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Moses Znaimer, founder and president of ZoomerMedia Ltd., says the beach retirement scenes shown in some retirement ads are his idea of ‘hell.’

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Moses Znaimer sat in the middle of his Zoomerplex offices in west-side Toronto, as flummoxed as anyone else.

The topic of the interview was advertising's depiction of aging. Mr. Znaimer's ZoomerMedia Ltd., which has TV, radio and magazine properties, is all built around portraying the vibrancy and lively interests of baby boomers, and he can't understand why advertisers can't do the same. For them, it seems, aging and retirement seem like occasions for clichés.

"The image of paradise as an empty beach with nothing going on, or empty Muskoka chairs at the end of a dock ... to me, that's hell," he said. Deathly still cottage life may be fine for a weekend, he conceded, but, "I like a busy world. I like a place where I have to make decisions and be engaged in life."

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This is the message he continually drums in the pages of Zoomer magazine and on the doors of advertisers, but they seem only to feign understanding, he indicated. Much of the problem is systemic, he said, since advertising continues to skew toward younger adult audiences, from 25- to 55-year-olds. The result is a failure to reach out to older boomers, let alone speak to them effectively.

"Either you get the depiction of a very youthful, omnibus 50-plus person in an ad – except that they [the models] are probably in their 40s – or we jump immediately to the individual with white hair and declining physical capabilities, who is in their mid-80s," he lamented.

Zoomer's general target audience is 45- to 70-year-olds, a huge swath controlling close to 80 per cent of Canada's wealth and responsible for more than 50 per cent of consumer-goods purchases, said Mr. Znaimer, who's in his early 70s. Those who follow the boomer market cite roughly similar numbers.

When not exaggerating youthfulness, ads focusing on aging typically depict decline and frailty. And this message is repeated in the larger media in the image of "the grey tsunami," Mr. Znaimer said, taking on a tone of mock fear. What advertisers don't do, he argued, is include the fact that much of that same population is "very well heeled, and are at a time in their lives where they not only have the means, but they have the motive to do something interesting for themselves and useful for society.

"They are missing that George [expletive] Clooney is 53! What more do you need?" he said. "George has got the money, and George has got the girl, in case anybody missed that."

Yet boomers are also hard to please, and it is difficult for advertisers to get it right.

As a generation reinventing the entire essence of aging and retirement, boomers want to view aging positively. Like Mr. Znaimer, they don't want depictions of frailty and decline. But they also don't want to be talked down to. They are the media-raised generation questioning convention, after all. So it's hard to get the tone right for them, and most advertisers fail, said Lina Ko, a marketing industry veteran and blogger of boomerwatch.ca.

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"They need to understand that retirement is not just a life stage. It's an attitude. It's a new perspective on life, at least we boomers want to look at it that way. It's not a hanging-up-your-boots, greying-of-your-life stage," she said.

There are some rare, effective ads that show aging with compassion, she noted. The AARP, an association for those older than 50, has a gentle public-service campaign (at aarp.org/caregiving) aimed at understanding the changing roles of aging parents and adult children acting as caregivers. One of the spots, by the Miami-based ad agency Alma, shows a mother drying the hair of her daughter coming out of the bath. Then the action repeats, but the roles are reversed. The daughter is now an adult woman herself, drying the hair of the mother who is now elderly.

"It's one of the most touching commercials I've ever seen," Ms. Ko said. The AARP's ads speak across demographics to young boomers and young adults in caregiving roles, as well as to older boomers perhaps needing care. And the spots are tied to the AARP's website providing resources on caregiving and a 1-800 support line. The success of the ads lie not only in their compassionate tone, but also the tie-in to the website resources.

It's a tone Ms. Ko feels is lost on retirement ads by financial institutions. "I can't think of one single brand or particular product that is differentiating enough, that I would pay attention to. And therein lies the issue," she said.

But some brands are recognizing the need to update their message.

Freedom 55, one of the most recognized Canadian slogans, has been part of the vernacular to describe retirement dreams since London Life Insurance Co. started the brand in the mid 1980s. Yet with retiring at 55 a lost dream for most (if not something many active 55-year-olds even want), London Life has subtly shifted the advertising toward more generic freedom of financial options throughout one's lifetime. Its website tellusyourfreedom.ca has a youthful look, talking about personal stories and the budget needed to follow such fanciful dreams as buying a horse, or becoming a songwriter, or scuba diving in a shark cage.

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"It's your own personal picture and what your retirement is going to look like, or what your business is going to look like, or what your next generation's financial well-being is going to look like," said Mike Cunneen, senior vice-president at London Life's Freedom 55 Financial division.

But is this really speaking to boomers? Or is this advertising still skewing young?

Much has also been made by media and fashion commentators of the recent wave of famous older woman in campaigns by French haute-couture houses, from Joni Mitchell for Yves St. Laurent to Joan Didion for Céline. While the commentary has noted the link between fashion and intellectual role models, Ms. Ko pointed to a very delicate balance in any ad touching on aging.

"The brands themselves do not want to be seen as an older woman's brand. You need to walk a fine line of not alienating the younger audiences, as well as not being just a young brand with nothing that appeals to boomers. This is the fine line they have to draw."

What you have are boomers who don't want to be old, or at least don't want to be relegated into old notions of old, as well as the young who want the maturity of the old. (Anyone who follows the young cultural cognoscenti on Twitter will know that Joan Didion remains an "it" girl.)

"They are trying to say, beauty is ageless, fashion is ageless," while the cutting-edge advertisers, including these fashion houses, realize that "boomers are where the money is, and our demographic is going to stay on for another 15 to 20 years at least."

So as to Mr. Znaimer's question of why advertisers keep targeting younger adults when the 60-year-olds are the ones with the spending money: It could be, in this era of agelessness, that 60-year-olds aren't really 60, but an improved version of their younger selves.

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