Although most advertisers still direct their efforts toward younger consumers , some are beginning to take a closer look at the over-49 segment of the market. J. Walter Thompson Inc., a New York advertising agency, is about to launch an analysis of the older-American market, following a recent women's study that tested responses to a spectrum of television commercials.
''I think it's safe to generalize that no one wants to be made fun of, demeaned, or fitted into a stereotype,'' says Rena Bartos, a senior vice-president and director of communications development at J. Walter Thompson.
According to Ms. Bartos, the relative absence of older people in ads ''is partly neglect - advertisers haven't realized the potential of that segment.''
She classifies these overlooked consumers as the ''invisible market.'' People over age 49 are becoming less distinguishable from the younger parts of the population, and ''unless someone is clearly elderly'' they tend to look and act younger than their age might imply. She also believes older Americans are less likely than previous generations to adopt restrictions in the way they live simply because they have reached a specific age.
''A bell doesn't go off at a certain birthday'' and trigger the thought, 'Now I'm old,' '' Ms. Bartos says.
Like the women's groups they studied, it's unrealistic for advertisers to assume all older people are ''cut from the same cookie cutter,'' she says.
From her research on senior citizens, Ms. Bartos has defined subgroups within the over-49 population as a whole.
''The sad reality is a sizable number are below the poverty level,'' Ms. Bartos says. According to an article she wrote for The Harvard Business Review, these disadvantaged people account for about 17 percent of the over-49 population, and their needs are best looked to by social workers and policymakers rather than marketers.
For advertising purposes, once that segment is isolated, three groups emerge from the over-49 population: the ''active affluents,'' which Ms. Bartos describes as those usually at the peak of their earnings, with grown children and a relatively large amount of spendable income; the ''active retired,'' who are above the poverty level and have an adequate income; and homemakers, whose spending power is often determined by whether they are widowed or, if married, by the income level of their spouse.
Ms. Bartos believes there is great consumer potential in aiming at the spending habits and life styles of these groups. She writes: ''The over-49 market represents a wealth of opportunities for those marketers who are willing to challenge their own assumptions about age.''