Visual Perception Changes in the Aging Eye: The Elderly May Not See What You Want Them to See

Article excerpt


A current major marketing mistake is an ineffective effort to market to the elderly (Flanagan, 1994). Even though the increasing size and economic power of the elderly population have been noted in published research (e.g. Day, Davis, Dove, & French, 1987/1988; Henderson, 1998; Long, 1998), marketing errors of commission and omission have occurred. Older adults have been negatively stereotyped (Sherman, 1987; Moore, 1988) and underrepresented in advertising (Milliman & Erffmeyer, 1989/1990), poorly segmented, and sometimes - ignored (Long, 1998; Moore, 1988). These mistakes are due, in part, to the fact that many marketers have looked at subjective rather than objective information regarding the elderly and, at times, have viewed elderly consumers as old young consumers. In reality, there are many differences between young and old consumers, some of which include differences in physical mobility (Rosendahl, 1992), cognitive processing abilities (Stephens, 1991), and sensory abilities (Long, 1998).

A key sensory ability that changes as a result of aging is the ability to perceive visual stimuli. Visual perception in the older consumer should be a critical area of concern for marketers who target the elderly, because visual perception is often at the root of information processing and resulting consumer behavior. Psychologists, commercial color consultants, and advertisers, for example, use a variety of color hues to elicit emotions and consumer behavioral responses (Lee & Barnes, 1989). Without a doubt, the implications of visual changes in an aging population are numerous for segmentation and targeting (Braus, 1995).

Since humans are highly visually oriented creatures, a better understanding of visual perception in the aging eye will benefit marketers in at least three ways. First, a more thorough knowledge of visual perception in older adults will enhance the general understanding of the later stages of information processing since exposure to stimuli, at least in part, determines what occurs in the later stages. Second, it will play a major role in the development of creative and media strategies, both of which are important to marketers (Lamons, 1992). A quote by Ross (1983) regarding such media decisions is even more pertinent today: "The currently increasing use of a multiplicity of media requires that each individual medium be refined for more effective targeted marketing. Equally important, if not more so, is the significance of media's interrelationship and interdependence as a means of achieving a synergistic effect." Finally, from a consumer standpoint, marketers will be able to address the specific visual needs of the older age group rather than merely treat them as older young people. In an article by Goerne (1992) on direct mail, Schultz was quoted as saying, "We still don't do a very good job of understanding our customer." An understanding of the changes in visual perception that occur with aging will enable marketers to target older consumers more effectively.

All this is not to say that the aging population and its impact on marketing have gone unnoticed. Certainly, numerous articles and chapters with a focus on or a mention of older consumers have been published over the last 15 years. These include discussions of the size of the older segment (Greco, 1984; Longino, 1994; Loudon & Della Bitta, 1988), segments within the older market (Day, Davis, Dove, & French, 1987/1988; French & Fox, 1985; Hitschler, 1993; Lumpkin, 1985; Visvabharathy & Rink, 1985), characteristics/dimensions of older consumers (Lazer, 1985, 1986), marketing mix related issues (Greco, 1987; Peterson, 1992; Schewe, 1988; Stephens, 1991), and information processing (John & Cole, 1986). The information presented by these and other authors has enriched our knowledge of the older segment, thereby enhancing our abilities to study the consumer behaviors of this older segment and to target them more effectively. …