddling insecurities

Insecurities are for kids. Many single boomers are living their lives fully and unapologetically. Unless you want to alienate them, speak to their strengths and their real life needs and interests.

MARKETING MYTH AND MISTAKE #6: Assuming that single people "don't have anyone."

The belief that single people are "alone" and "don't have anyone" has been battered by one sociological and marketing study after another. Many single boomers may live alone but they have important people in their lives. Singles are more likely than married people to help, encourage, and spend time with their neighbors and friends. They are also the ones who more often visit, support, advise, and contact their siblings and parents.

Results of the Boomer Heartbeat study, recently reported by JWT and C & R Research, also demonstrated the important places of friends in the lives of single boomers. Whereas married couples with kids spend only 16% of their time with friends, single boomers without kids spend 28% of their time with friends. This is not because kids take up so much time. Boomers whose kids are no longer at home (the empty nesters) still spend only 15% of their time with friends. Even more strikingly, single boomers with kids at home spend about the same amount of time with their friends as do single boomers without kids (29%). The explanation that spending time with friends "compensates" for not having a spouse also won't fly (even apart from the fact that it is insulting). Married couples without kids also spend 27% of their time with friends.

The difference, I think, is that people who are single (along with married couples without kids) are not taking their cues about how to live their lives from advertisers or from conventional wisdom. Single boomers are myth-busters. They know that friends are not "just" friends. Single boomer women, in particular, will reward those who recognize the important place of friends in their lives. (What do Sex and the City, the Golden Girls, and even the "Desperate Housewives" - who spend a lot of their time out of their houses and their marriages - have in common? The friendship among the women is the emotional core of the shows.)

Single boomers, though, are often alone in one important way: They alone control the purse strings.

Can you hear me now?