Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 457 - 459)


8 MARCH 2005Mr Mervyn Kohler, Mr Steven Sadler and Mr Robert Diamond

  Q457  Chairman: May I welcome you very warmly and thank you for giving us time and coming along to our question session this morning. Thank you also for the written evidence that your organisations have submitted; that has been very helpful and has been digested, and it is the basis of some of the discussion this morning. Can I point out to you that we are now being broadcast live on internet, so anything you say will not simply be taken down and used in evidence, but it is available to anyone watching this on internet. Equally, the discussion may be broadcast on the Parliamentary digital channel, and the microphones are quite sensitive. That being said, my colleagues all have name tags and I will not go around the table taking time to introduce them, they will introduce themselves as they ask questions. I would like to start with a fairly general question, but one that I think is central to the issues that we would like to talk about this morning; perhaps each of you might, in responding to this question if you want to, simply say who you are and which organisation you represent. The question I want to ask is the belief that we largely have, and it is reinforced in the media, that the older generation has very significant economic power now that perhaps it did not have in the previous decades. That being so, we have found—and this is one of the reasons for this session today—that there seems to be surprisingly little movement towards developing products specifically designed for this group of potential customers. You may or may not agree with that, but I would like you to reflect on it and say, if it is the case, why you think that is, and if it is not the case perhaps give us some of the evidence to the contrary. Mervyn Kohler, would you like to start?

  Mr Kohler: Yes, thank you My Lord Chairman, I am Mervyn Kohler, the Head of Public Affairs at Help the Aged. The picture of a wealthier older society than we have ever seen before is a little bit unfair and it is certainly over-simplistic. Undoubtedly, the top 10 per cent—the top quintile perhaps—of our older population have got pretty high incomes. They have come from a background of reasonably good pension schemes—which actually delivered—and they have managed to build up a fair amount of capital savings, but for the other four-fifths we are looking at pretty staggering levels of subsistence. Barely half of our older population actually have an income large enough in order to pay income tax. We have got something like five million—again about half of our older population—now eligible for means-tested benefits of one kind or another, and those of course are only designed to provide people with subsistence income; ergo, quite a lot of our older population still remains, sadly, poor.

  Q458  Chairman: For the others, is there an unwillingness amongst manufacturers or industries to look for products that would be welcome to them in marketing?

  Mr Kohler: Yes, in general terms—and this is certainly what I would like to say to the Committee today—whilst there are a number of manufacturers and producers who obviously do market specifically to the older purchasers and therefore do a fair amount of market research there, in the general run of the provision of normal, everyday goods and services, the special needs of the older population tend to get overlooked, there is a trade-off with other age groups who are seen to be more accessible or interesting and so on and so forth. Take the ever diminishing size of mobile phones as an obvious example, there is huge consumer demand for small keyboards whereas the older population are struggling around trying to find out where the numbers are and that type of thing.

  Mr Diamond: Robert Diamond, I am the founder and chief executive of Diametric, which is a marketing agency. We provide services to the large, national brand owners to help them in the effectiveness of their marketing, and three years ago we launched a unit of the company called Grey Matters to help mainstream brands understand and respond to the challenges of an ageing population. Our proposition is overtly commercial, we work on subjects that are of interest to mainstream brand owners, and I will be honest and say that our Grey Matters unit has struggled somewhat over the last three years to engage the large advertisers in the UK in a meaningful dialogue about the impact of an ageing population. The reasons for that are manifold, but I will focus on three specifically. The first is a genuine challenge around the idea of marketing to older people—when we talk about a mature audience we typically refer to over 45 or over 50, it is an arbitrary measure and I apologise in advance for that.

  Q459  Chairman: Very arbitrary I would have said.

  Mr Diamond: Fundamentally, there is a growing challenge that a distinct 50-plus mindset exists any longer, and there is some research that we presented prior to this meeting, recent research done by MORI, that shows that 88 per cent of 60-64 year olds said that the term "elderly" did not apply to them; 52 per cent of 75-80 year olds said the term did not apply to them. One reason, therefore, is that there is a genuine challenge about a distinct 50-plus mindset. The second reason is that if one thinks about the large advertisers and the marketers in the UK, they are often applying it to a heartland of rather stereotypically large families with children, and there is a genuine concern, I think, that by marketing their car or their computer or their food product overtly to an older audience, it has the potential to alienate the mainstream, and there is some evidence that that is taking place. The third reason I would point to is that marketing and marketers, it is a youth sport I am afraid; at 37 I am one of the old guard, which is rather disturbing, and again we have presented some evidence from the Institute of Practitioners of Advertising that suggested that 39 per cent of UK marketing directors are aged under 35 and only 10 per cent of marketing directors—these are the people who are spending the budgets—are aged over 50. Again, that leads to an environment which perpetuates and rewards youth and is rather cynical and critical of anyone over 35.

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