To be gray or not to be gray, that is one question being considered by millions of Boomer men.
And that is the question being answered by Combe Incorporated, manufacturers of Just for Men hair coloring and its new Boomer-focused product, Touch of Gray.
The newest advertising campaign develops the marketing theme of "For the Generation that Rewrote All the Rules."
I find this new campaign irresistible to address because it raises many fundamental questions about generational marketing and underlying consumer motivations most accessible for this product category.
First of all, why would Boomer men choose to engage in the traditionally feminine cosmetic act of hair coloring? Would it be for vanity? For fear of aging? How about because this generation of men has always been rebellious and defied traditional social expectations? (We became "Mr. Mom." We turned from barbers to hair stylists. We started cooking.)
The latter reason is the primary motivation that Combe's advertising team attempts to tackle. The newest TV spot begins with obligatory nostalgic news footage from the sixties with a background music bed from Cream's classic hit, "Sunshine of your Love." And then forceful narration:
"The generation that swore it would never get old ... didn't. Welcome to the summer of life. And now there's an official hair treatment of the summer of your life. New Touch of Gray from Just for Men. Lets you keep a little gray. Works gradually. Just comb in, rinse."
Then the energetic Boomer protagonist laughingly invokes the sixties with, "Never trust anybody over ninety."
The announcer finishes with a declarative, "Keep a little gray with new Touch of Gray."
Let's deconstruct this TV spot from a pro and con perspective.
On the pro side, the ad's creators use nostalgic black & white imagery from the sixties, ostensibly from a festival setting such as Woodstock and then surfing imagery, tapping into positive remembrances of The Beach Boys and sixties' surfing culture.
Cut to the present, and an aspirational Boomer male is running toward the camera with the surf behind him, surfboard tucked under one arm. Other aspirational actors, male and female, surround our hero. They play the hoops. They play in a garage band. This juxtaposition of the past with the present can become a powerful motivator. It demonstrates life continuity and the relevance of past to present. It reminds us of the good times.
Using aspirational models is a good strategy. The protagonist male could be in his late forties or early fifties. His love interest is a younger woman, which for many men in mid-life is reality, or at least fantasy-reality. (My female counterparts in Boomer marketing will likely not appreciate this traditional middle-aged male stereotype of the "younger woman" — and for good reasons.) His friends all look healthy and happy. It's a racially mixed tableau. So we have an idealized view of active aging.
According to research conducted by John Martin, Matt Thornhill and The Boomer Project, Boomers like to think of themselves as younger than reality. The older the Boomer, the wider the spread between reality and aspiration. So, for example, a 50-year-old male might think of himself as 45. A 60-year-old male might see himself as 50. Thus, using younger, aspirational models makes strategic sense, based on opinion research.
Now the cons.
This ad is a perfect example of generational pandering. The creators probably assume that their brazen appeals to nostalgic feelings will function more or less like the ringing bell that causes the operantly conditioned dog to salivate. Very Pavlovian.
Requisite peace gestures, the traditional victory V using the index and middle fingers, provide further caricature of the generation's culture. (How many Boomers have flashed you the "peace sign" recently?)
The ad also communicates an underlying message that Boomer men haven't grown up ... by choice. We're living an extended adolescence in the summer of our lives, even though most of us are actually in the autumn of our lives.
Then the real groaner: "Don't trust anyone over ninety." Ha. Ha. I can't think of a better way to demonstrate inane age denial and reinforce stereotypes of Boomer men as immature and self-centered.
The idea of not trusting anyone over thirty is a mythic generational caricature that has been encoded as if fact. In my book, I call this "mobilization of bias."
The taunt was uttered by Silent Generation member Jack Weinberg in 1965 during an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. Leader of the Free Speech Movement at The University of California, Berkeley, Weinberg uttered this sharp retort in reply to a reporter's insistence that older adults were manipulating his organization. He thought of his comment as purely cynical, and this snap at a reporter did not become the chosen mantra of a generation.
Frankly, most Boomers did not believe in the silliness of this idea. We all knew 30 was inevitable — and, in many ways, desirable. As we matured, we had admired and trusted many people past 30, including a president, John F. Kennedy; his brother, Bobby Kennedy; and a martyred activist, Martin Luther King. The aphorism became a popular media stereotype of Boomers to dramatize succinctly the generation's countercultural defiance around more serious issues such as racism, sexism, governmental cover-ups and environmental destruction.
The bottom line on this ad's approach: The creators are unlikely to be Boomers themselves. Their "sociological filters" accept Boomer stereotypes as facts, and they built their advertising creative strategy with the same sensitivity to nuance that Caucasians have shown when trying to create truly insightful ads targeting African Americans. They don't get it, coming across as prepackaged and predictable. And even though some Boomers probably signed off on the ad's concept, these decision makers may not fully appreciate the subtleties of successful generational marketing.
This gray hair issue comes down to a fundamental decision most Boomer men will make, either overtly or subconsciously, and that is the decision, or not, to color hair.
The following photo from a few weeks ago shows me with much whiter hair than reality because of the sunbeam on my hair.
This gives me a good glimpse of my potential pate in a few years. Next to me is Deane Drury, a friend and colleague for many years.
Deane had silver hair 20 years ago when he was in his forties. Silver hair was part of his successful persona, and I doubt he ever seriously considered hair color. He looked distinguished then; he looks distinguished now.
Thus, we have the Boomer male market, typically bifurcated. Some will consider coloring their hair. Some won't. (The "freak flag" of this decade and beyond may be silver hair, proudly on display. And if you don't understand what I mean by this, you're not a Boomer.)
If not pandering with simplistic portrayals of this generation, what could be some powerful underlying motivators for hair coloring? Several ideas come to mind.
One of the greatest anxieties among middle-aged Boomer men today is the real fear of marginalization or irrelevance. Ageism is a threat in many industries, and older men may be prudent in choosing hair color to look slightly younger — a touch of gray. The field of advertising comes to mind. Career success sometimes depends on not appearing old or out of date.
Second, a large number of Boomer men are looking for new love and a fresh start. With divorce rates so substantial in this generation, it's not uncommon for men to be starting over with new significant-other pursuits in their fifties. This pursuit often invites a makeover.
Going back to the Eric Clapton-Jack Bruce-Ginger Baker song, one lyrical line stands apart: "I've been waiting so long to be where I'm going: in the sunshine of your love."
Boomer men have been waiting so long to be where they're going. They're entitled to make the choice to color gray, or not to color gray, without social condemnation, either way. Hmmmm. The creative wheels are turning. There might be a way to use the nostalgic power of Cream's signature song with the lifestyle aspirations of Boomer men today — to, in effect, achieve the objectives of the advertiser without being so silly and superficial about it.
What's the "big idea" that would channel the force of this commercial into a more productive and sophisticated direction? I'll let those making the big bucks from this advertiser figure it out without any further tutoring from me.
Advertising both reflects and shapes our beliefs. It sets our collective expectations for discrete groups of consumers. This interesting ad reflects outdated and largely irrelevant beliefs about Boomer men struggling with a cosmetic choice, a choice representing larger issues than mere vanity. The ad also shapes and reinforces a belief structure that diminishes a generation of men by not connecting with their true spirit.
But if it sells product, what the heck...