The five things I would fix with Pfizer's GetOld initiative

Pfizer has made a bold marketing move with a glitzy site called GetOld that talks about, er, getting old. This is presumably one of a string of deliverables that are the result of the company reportedly making aging one of its top strategic priorities. I like a number of things about it:

  • They're taking the initiative. Heaven knows how hard it is for a company, especially a big pharmaceutical one that gets flak every day for justified and unjustified reasons, to get out there. While most large companies I've been speaking with are aware of the multitude of important issues around aging, very few have done anything about it, fearing the marketing toxicity. A pharma company, or an insurance company, are natural choices to start the conversation.

  • They're risky. I'm sure there were countless meetings and agonized, late-night conference calls about calling it Get Old. Good for them for taking the risk. I happen to think it wasn't the right choice, as I describe below, but heck, kudos for having the balls.

  • They're devoting resources. The healthy check that went to the flashy-marketing agency was probably bigger than 90% of the non-profits' annual budgets. But if it makes some marketing agencies wake up and say, maybe we should figure out how to pitch some aging projects, it'll be for the good. Plus, it's likely that there was some funding available to to secure naming rights with some of the 10 advocacy groups involved, although the FAQ say that the partners weren't paid. The infographic above is a nice presentation of some of the results of a survey they conducted, and this kind of information is definitely helpful for the space.

However, as you can guess, I have some reservations about this whole approach as I currently see it . Here are my top 5:

1. "Old" is not a term worth trying to save. The term getting old is so embedded with negativity, and ingrained into our psyche that it's not worth the effort and copious marketing dollars, trying to re-engineer its meaning. Nobody is old. Ever since I was told by a 74-year old entrepreneur "Old will be ten years older than I am, and always will be" it's clear to me that people don't self-identify with getting old. Simon Roberts, a former Intel aging focused ethnographer, once told me a story in which he asked an 85 year old lady who lived alone, why the TV was sitting in a box in the corner, unopened. She told him, well I'll plug it in when I get old. This whole situation reminds me of the 'slut walks', well intentioned efforts to reframe a word, and its sexist and unfair connotations, which seems to do little, if anything, to address the underlying issues. My feeling on this is that it's better spending the time, attention and money on developing new, greenfield concepts about what aging can be, that address many of the real issues that need solutions.

2. It doesn't have a point of view. Although it's great that they're starting a conversation, I think not having an opinion, but saying 'what do you think?' is a bit too passive. Sure, we can garner people's opinions, but let's frame it in terms of how they'd solve some of the big problems, and let's do some work to help them identify those Big Problems. It reminds me of when CNN starts quoting tweets from viewers, instead of reporting the news. I love #socialmedia as much as the next tweeter, but on important topics such as this I'd rather have data, wisdom and analysis, not 140 character soundbites. There is much more that Pfizer could make in terms of sharing the benefits of more older people in society: greater wisdom and experience, improved pattern recognition and judgement, greater tolerance, less selfishness and an innate bias to contribute society are just a few. Heaven knows the American public, more than most, needs to know that new and young is not always better. There are many interesting challenges that Pfizer could take on, from ageism, loneliness, a broken healthcare system, poor public transport, a broken career system, disappearing pensions, overly expensive senior living facilities, lack of age-friendly architecture, lack of long-term care etc. I think one of the most interesting challenges for such a conversation with the public would be what noted gerontologist Karl Pillemer talks about - homophily, the tendency for people to only hang out with their own group. How remarkable would it be if Pfizer decided it was going to do what it could to support intergenerational connectivity? 

3. Getting old is not a community. Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall, Pfizer’s chief medical officer includes this statement in a press release, "We all have one thing in common – each day we get older." Well, there's a few other things as well, such as eat, drink, sleep and let's say, breathe. Does this make a community? Apart from at a high-level kumbaya spriritual one-ness plane, in which I love all my fellow men, women and blades of grass (which normally only happens after consuming exotic substances), I don't feel much if any affinity with other people just because they are growing older. We saw this in an independent living home we went to recently, where a resident complained that just because they were 80, that didn't mean that they naturally liked the other 80 year olds. Communities run deep in areas of shared concern (medical support groups) or passion (hobbies), but with aging there is little connecting thread, nothing to make you and I feel we're in this together.  

4. There doesn't seem to be any private sector collaboration. Pfizer's attracted around 10 non-profits / research groups to be part of their initiative, which is laudable, as trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to research in this area doesn't make any sense. But where's the commitment to open innovation, to collaborating with other companies with similar goals, in particular startups? At Aging2.0 we've identified a number of action areas: health, housing, finance, careers, carers, consumables, media, travel and education where we're seeing tremendous innovation by startups to meet real needs. Many of these companies would love to partner with the biggest pharmaceutical company in the world, and that experience would no doubt be good for both sides. Without an open innovation strategy, this could be seen as just marketing to sell more of their own drugs. One of the ways that Pfizer could start the ball rolling would be being more transparent about its own innovation policies, and how it's going to be coping with an aging workforce for example. Marc Friedman and Civic Ventures (now part of AARP) have done sterling work in highlighting career innovation to help people get new jobs. If Pfizer's really serious about the aging space, they'll need to walk the talk themselves, and collaborate more actively with others, especially smaller companies. 

5. The user experience is a bit of a dog's dinner. Sorry folks, but the whole thing is a bit messy, especially for any seniors who may want to participate. The site falls down in terms of user experience in a number of ways. First, the first time visitor to GetOld.com gets nothing back. Instead you are asked to give THEM something-  fill in a simple survey, and your age and gender. Woah, so Google answers any question instantly, and this takes my data in return for nothing. Fail. Anyway, I duly submitted my information, and with this act brought a marketing agency director's new Porsche one fraction closer. However, it made me irritated before I even arrived at the start. But then the interface is confusing. It's got a lot of little post it notes, most of which seem to be created by the marketing department in lieu of real people (no surprise initially), but I don't really see the point of what this is all about. The infographic (above) is great, but I'd like there to be more of a payoff in the first 30seconds that I have to look at it (which is about as much as most people devote to new stuff). 

So, despite these reservations, kudos to Pfizer for jumping in and starting a conversation, and we'll be following their progress with interest. 


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