Those who follow my writing know that I delve into many subjects concerning the social and political phenomena surrounding the Boomer generation. I have been confronted several times with a question: What do social and political issues have to do with marketing to Boomers?
Invariably, my answer is, “Everything.”
During my career, now spanning three decades, I have learned that some of the most powerful marketing strategies follow, reflect and sometimes move slightly ahead of larger social and political contexts in which we operate our contemporary lives.
This rings true when I see a financial services company heralding a novel life stage for Boomers instead of invoking an out-of-date construct called “retirement.” This rings true when an over-the-counter pain medication has less to do with overcoming pain than as an enabler of a continuing athletic lifestyle, long after joints have been barking their protests. This rings true when pundits reassign the birth year of a newly elected Boomer president (born in 1961) to another generation, rather than accept the dominant demographic delineation of his generational affiliation.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s the second wave of feminism inculcated a revolutionary idea that “the personal is political,” simply meaning that every aspect of our personal lives can be affected by the political environment in which we live and operate. Our personal lives can be conditioned by political and social forces. I submit that the milieu in which this Hegelian Dialectic occurs is often through marketing communications and mass media.
In contemporary marketing communications, Unilever’s Dove soap integrated “the personal” with “the political” through a spectacular advertising campaign designed to strengthen the brand by repositioning “antiaging” with a new product line called Pro Age. Dove set out to attract favorable attention from roughly 40 million Baby Boomer women, many of whom seek mitigation of wrinkles and other obvious cosmetic signs of aging but who also resent unrealistic and limiting portrayals of beauty.
Dove took a direct approach by unveiling a provocative new marketing idea: instead of demonizing or denying wrinkles and other signs of aging with illusions of perfection widely perpetuated by antiaging product marketers, Dove chose instead to celebrate aging by showcasing real middle-aged women, untouched by Photoshop or digital video equivalents.
In the spring of 2007, Dove unveiled its new campaign featuring magnificent photography shot by celebrity photographer and Boomer Annie Leibovitz. (Leibovitz, born in 1949, began her illustrious career in 1970 as a staff photographer for Jann Wenner’s iconic Boomer magazine, Rolling Stone, capturing memorable images of many rock ‘n’ roll notables such as John Lennon, Linda Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac, David Cassidy, Sting and Bruce Springsteen.) The Pro Age print, television and Web ads feature full-figured women, none of whom are models and all of whom are over age 50.
Take a look at this television commercial, which was banned from broadcast television for being too provocative:
The stakes in the cosmetic industry are slightly greater than high. Antiaging skin care products have been projected to reach worldwide sales of $13 billion by 2010, yet Dove’s management found something disrupting through a study conducted in nine countries: “91% of women over 50 feel they're not represented realistically in the media.” By implication, Boomer women feel nearly invisible in typical cosmetic advertising that has traditionally glorified impossibly perfect complexions of girls barely out of puberty.
According to Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist at the Harvard Medical School and author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, “We're seeing a real shift in how people are approaching beauty. Up to now, it’s been about fighting aging with everything you have. Now you have a choice not to.”
Millions of Boomer women, most of whom grew up embracing the ideals of women’s liberation and other social movements to eliminate sexism from American business and society, are now pushing those cathartic values into the marketplace where antiaging morphs logically into Pro Age. The personal becomes political once again. Or visa-versa.
In a never-ending quest to be relevant and arresting, marketing campaigns invariably tap into a current zeitgeist about our complex social and political relationships. This became apparent again to me when I observed a recent ad campaign produced by Bacardi Rum, which I discuss in detail in a previous post.
A television commercial involves a young male protagonist walking through a stylish nightclub but simultaneously walking back through time. During one segue, he passes through dancing couples set in the 1940s or1950s, and viewers see a quick glimpse of an African American man dancing with a Caucasian woman. This image is historical revisionism because people of mixed races would not dance together in the 1950s or earlier – certainly not in large, mainstream public venues.
But historical revisionism about racial relations reflects a contemporary mindset of inclusiveness in American society, the capstone of which has been election of racially mixed Barack Obama as President of the United States. In a rum advertising campaign broadcast widely on television during the past summer, the advertisement’s creators reflect a larger societal context of a nation finally coming to grips with its demonic history of slavery. The Bacardi ad plays one small part in changing our “collective mentality” about men of women of mixed races being together.
Is the Bacardi mojito ad an example of marketing or social commentary? I submit: both. It is marketing because it positions the brand of Bacardi Rum in a favorable context, showcasing the libation as post-racial, inclusive and hip to current standards of correct social behavior. It is social commentary because this brief image announces the extent to which the nation has evolved in our collective acceptance of racial integration and interracial dating.
My writing consistently juxtaposes complex social and political issues in the context of marketing communications. This point-of-view probably reflects my formative years after college working as a counseling psychologist, someone who constantly searched for motivations behind behavior. The behavior of advertising often manifests nuanced motivations that spring from our psychological evolution as social creatures: a hopeful quest for greater inclusiveness across races, cultures, nationalities and generations. Inclusiveness includes age acceptance and racial integration in the truest meaning of those ideals.
The personal is political. The personal is mass marketing.