One of the unintended consequences of the eight hurricanes that hit Florida in 2004-05 -- you might call it a spinoff effect -- was to change the face of advertising on I-75.
Gone are the billboards that once featured Arthur Godfrey, Ted Williams and Art Linkletter touting the active senior lifestyle of Florida's mega-retirement villages. In their place are generic images of smiling retirees dancing, swimming and playing golf, looking mature but very vigorous.
The reason is simple. By now, many people making retirement decisions have no idea who Godfrey was. If they recognized Williams, it was as an old-time ballplayer, not a world-class sports fisherman. Perhaps a few of the cute children Linkletter interviewed on his TV show were whizzing along I-75 and thinking about retiring to Florida, but surely not enough.
Maybe in a few years, the generic faces there now will be replaced by the headliners of my youth -- "Mick Jagger says, 'The living is balmy at Boca Mar Vista del Sol,' " or Mary Tyler Moore will be smiling about medic-alert alarms.
All of us fit into a target audience, or multiple marketing niches. Advertisers sort us en masse as single women, working moms, married couples, college students, middle-aged parents and retirees. We're cross-indexed by race and, of course, age. Political candidates do it, too, as we'll see in this election year.
In Florida, heaven's waiting room, old people are not to be trifled with.
That's why Social Security is so big here. Nobody will be president without winning Florida and any candidate who wants to mess with elderly voters might as well speed their own demise by going to Iowa and coming out against ethanol subsidies for corn, or tell New Hampshire voters "Live Free or Die" is a dumb slogan.
It's estimated that elderly voters make up about one-fifth of Florida's electorate. We can assume that their segment of consumers is even higher; not everyone votes, but we all buy stuff.
I recently got a personal induction into “geezers from hell,” as fearful political and marketing strategists call them. In mid-April, I retired, and will be 69 next month.
The computers have been tracking me for years, of course. Databases alerted companies when my son was born in 1988, for instance, and we started getting coupons in the mail for diapers and baby food. As he aged, the advertisements kept pace -- tricycles, skates, book bags, whatever Sears or Toys R Us thought we might need, at each stage. Every swipe of my credit card told subscribing companies that my wife and I might be looking for vacation rentals, insurance, colleges or cars.
Since retiring, the normal flow has become a tsunami. I get e-mails, letters, automated phone calls and in-person inquiries from folks peddling hearing aids, discount dentures, reverse mortgages, reading glasses, adjustable beds, investment advice (isn't it a little late for that?), scooter chairs, old-time music catalogs, timeshares and vacation cruises. When you retire, advertisers assume you must be falling apart -- I got one sales pitch for hip replacements and another about suing my doctor, if I already got a fake hip that didn't make me 23 again.
Statistically, the American marketing geniuses guess I'm probably divorced or widowed by now, and want to meet women who do their reading on paper, rather than computer screens, or who know who Johnny Carson was. Match-making in mind, other companies want me to prepare by checking out hair replacement services, face tightening (cream or surgical), weight loss and optical operations to free me from eyeglasses. Then there are the big cars; I'm perfectly happy with my little Ford Focus, but Ford seems to think I'll now want a Lincoln or at least a Taurus (to drive, presumably, nine miles an hour with a turn signal blinking all day, this being Florida).
Maybe I just notice it more than others, but it seems that the product I get the most advertisements for is Aricept, that memory pill for old people. Well, that's not so bad. It could be worse. At least, I'm not getting ads for Aricept, that memory pill for old people.
Bill Cotterell is a former Capitol political reporter. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org