When I was a young Silicon Valley reporter back in 1999, Philips Electronics had just rolled out a line of high-end televisions touting the latest and greatest.
The commercial they splashed across every TV station in the nation showed a bunch of trendy 20-somethings with dreadlocks and fun clothes, laughing and playing and grooving out in front of this dazzling screen while a Beatles song played.
So during an interview, I asked a company representative, half joking, “Why would you target 20-somethings? How many kids my age could afford that TV? My car’s worth less than that.”
The middle-aged vice president of marketing sized me up and said, a little condescendingly, “We’re not targeting 20-somethings; we’re targeting baby boomers—but that’s not how they see themselves. They want to feel like the kids in that commercial.”
Ah. The lightbulb turned on. I understood, because I live there too, in that twilight zone between what is and what we think is, between how others see us and how we see ourselves, where we all live.
That fountain-of-youth mirage Philips was peddling is the eternal promise of consumerism. Yet, like a cigarette, the promise wears off, and you need another.
Edward Bernays would be proud. Bernays, known as the father of modern public relations, also happened to be the nephew of none other than Sigmund Freud.
He started his career working for Woodrow Wilson in an early version of Psychological Operations (PsyOps), dedicated to influencing public opinion about World War I. (If you’re not familiar with PsyOps … well, you are; you just don’t know it.)
After the war, Bernays became a giant in the advertising world. Part of what made him so groundbreaking was the application of his uncle’s principles to advertising. He was the first man to market cigarettes to women, for example, by framing the act of smoking in public, which was taboo, as a strike for women’s equality, dubbing the cancer sticks “torches of freedom.”
Talk about propaganda. It was a wildly effective campaign, and 40 years later, it echoed during the height of women’s lib as “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
That’s genius, evil genius, but still. Bernays figured out how to exploit a type of envy, how to tap into a latent desire, by merging psychoanalysis with marketing. And the world has never been the same.
“We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of,” he once said.
The more desperate somebody is for a solution, he knew, the more susceptible they are. When you’re young, you want to look mature, and when you’re old, you desperately want the appearance of youth.
Now, I’m 42 years old, middle-aged—well, I guess I’m middle-aged, if I make it to 84—but I don’t see myself like that.
And maybe that’s the first thing to know about baby boomers—don’t call them seniors. If you’re building a community targeted at boomers, don’t call it seniors housing. That’s too stark, too unsettling.
Our industry needs a new lexicon for this demographic. The only thing that should “age in place” is cheese and wine. And “independent living” sounds like some kind of prison release program.
Look at how our frenemies in the single-family world do it: They never utter the word “seniors.” Instead, it’s “active adult” (as opposed to “inactive adults,” the ones zoning out in “seniors” housing).
OK, now I’m just having fun with words. But you get my drift. These boomers aren’t your father’s father. Inside, they’re still young, still living large even as they downsize for life’s second act.
They’re not “seniors,” not by a long shot. They want an engaging neighborhood, the buzz of fresh commerce, to feel as young as they see themselves.
My dad recently turned 75. When I asked him how it felt, he said it was the same as turning 25 or 50.