The invisible woman.

She's intelligent, active, and in control of most of the nation's wealth. Why isn't anyone paying attention to her?

A guest posting by BrainPosse Cultural Anthropologist Teresa Bowman.

It isn’t as if no one’s seen her before. She’s very bright. Influential. And older.

I spent two years conducting research to determine why, as women reach about the age of 50, they become nearly invisible in popular media. Especially when you consider the fact that these women have de facto control over a major portion of the wealth in the nation. They buy lots of stuff. More importantly, they influence the purchases of their families.

Women not only disproportionately decide where a family’s funds will be spent, they control or influence 80% of all purchases of both consumer and business goods and services. They have sole or joint ownership of 87% of homes and buy 61% of major home improvement products. They account for 66% of all home computer purchases and 80% of all health-care services. They start 70% of all new businesses.

So why are they invisible? In part, our youth-oriented society is to blame. But part of the answer may be with this group themselves.

In this research, we spent a lot of time looking at ads and articles on products ranging from financial services to home furnishing to beauty. We discovered, for example, that in More magazine, a publication targeted to women over 40 that makes a point of using 40+ models in its feature articles, that the majority of ads still featured models in their twenties. And when we asked research participants (all women over 50) to select the best ad for a fictitious beauty product, they chose an ad featuring a model much younger than themselves.Part of this may be conditioning.

We’ve all been taught that youth rules, and the boomer generation still thinks it’s young. In fact, if you’re trying to sell to boomers—some of whom are 60 now—you never use the word, "old."

We also asked participants what they thought of Dove advertising, a groundbreaking campaign where the company, instead of using high-fashion models, used normal women with various body shapes and ages to promote the “real world” virtues of its products. Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” has been celebrated worldwide, and has increased sales of some products by more than 73%. Research participants felt very positively about the campaign.

However, when shown the images of Dove’s older models by themselves, out of context with Dove’s advertising message, most said they wouldn’t consider products promoted by the models.The conditioning is very strong. Even though most women will agree that marketers have pushed a false idea of beauty down their throats, they still respond to it. Even older women still react to messages featuring youngsters.

And that may be one reason why older women often feel they’re “invisible” in popular media. If a marketer knows that it can reach younger and older women with one message featuring a younger model, why change? The results are there, and there’s not incentive for the advertiser to do something different.

Or is there? Our research found that when companies do pay attention to older women, the rewards can be substantial. And there’s an “invisible” penalty when they don’t.

This is a group with tremendous power. If they chose to, they could change the direction of the country. But they’re not revolutionaries. They’ve got other things to do—take care of families, work, enjoy themselves. They’re not going out of their way to insist that marketers do things their way. If marketers don't, here's the penalty:They just choose not to spend. And it's important to note that if you miss this market, you may be missing other generations. These women influence their children’s—and grandchildren’s—purchases nearly as much as their own in many cases.

And look at what happens when marketers do reach out to this group. The numbers in the Dove ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ show what can happen when marketers do make a connection. But one of the most amazing examples is Chico's, the upscale clothing company that for years has targeted older women. They’ve made a fortune, but the incredible thing is that, until recently, they’ve had that market pretty much all to themselves. Chico's could brazenly announce in its annual report that it just didn’t have competitors.

Marketers also need to bury the idea that older consumers have already established their buying preferences and aren’t going to change. If you believe that, you’re just not looking at the numbers. These are people who respond to advertising. Better yet, they’re a market that’s not been fragmented as much by new media, so its still relatively easy to reach them. In fact, this group is particularly influenced by commercials. Sixty-nine percent say that commercials often help with purchasing decisions, while 63% believe that commercials provide useful information. Seventy-five percent report they are willing to switch brands and experiment with new products. No longer saddled with the expense of raising children or paying mortgages, older Americans are able to spend money on themselves.

Here's another mistake: many marketers think that older consumers are a homogenous group. Study after study indicates most people think about older Americans as all the same. This is a major error in judgment. Older Americans are actually a more diverse group than younger people. The Boomer generation is focused on individuality. Even funeral homes are discovering that there’s tremendous potential in letting Boomers pre-plan their funerals by offering untraditional services like rock bands. If marketers indicate they’re willing to work with this group, they get big rewards.

And as more marketers catch on, there’s the potential for older women to lose their “invisible” label. If they want to, that is. The women who participated in this survey are past the point where they think they have to ‘prove’ anything. If you ask them their opinion about whether or not they’d change how older women are portrayed in the media, they are going to give you an earful. They will also give you great ideas about how to reach this group. But they’re not going to go do the work for you. If you want to connect with all this spending power and all this influence, you’re going to have to do it yourself.

That’s where the potential is, and it still amazing that more companies aren’t moving swiftly to take advantage of it. This is where the invisibility is most damaging.

Consider the movie, As Good As It Gets. It was a blockbuster. Diane Keaton is almost universally celebrated for the courage to, as an older woman, do a nude scene. It’s an almost instant classic. But in spite of the strength of Keaton, the producers struggled for funding until Jack Nicholson signed on. No one believed that there was appeal just with an older woman. It’s as if even Diane Keaton became invisible.

However, some people are starting to get it, and as more marketers have success specifically reaching older women, things will snowball.If we look at the marketer’s Golden Rule--e.g., he (or she) who has the gold, rules--then chances are these women shouldn't be invisible for long.