Key Points:

The discussions on the website can get heated: Is the Government going to drag the country to economic rack and ruin? Are our teachers poorly trained? What happened to the Warriors this season? Is God real?

Meanwhile, in other sections of the forum, someone's looking for the best broadband deal, another for flatmates, and a group of petrolheads just want to talk V8s.

Their interests and opinions may vary wildly, but most users of
www.grownups.co.nz have at least one thing in common: they're over 50. The website's popularity has soared steadily from when it went live in June 2006. In September, 79,000 unique visitors clicked through to the site, a 100 per cent increase since December.

Yet when marketer Richard Poole tried pitching for ads for his new "50+ community" website back in 2006, it was a "grind".

"The response was, 'These people aren't online', and in some cases that came from [advertising agencies' and companies'] own research. Or they'd say '[Our research shows] these people don't buy online; they may browse but they don't buy'."

Another reason for rejection, says Poole, was that agencies and companies were shy of targeting older people.

"[We'd] come across industries where we had an understanding that the greater part of their market was people 50-plus, yet their strategy [seemed to be], 'Let's stay away because 50-plus is not that sexy, let's not put off our other consumers by being seen to target older people'."

Eventually the website's ever-increasing month-on-month growth figures proved it was a viable advertising channel and business started to grow. It's still a hard slog, though, for Poole and business partner Shane Bradley, founder of online business directory Finda. Poole won't be specific about the site's profitability, but says ad revenue has steadily increased since January, and advertisers are "definitely more interested". Directory giant Yellowpages must have thought so, too: in September the company entered a joint venture with the site.

For years we've been hearing that baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) will be the biggest market with the most cash to burn and the most freedom to spend it.

Practically every aspect of their lives, from their favourite cereal to their preferred sexual position, has been surveyed, analysed and written about. We're told that these "third-agers" have hit their third wind and want to make the most of it.

In this country just over 1.2 million people are aged 50 and over, and half of the country's population will be 45 and older by 2051, according to Statistics New Zealand.

While that's a fair way off, right now people aged 45 and over control 71 per cent of New Zealand's wealth, and those 50 and over control 65 per cent of disposable income, according to research by the local branch of SeniorAgency, an international marketing company that specialises in marketing to the over-50s.

Managing director Chris Schultz says that by 2014 every boomer will be aged 50-plus and by 2021 the 50-plus market will have grown by 27 per cent. At the other end of the spectrum, the under-20s market will have shrunk by 5 per cent.

So you'd think advertisers and marketers would be in a frenzy over the creative opportunities and possible returns from this ballooning market.

Not according to Schultz.

"Ignoring them is endemic in this country. Marketing and ad agencies are not understanding them, their motives, their emotional and rational triggers. They haven't given them the time of day. It comes down to mass marketing. New Zealand still focuses on that one-size-fits-all approach."

Indeed, SeniorAgency's February survey of 936 New Zealanders aged 50-plus revealed that 86 per cent felt ignored by advertising.

Furthermore, says Schultz, "They even recognised the fact that as soon as you're 50 you disappear off the marketing radar."

It's been a hard grind since Schultz and business partner Simon Healey set up in New Zealand in 2004 and he's coy about how much business he's managed to pick up.

Schultz does "a lot of consulting", has a finance company and a major retirement village on his books. He's worked closely with Outward Bound which, since taking on SeniorAgency, has increased the number of courses for women over 50.

SeniorAgency is viable, says Schultz, but he acknowledges that it is an offshoot of his and Healey's larger and more mainstream agency, Spawn.

When pitching for business SeniorAgency bypasses the agencies and goes straight to the companies themselves. But, says Schultz, "They all nod their heads and say, 'Fantastic - have you got a blue-chip client doing this already?' No one wants to lead."

Trans-generational advertising that actually uses generational differences would help, says Schultz. An AMP ad showing a man moving through different life stages from baby to elderly man as he walked across the screen was a good - if past - example, as is Dove's tactic of showing a grey-haired older woman in its Real Women campaign - almost shock-horror stuff by advertising standards.

But, says Schultz, agencies and marketers don't identify much success with their trans-generational marketing, despite it being a way of including the younger and older markets.

"If they do it right they can include youth. But if you ... aim at youth, you tend to exclude the old."

But it's not just a case of targeting boomers, says Deborah Simpson, director of strategic planning at Auckland agency TBWA Whybin.

It's more meaningful to target life stage, attitudes and behaviour than just age, she says. After all, boomers are such a diverse bunch; the youngest are still aged 44-45 and the oldest 62-63.

"I think one of the biggest challenges we face is that people bandy around the word 'boomer' but don't necessarily know who they're talking about," says Simpson.

"The common misconception is that they're far older than they are, they're married and have money to spend. We know from qualitative research that some are single, some are still paying off mortgages, some are having children for the first time while others are becoming grandparents, some are changing careers, and others are retiring."

Most TBWA Whybin clients do target boomers, she says, but as part of their overall marketing strategy. For example, the agency's biggest client, ASB, has launched a PIE account, a retirement savings calculator and a five-step KiwiSaver plan. Simpson, who is "not yet" a baby-boomer, is on its 55-plus steering committee.

Meanwhile, the bank's Goldstein character, who promotes all sorts of products, rates strongly with the 46 to 62-year-old audience in surveys.

Matt O'Sullivan, media channel planner for advertising agency Young & Rubicam in New Zealand, agrees that targeting older people by age is no longer so relevant.

"The real challenge is ... for agencies to realise that [the agency-audience] relationship starts with talking about a way of life and how a product might fit into their way of life, rather than that transactional mindset of, 'We've got it, you want it, come and buy it'."

And O'Sullivan believes advertisers have been guilty of taking the baby-boomer market for granted.

"Finding and targeting them is relatively easy compared to Generation Y and younger audiences, and while they're going online more and more, they're still in relatively traditional spaces," he says.

"They pick up the phone, they reach out most easily. We've tended to see them as the low-hanging fruit so we marshal more resources in the harder-to-reach audiences."

The agency has recently signed up with the Bay Audiology hearing clinics. Its campaign for one hearing product includes lively boomers and the tagline, "Expect to hear the odd wolf whistle".

It's enough to target baby- boomers as part of a broad customer base, says David Thomason, planning director at agency Draft FCB.

The agency is aware of the "huge bulge" in the population that has money, "but we never sit around the table saying, 'Are we addressing baby boomers enough?' I'm more likely to go and talk to who will buy a BMW and they're more likely to live in Remuera and be wealthy, and yes, some will be over 50."

Andrew Stone, chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi in New Zealand, agrees agencies should take audiences case by case. While technology has created a host of new ways to connect with audiences, not everyone is interested.

"For a whole heap of New Zealanders life's still the same as it was five or 10 years ago. They're still interested in kids' hockey games, they watch the same sort of [TV] programmes. Young people's and Auckland's fickleness isn't the way most of New Zealand operates."

To drive that message home, Stone encourages his city-based staff - especially the younger creatives - to get out and "connect" with the provinces and older people.

"Young people live in isolation online in virtual worlds. The challenge is to get young creatives to open their eyes to older audiences, it's not just about showing an older person [in an ad]. The smarter ones already get it."

So is it simply that Generation X and Y just don't get their elders? That is a factor, says Schultz.

"What younger creatives do is they tend to take the piss. Generally they cling to old stereotypes."

The creative side of advertising is "very much a young person's industry", acknowledges O'Sullivan. "You've got a lot of people in their early 20s coming out of ad schools, really keen for junior rules, and ... agencies can't afford too many senior people these days."

Do you really need to drink beer or own a home in order to sell them, though? It sure helps, says boomer market specialist Lauren Edwards, director of Evergreen Marketing & Communications.

"A lot of agencies are staffed by younger people and while younger people are capable of making ads that appeal to all audiences, it helps to be in the situation to understand it. For instance, eyesight and hearing is all starting to deteriorate when you reach these ages - a 20-something-year old won't understand this."

Event manager Brian Peters reckons that calling his lifestyle expo "Senior's Day Out" probably turned off the punters. "The word senior is a bit derogatory to some people."

About 5000 people turned up to the three-day day event when it was first held on Auckland's North Shore in 2005. This year, renamed the 50+ Lifestyle Expo for Seniors and Baby Boomers, (with the last four words visibly smaller), the event attracted 10,000 people in Auckland, 3000 in Tauranga.

Peters and business partner Peter Clark reduced the number of products for "seniors". Muscling in on the retirement village medical products are stalls for Nordic walking and universities. Even the entertainment has got younger: this year's Neil Diamond impersonator replaced last year's Tony Bennett. Peters feels they're still scraping the market's surface, and his predictions that in five to 10 years, when most baby boomers will be over 50, "this kind of event will be huge".

So how do the boomers feel?

The main beef among those canvassed by The Business (not all are quoted) is the way they are portrayed.

For Julie Baga, 52, there's too much "Vaseline on the camera lens".

"They make us seem soft-looking, gentle, worried, out of it ... but if you read the posts on Grownups, there are people who are angry."

And they aren't seen to have a voice.

"They make us seem ineffectual, like we pay our taxes promptly and we're good little citizens who know that you [don't] help your country by screaming and dropping out and drinking lots of alcohol. It takes a lot more strength to get up and go to work every day and pay your taxes, to be resolute and they don't show that kind of power.

"I went through the late 60s and 70s feeling like I wasn't getting heard. Now I've come to the other end of the spectrum and I feel like I'm still not getting heard."

She admires the way Coke uses a variety of quirky young people in its ads, but despairs of the way that, in boomer-directed ads, "people just look all the same. And we're not."

Baga cringes when she says she's a medical librarian, "because [the librarian part] sounds so stereotypical of someone my age", but as she points out, it's a very specialised job.

An avid contributor to the various Grownups forums, Baga is a good example of the diverse nature of baby boomers. She migrated to New Zealand in 1992 and rents a house in Wellington. She chose to spend this year working part-time to "get in touch" with herself. This means she doesn't have a lot of money to spend, but she still goes out; the week The Business called she was planning to attend a lecture, a nuclear disarmament meeting, and the Italian Film Festival.

Aucklander John Pirtle is 63, and just squeaks in as a baby boomer. The keen photographer has been busy downloading special effects software, and is investigating setting up what he calls a "publicity system" based on digital technology.

Another avid Grownups contributor, Pirtle doesn't feel advertising ignores older people, and seeing grey hair and the word "senior" in advertising doesn't bother him.

Like Baga, what gets his goat is the context in which they're used.

"To imply it's all Zimmer frames and medication - no way Jose. When you see an older person in an ad it is almost invariably [for] something related to health or retirement villages."

Pirtle retired from his job in computer graphics nine months ago, and is a long way from needing a Zimmer frame or a retirement village (in fact, he used to run a village in Auckland, and asserts that he'd be "too independent" for that kind of lifestyle).

He and wife Lorraine, who is 64 and works four days a week, are financially comfortable, "if we're cautious", although Pirtle confides that he'd love to travel from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego by motorbike, an organised journey he's recently seen advertised.

Evergreen's Edwards believes the boomers in their prime - those most likely to be well-off and whose children are more likely to have left home - are being ignored. She points to a study by Grey Gold in 2003 that measured consumers' perceptions of advertising's empathy for them. Those between the ages of 55 and 59 felt the most strongly that the communication and understanding of their needs was poor. Consumers in the 45-49 and 60-64-year-old brackets were the next most likely to think that way.

And they only reappear on the empathy radar "once they have diabetes, incontinence, menopause", she says.

Are things any better overseas? There are ads that use more targeted material: in the US, a Sony ad shows an older man whose wife has died preparing for and taking a trip into space, and filming it on his Sony handycam. The tagline: "When the kids ask where the inheritance went, show them the tape".

However, Auckland TV commercial maker Paul Prince, whose company The Sweet Shop does most of its work for overseas companies, says those are the exception rather than the rule.

A lot of his film work, particularly for American clients, is "soft lighting, light and bright, and it would certainly be in the categories of medical products and post-retirement activities".

The storytelling material is also conventional, he says, but points out that, "I suppose they feel these are serious subjects so you need to treat them seriously, and with an optimistic voice ... "This is your health, your investment, your insurance. It just depends on the nature of the products."