- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2001


"It's hip to be square" Huey Lewis And The News.

Reading glasses and arthritis drugs are products associated with getting older and not exactly what you would think of as trendy. But marketed to baby boomers, they suddenly become cool.

Motivated by the wealth and unprecedented size of the boomer generation, marketers have found ways to make things once seen as old-fogey stuff not only more palatable, but even high-fashion a trend boomers, known for buying things and boasting about them, are quite willing to embrace.

Remember the fake pearl eyeglass chain your third-grade teacher wore? Ugh, right? But you can now wear your glasses on a stylish black cord around your neck.

Consider arthritis pain medications. A generation ago, commercials showed older people with arthritis grimacing as they got out of easy chairs. Now ads show people doing very hip activities such as tai chi or biking.

There are other examples: products to relieve menopause symptoms. Disposable and digital hearing aids. Progressive eyeglass lenses. Designer walking sticks. Bathing suits to hide flab and cellulite.

Of course, there's nothing new about selling things to people trying to cope with life's unsettling sides hair dye makers and diet book publishers have made billions over the years. And with the development of impotence drugs like Viagra and products to help people with incontinence, many formerly taboo subjects are now openly discussed.

But with boomers, there's a twist.

"They're a very status-conscious group and purchasing is a form of self-expression," said Kathleen Seiders, a marketing professor at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. "They're very comfortable with products that are more cutting-edge or fashion-forward or more stylish."

Some of this marketing might seem a little frivolous or intended only to make money off baby boomers' insecurities or vanity. But for some boomers, products to help them cope with getting older have nothing to do with a cutting edge they've changed their lives for the better.

Jay Tribich, 55, owner of a graphics design firm in New York, gradually lost his hearing starting in childhood and wore hearing aids for years, but it wasn't until he got a cochlear implant, a device surgically placed inside the ear, that he really got his hearing back. Mr. Tribich doesn't brag about the implant he expresses sheer joy because it has made life so much better.

"Whoever has an implant, you will get such a positive, impactful response from these people," he said. "They will shout it from the rooftops how great this is!"

Still, even with products that have such a positive impact, there is money to be made.

A professional online publication, Advance for Speech-Language Pathologists & Audiologists, recently observed that boomers "may be the group that is most interested in implantable hearing technology once it is perfected."

Similarly, there are many Web sites advertising new disposable and digital hearing aids to Boomers, as well as sites advertising progressive eyeglass lenses, which combine reading and distance lenses without the telltale lines of bifocals.

This excerpt from a site called www.AllAboutVision.com pretty much addresses boomers' issues with aging:

"If you're a 40-something who is having trouble reading the fine print, you have more options than just the lined bifocals your parents wore… . Progressive lenses, sometimes referred to as 'no-line bifocals,' not only provide visual correction for distances that traditional bifocals can't, but they also hide the fact that you even need reading glasses."

Marketing aimed at sensitive subjects might raise questions about exploiting people's insecurities. But Stijn van Osselaer, a marketing professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, doesn't see what marketers are doing as negative.

If "the underlying assumption is that there's only one good way to get rid of insecurities and that's to 'get over it,' that's very disputable," he said. "There's nothing wrong in trying to develop products and make sure boomers know about them, especially if they're built to satisfy the needs of boomers."

Sadly, previous generations could also have benefited from these new products. For example, women have long suffered the unpleasant effects of menopause, but it is only recently that soy-based products have been widely advertised as helping to relieve symptoms such as hot flashes.

The wealth and size of the boomer generation there are some 76 million people in the group born between 1946 and 1964 have made manufacturers and marketers more cognizant of the demand for these products.

There's also that boomer love of buying.

"Marketers see these consumers as both status-oriented and status-seeking, and so they develop products that are obviously very necessary, but they develop specifications so they fit with this lifestyle," said Christine Moorman, a marketing professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

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