MUNICH — Advertisers have very clear ideas about the image to use to attract potential new customers in the "senior" demographic: salt-and-pepper hair, wrinkles (but only around the eyes), slender, athletic.

That's what most of the older models who appear in commercials look like. Yet, seeing them happily cruising the countryside on electric bikes or hugging each other, laughing, in commercials for prostate medicine, they look more like cartoon characters than real human beings.

The question is for how long the economy can pull along this old-fashioned train. In Germany there have never before been so many retired citizens — with demographics continuing in that direction. One out of five Germans is over 65 years old, and by 2060 it will be one out of three.

Last year, for the first time in history, we have more potential customers over the age of 50 than those between 14 and 49 years old. These numbers alone make this target group particularly interesting. "Many companies underestimate the potential of this 'new generation' as a target group," says Ursula Friedsam who supervises the "66" trade fair for seniors in Munich.

Our youth-focused society tends to associate "old" as "unattractive," which leads to companies shying away from addressing them for fear of somehow offending them. "Unfortunately, it's pretty difficult to get the stereotypes out of the marketing departments," says Friedsam.

This hides another issue: Today "Over 50" includes several decades, which makes it hard to identify, define and study "the elderly" as a single demographic block with the same desires or interests.

Gundolf Meyer-Hentschel, a specialist in senior marketing, does not like to think of it as a target group, per se: "For marketing departments it's a hard nut to crack," he says. "Some start counting backwards once they hit 50, others stress how good they're still feeling at 78." Regardless, all acknowledge that more and more seniors are doing their shopping online.

Advertising for senior, more like a cartoon character than a real human being? — Photo: West Coast Surfer/DPA/ZUMA

With much invested in market research, today seniors are generally subdivided into four or five groups. There are the actives who are constantly traveling, or the conservative connoisseurs, who like to spend their money on such things as wine tastings. But too many companies associate seniors with cell phones with huge keyboards and spa holidays.

Do the math

In purely economic terms, people over 50 are a rather attractive clientele. One out of four men over 65 has more than 2,000 euros per month in disposable income to spend. Most seniors are not afraid to spend large amounts of money, even when it comes to everyday items. But they spend the money only if they are truly convinced. And the products must have a clear benefit — they usually aren't interested in purchases for the sake of a certain lifestyle.

"Companies need to have water-proof credibility in order to score with this target group," says Meyer-Hentschel. It's all about authenticity and empathy; or in other words: age-appropriate treatment without making too much of a big deal out of it.

Obviously, age does make a difference when it comes to the demand for certain products. At the recent “66” fair, demand was high for health related topics and travel. Technical innovations are increasingly popular: Tablets, computers, houses that are secure and manageable thanks to integrated technology like height-adjustable sinks that allow autonomy in one's home even at a later age.

What is perhaps most surprising is how physically active the age group is. Among the most sought after products is equipment for skiing. Keep an eye out for advertisements of handsome gray-haired people trading in their bicycles for a shiny pair of skis.

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