PARIS — Her intelligent eyes and smile are seductive, but what really catches the eye is her mane of silver hair.
Staring at Paris Métro riders from a poster ad for Dove soap, the middle-aged model poses a defiant question: "When can we start being proud of our gray hair?"
It is a challenge that piqued the interest of Régine Landri, a French actress whose own locks are graying at the temples. "I like it," she said, studying the poster one recent evening. "I can identify with it. But I'm not stupid. This is still marketing designed to make money."
You bet it is. And as baby boomers hit middle age, advertisers are waking up to the fact that there is a lot of money to be made from European consumers nearing retirement age.
The same phenomenon that threatens to bankrupt national pension programs across the Continent in the not-too-distant future promises opportunity to savvy salesmen today, says Reg Starkey, creative director for Millennium Direct, a British marketing consultancy that specializes in opening the "gray wallet" for clients.
"It's sheer numbers," he argues. "In the 60s, 70s, and 80s it made all the sense in the world to focus on youth, because that's where the humps were" as the baby boom pig moved through the demographic python.
"Now these people are all over 45," he points out. "And people between 45 and 59 have the most disposable income of any age group in the population."
The statistics are hard to dispute: In Britain, the 50-plus age group is the only growing demographic tranche. Over the next 20 years, the number of Britons older than 75 will leap by 43 percent. In Europe as a whole, the proportion of the population over 65 will grow from 12 percent today to 28.5 percent - easily the largest of any region in the world, according to the United Nations Population Fund - in 2050.
Some experts are dubious about the potential of the "mature market," since seniors "know who they are, what they like, and what they don't," Simon Silvester, planning director for Young and Rubicam, an international ad agency, wrote in a 2002 report. Which, he explained, "makes them much, much more difficult to market to."
For the moment, campaigns like Dove's are unusual. A Millennium study last year found that 86 percent of seniors felt ignored by marketers, and 70 percent felt patronized.
"For advertisers, either you are young and beautiful and you consume, or you are old and you buy nothing but recliners," says Sylvie Fabrigon, who runs a Paris model agency. "They see nobody in between, but that doesn't match reality." Last month, anticipating changing attitudes, Ms. Fabrigon launched a line of mature models under the "Masters" label.
The attitudes that need changing belong to 30-something marketing directors, says Frédéric Serrière, who heads the SeniorStrategic consulting agency in France. "It takes a lot of effort for them to understand older people," he points out.
They might start by taking a trip to Saarbrücken, in southern Germany, where Gundolf Meyer-Henschel could dress them up in his "Age Explorer" suit, which simulates conditions associated with old age.
A helmet and smoked-glass visor restrict the wearer's vision. The suit's joints are stiffened, and 13 pounds of weights make it harder to move around. At a recent workshop, Mr. Meyer-Henschel recalls, a supermarket manager wearing the suit discovered how nervous she was stretching for things nearly out of her reach. She quickly rang her store and told staff to stop stacking cans on the top shelf.
German advertisers are following suit, according to Lisa Neundorfer, an analyst at the IFAK market research company in Wiesbaden. A 1999 survey found that old people hardly appeared in advertisements except as the butt of jokes. But that had changed by 2003, when IFAK did another study. "They still aren't the main target group," says Ms. Neundorfer, "but they are being handled in a more sensitive way."
The "gray market" sparks less interest, though, in Europe's southern countries. In Spain, Rafael Navas Castellon founded Grupo Jubilo, which publishes a magazine, a website, and radio programs aimed at the over-50 crowd. After seven years, he is still alone in the field, struggling to attract advertisers.
In Italy, most ads feature bright-eyed young professionals or half-naked lovers. Senior models hawk only unappealing goods like hearing aids or walking frames. But organizations such as "Golden Age," which publishes a magazine titled "50 and Up," are prodding manufacturers to take account of their readers.
And some firms have begun to aim older: McDonald's current ad campaign in Italy shows a grandmother with a child, both with their feet up on brightly colored tables as they munch on burgers. And Alfa Romeo bills its latest model as "the car for all ages."
The mature market's potential is not measured only in numbers, but also in lifestyle, say marketers. Instead of a linear approach to their lives - school, job-for-life, spouse-for-life, kids, retirement - baby boomers have adopted a more-cyclical approach, dipping in and out of phases such as education, starting new jobs, and even taking new partners.
That makes them readier than their parents to try new products and experiences later in life - or to go back to old ones they may have missed first time around: the average age of a Harley Davidson motorcycle owner has risen from 38 to 46 in the last decade.
Some sectors of the European economy are set to benefit from the continent's aging population. Healthcare, cosmetics such as antiwrinkle creams, cruises, and other tourism products, do-it-yourself equipment - all these will enjoy a booming market over the next two decades.
But selling to the older crowd is not as straightforward as selling to 20-year-olds, cautions Mr. Serrière. They are wiser, for a start, and more importantly, they are buying to please themselves, not to impress their peer group. That means, he says, that "they want to know how well the product is suited to them, and they want detailed information. The content is more important than the packaging."
Another difficulty is that while seniors know they are getting older, they don't want to have that fact front and center every time they open a magazine. "If I see an ad with a gent in a cardigan with wispy gray hair I know they are aiming at me, and I resent it," says Mr. Starkey, who is 65.
Marketers note that people's "cognitive age" - the age they say they feel - is about 15 years less than their real age. So ads aimed at 65-year-olds tend to feature models who look about 50.
Consumers' real age catches up with them, though, when it comes to television, which means producers of TV ads aimed at older viewers have to slow their pace from the ubiquitous MTV hip-hop editing style.
Serrière recalls Danone's recent launch of a bottled water targeted at the 60-plus market, which got nearly everything right. The water was packed with magnesium and calcium, and it came in a small, square bottle that was easy to hold with an enlarged cap that was easy to open.
"But the TV ads promoting it were too speedy and post-menopausal women did not feel they were being addressed," Serrière explains. "The product failed."
To avoid such fiascos, companies are turning to consultancies such as SeniorStrategic for advice. Serrière says he has been "swamped by the wave of interest" since last year in the seminars he runs. In Britain, Starkey says he detects "quite a groundswell of interest" in the gray market, but that it is "not obviously translating into action" yet.
"It's as if clients are standing around the swimming pool, shivering, but nobody wants to be the first one in the water", he says. "But this is the market of the future."
• Andreas Tzortzis in Berlin, Sophie Arie in Rome, and Lisa Abend in Madrid contributed to this report.