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“Grey? I can picture the logo—lower case, sans serif type, widely spaced. Very clean look, very sharp,” says Doug Bennet, publisher of Masthead magazine. “I would bet you 50 bucks someone’s going to do it at some point.”

There’s a reason Bennet can envision this sort of general interest publication, aimed at older people simply because they’re older: it’s been done before and more than once. Today, several magazines are targeting an over-50 readership in precisely this way. But for so many reasons, it’s a wrongheaded approach that will never really fly. Why ghettoize readers according to age? Even in the teen market, such a strategy would spell death. You wouldn’t find a Goth reading Seventeen or a young feminist reading Tiger Beat. So why do publishers think a 50-year-old is going to read a general interest senior’s title? Especially when it lumps together a diverse assortment of readers based on one weak link: a vague age group.

After all, it’s not as if people’s interests evaporate at a certain age. “When you turn 50, you’ll still want to read Atlantic Monthly, and still want to buy Chatelaine and still want to read Saturday Night. Just because you’re older doesn’t mean you’re not going to read those other magazines. It just doesn’t make any sense,” says 43-year-old Bennet.

It’s no wonder publishers are eager to profit on the huge swell of Canadians who are aging. In 2001, according to Statistics Canada, 29 per cent of the population or approximately nine million Canadians were 50 or older. By 2021, this group is likely to soar to more than 40 per cent or approximately 14 million Canadians. For the first time, the old will outnumber the young?and publishers see vast demographic potential. Or maybe not.

No one likes to be categorized by age, and a title aimed at older people simply because of their age is, to put it mildly, off putting. “I’m 62, but feel 45,” says Cottage Life publisher Al Zikovitz. “I still go ice climbing, heli-skiing and scuba diving. I don’t think about all of the ailments that come along with what seniors’ magazines are talking about, I don’t have any ailments, I’m very healthy. And I don’t want to think about it. I still play hockey every week. I still do all those things. So, my head is really in the 40 plus sort of group. I think a lot of people don’t want to think of themselves as being old.”

And there’s the catch. Senior magazines are targeting an audience that doesn’t see itself as the target. “I think boomers specifically are going to be very resistant to the notion of being pigeonholed as seniors. Anything like that will probably be a turn off,” says 56-year-old D.B. Scott, a magazine consultant.

Regardless, there are 29 magazines listed under the mature market category in the January 2003 edition ofCanadian Advertising Rates and Data. Two of them boast hefty circulation numbers. Good Times, produced by Seniors Publications, a division of Transcontinental, had a circulation of 152, 637 in 2002. Not available on the newsstands, the magazine relies on direct mail campaigns and word of mouth to bring in subscribers.50Plus readers, who in 2002 numbered 207, 722, receive the magazine in the mail as one of several benefits of membership to the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP)?along with discounts and special reduced rates on travel bookings, car rentals and insurance.

Despite healthy-sounding numbers, both magazines’ circulations pale beside those of other Canadian broad general interest magazines. In 2002 Canadian Living came in at 540,224 and Maclean‘s, at 450,615. Readership numbers tell a similar story. While Print Measurement Bureau (PMB) readership results for 2002 listed both Good Times and 50Plus at a respectable four readers per copy, PMB readership for Toronto Life and Canadian Business rated, respectively, 10.1 and 12.1 readers per copy.

Zikovitz says the relatively low numbers for seniors’ titles aren’t surprising: “What you have here is an age group, but you don’t have a lifestyle.” True, although even that age grouping doesn’t gel. The 50Plus market includes people born at the beginning of the baby boom?which, according to demographer David Foot, spanned 1946 to 1966?and those born just after the turn of the 20th century. As Scott points out, “A 70-year-old now was born in the early ’30s, entirely different circumstances from someone who has just turned 55 who is just in the leading edge of the baby boom. They could come from different planets.”

And indeed, when 50Plus was revamped to become “more sophisticated, younger and to appeal to the needs and the concerns of the aging baby boomers,” as the late 50Plus editor/publisher David Tafler described it, the magazine upset its older, conservative readers. A 2002 cover story on interracial families in50Plus drew angry responses.

“We got letters about that rainbow family cover from people saying ‘why would you put those people or people with turbans on the cover? Why do you promote those kinds of things? Cancel my subscription.’ But you get ten or twelve of those. It’s not a significant number and even if it were we have a responsibility to represent everyone in our demographic and we try very hard to do that.”

So, how do you position the editorial for such a disparate lot of readers? Here’s where stereotypes rear their heads. Judging from the soft middle-of-the-road content and age-related service pieces, readers are mainly ailment-plagued blue-hairs with very conservative values. They want advice on how to manage everything from their health to their finances, and plan to while away their vacations aboard cruise ships.

A closer look at the two biggest titles backs this up. 50Plus magazine emerged from CARPNews, a newsletter sent to CARP members when the organization began 15 years ago. It then evolved into a tabloid newspaper and finally, in 1999, became a standard-sized glossy magazine. The October 2002 issue paints a pretty clear picture of what the magazine is all about. Devoted to the topic of health, it ran with a cover story called “Aging Well?Guaranteed.” On the cover shot, a fit-looking gray-haired man in shorts sprints across the page. It includes pieces such as “Tests to Take at Every Age” and “Get Physical,” outlining medical tests seniors should have done and exercises that are good for the heart, flexibility, balance and posture. The magazine is heavy on service journalism, whether it’s focused on health, finance or travel.

Good Times targets those who can afford a comfortable retirement. With a light blonde bob hairstyle and pink blazer, editor Judy Brandow is as upbeat as her magazine. “Our mission is to help readers make the best of this time of their life. The person we’re thinking about when we’re pitching a story is the 60-year-old. A person planning to retire or who has already retired.”

The magazine began in 1990 as the English-language sister publication to Le Bel Age. This French version of the magazine was started in 1987 by publisher Francine Tremblay, who felt that people like her then 58-year-old mother didn’t have any magazines to read that reflected their lifestyles. The fact that Brandow is the former editor of Canadian Living is not surprising since she describes Good Times as a retiree’s Canadian Living. Almost 70 percent of Good Times‘ readers are female. A typical cover image shows the smiling face of a stylishly coiffed older woman who has a few more wrinkles than the typical women’s magazine cover girl.

Even stories with the potential for political edge are soft. In November 2002, a feature profile on 64-year-old Roy Romanow followed his life story from a personal angle. “We did touch on the health report, but that’s not the story,” says Brandow. “The story is ‘who is this man that’s going to be shaping our health care?”

“Keeping the Faith and Your Health Too” discussed how religion can help some people recover from illnesses more quickly. Service pieces covered online collectibles auctions as well as financial matters like life insurance and retirement savings. Travel and recipe sections are regular sections, but Brandow is especially proud of the magazine’s beauty and fashion coverage. “We do beauty. People want to look their best?and I don’t think you’d find any other magazine, anywhere that does beauty stories on women in their ’80s.”

But many women, even those well into their ’70s, don’t identify with their age group. As June Callwood, now 79, wrote in the 2001 book Dropped Threads: “The face I see in the mirror is that of a very wrinkled, very spotted old woman with loose skin under her jaw and teeth shading to orange. This apparition never gives me a moment’s pang because she clearly isn’t me. This is not denial on my part: I simply feel no connection to that elderly person. In my mind’s eye I look the way I did for most of my life, with a face and body neither so beautiful nor so ugly as to require upkeep.”

At 62, Toronto Sun relationship columnist Valerie Gibson doesn’t identify with the target audience for other reasons. The author of Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men, Gibson is known for debunking the stereotypical look of older women. Her criticism lies in the magazines’ lack of attention to dating and sexuality and alternative lifestyles. “They prefer that you’re in a couple and you’re going off on cruises. There’s a sort of average happy North American life aspect to these magazines, that everybody is nice and comfortable financially and comfortable in their relationships,” says Gibson, explaining what she calls the Disney version of life these magazines project.

“There’s still the general idea that when you get to a certain age you’re supposed to shut down and knit your grandkids booties and put a shawl on your shoulders and forget you’re desirable.”

Advertisers, too, would appear to accept this stereotype. Like the readers themselves, advertisers don’t want to be ghettoized and have their products associated with a stereotypical image. But perhaps most importantly they don’t seem to register the spending power of many seniors.

In “The portrayal of older characters in magazine advertising,” a study published in 1998 by the Journal of Marketing Practice: Applied Marketing Science, authors Marylyn Carrigan and Isabelle Szmigin would beg to differ. “Estimates suggest that the over-45s have nearly 80 percent of all financial wealth in the U.K. and are responsible for 30 per cent of consumer spending.” According to the United States Census, 50-plus households control 41 percent of all discretionary income, totaling $169 billion, while Canadians over 50 spend $35 billion a year on retail goods and services and control 55 percent of discretionary dollars.

The disposable income of seniors notwithstanding, advertisers are unconvinced that this demographic can be influenced by advertising. Traditionally the most sought after advertising market is the 25-to 49-year-old. “Most of the activity tends to be directed towards the lower end of the age spectrum, because many consumers have not really established their buying patterns or their brand loyalties. They’re moving into income groups where they have to start experimenting. So it is better to spend dollars against an age group where you do have a better chance of impacting them as far as their brand loyalties are concerned,” says Hugh Dow, president of M2 Universal, a media buying and planning firm.

But Joy Sanguedolce, who has worked as a media planning supervisor for the last two years at Cossette Media, disagrees. It’s her job to figure out what media outlets a client should advertise. Recently the 26-year-old handled a campaign for Shopper’s Drug Mart to find media outlets to promote the chain’s senior’s day. “The myth that older people are set in their ways and don’t want new products is incorrect. They have the money and the time to investigate new products?any good media planner knows to look beyond the numbers.”

But stereotypes about older consumers still exist in the advertising industry. Companies that produce cars, alcohol and tobacco spend lots on advertising, but little of it is placed in senior publications. For example there is only one ad for a Chevrolet Impala in the October 2002 issue of 50Plus. However, there are ads for Exlax and One Touch Ultra hearing aid.

An even better way to analyze how these publications are faring is to take a look at their editorial/advertising ratios. While a 40/60 editorial/advertising split is considered healthy, 50/50 is considered the minimum ad ratio for a magazine’s survival. Any ad percentages that dip below 50 are troubling at best. 50Plus clocks in at roughly 62 percent editorial, 38 percent ads; Good Times at 68 percent editorial and 32 percent ads. Perhaps even more revealing are the publications’ ad rates. The cost-per-thousand for a full-page, four-colour ad in Maclean’s is $72 and $58 in Canadian Living, while the CPM for Good Times is a modest $52.

Another reason advertisers aren’t flocking to these publications is their general-interest positioning. Sanguedolce notes that many advertisers prefer vertical publications?which focus on one subject such as cooking or golf?for promoting their products because the target audience is more sharply defined.

In the U.S. some publishers are pointing new seniors’ titles in that direction. In September 1998, Moremagazine was launched as a fashion, beauty and lifestyle book for women over 40. Best Life debuted in November 2002 as a health magazine targeted to boomer men. Still, it is too early in the game to know if these titles will flourish or flop. In the general-interest category, the market is pretty much the same as in Canada. 50Plus‘s U.S. counterpart, Modern Maturity, published by The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), has a circulation of 20.5 million, although, again, the magazine is just one of several benefits of membership in AARP. In 2001, AARP made a stab at publishing a general-interest senior’s title with My Generation, a magazine that hoped to take advantage of AARP’s younger boomer membership. It died in 2002 and has since been integrated into Modern Maturity.

While vertical publications that interest seniors may be one way to reel in that fast-growing grey demographic, there’s another solution that makes solid editorial and advertising sense. In the future, suggests D.B. Scott, we may see broad general interest magazines simply adjusting their editorial content to accommodate the oncoming “gray revolution.” This change could occur subtly?by adding subject matter relevant to older people or covering general topics from a more age-inclusive perspective. Or it might take place more obviously, with special sections. Either way, it makes eminent sense to take advantage of an existing loyal readership?not to mention an established advertising base.

As things stand now, general-interest seniors’ publications are facing a difficult and daunting task. With a target audience that doesn’t want to think about getting old, the biggest obstacle these titles face?demographic denial?may never change.

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About the author

Nadine Anglin was the Online Editor for the Spring 2003 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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