Actors and singers of a certain age tend to be the ones who make the grade, and there seems to be a certain sameness to the products they pitch. Blythe Danner represents Prolia, a drug to combat bone loss; from 2006 to 2010, Sally Field was the spokeswoman for another osteoporosis treatment, Boniva.
The men? They are commonly matched with lenders that sell reverse mortgages, a type of home equity loan (one in which the bank gives you money and takes your house when you die). The list includes Tom Selleck and Fred Thompson (American Advisors Group); the Fonz, Henry Winkler (OneReverseMortgage.com); and Robert Wagner (Senior Lending Network and Urban Financial Group).
“This isn’t like buying a can of Coke or Pepsi,” said Allen Adamson, the founder of BrandSimple, a brand consulting firm. “These are often complicated purchase decisions, and retirees may question if these celebrities know what they’re talking about.
“They’ve seen them on TV and in movies and have liked them as entertainers,” Mr. Adamson added, “but not necessarily as trusted advisers on complex matters.”
When American Advisors Group hired Mr. Thompson, the former “Law and Order” actor and Tennessee senator, the company said on its website that the star hadn’t known anything about reverse mortgages, but checked out the company and its products before signing up. According to the company, “Thompson spent weeks researching the product, and American Advisors Group agreed that he would have the last say on scripts, which ultimately convinced Mr. Thompson to take the gig.”
“An understanding of the retiree mind-set is critical in choosing a spokesperson,” said Reza Jahangiri, founder and chief executive of American Advisors. Mr. Jahangiri wouldn’t go so far as to say that older adults are set in their ways, “but we would say they’re skeptical,” he said.
“It takes more to get their attention,” he added, “especially when we’re asking them to think about something like home equity in a different way. There’s a lot of second-guessing of, ‘Can I trust this product?’ and sometimes they need that little extra bit of assurance that it’s O.K.”
A celebrity, he said, “can get them into a mind-set to consider something they didn’t know about, or feared in the past.”
After the death of Mr. Thompson in 2015, the company hired Mr. Selleck. The selection of the “Magnum, P.I.” star from a list of five candidates was based partly on the response of a consumer focus group to questions like, “If you could choose one celebrity to have over as a dinner guest, who would you invite?” and “Who do you think best represents your age group?” and “Who would you consider the most trustworthy?”
“When you’re appealing to a younger demographic it’s O.K. for a celeb to have more blemishes, to have more ups and downs,” Mr. Jahangiri said. “But when you’re talking about a big financial decision for a senior, the celeb has to be trusted and credible, and that comes from a longstanding career and the good will that’s been engendered both on and off screen.”
There is an additional requirement. “The celeb has to believe in the product,” Mr. Jahangiri said. (Ultimately, Mr. Thompson’s own mother, intrigued by the ads, became an American Advisors customer.)
Millennials (and their younger siblings) are looking for aspirational figures in their celebrity spokesmen and spokeswomen. But older Americans respond to boldface names who look like them, with gray or graying hair, and a few wrinkles, or more.
Mr. Selleck is 72; the average age of an American Advisors borrower is 70, 71, “and we think it’s very important for seniors to see a peer discussing the product,” Mr. Jahangiri said. “If Tom were 20 years younger, I don’t think he’d be as effective.”
Mr. Selleck stars on the CBS series “Blue Bloods,” and since he came on board with American Advisors, there’s been a big response to the ads, Mr. Jahangiri said. “Callers tell our operators that they watched Tom on ‘Magnum, P.I.,’ that they love him and are considering learning more about reverse mortgages because of him.”
It makes a difference to customers that spokesmen like Mr. Trebek and Mr. Selleck are both still fully engaged in their careers. “In the market we serve, middle-income Americans, it’s probably an advantage for them to see Alex as someone who’s still rolling up his sleeves and working,” said Mr. Schwartz of Colonial Penn.
It’s not simply that the celebrity spokesman is a familiar face; he or she may be the only familiar face for some older people. “Retirees have a lot of risks, and they know they have risks. They know the hazards of, say, not having enough life insurance,” said Dr. David Demko, a clinical gerontologist in Orange Park, Fla. “But sometimes they’re at a remove, geographical or emotional, from family members. They’ve retired and they don’t have co-workers to turn to for advice, or they’ve moved to a new town and haven’t yet established a circle of friends.
“Their support network is gone,” Dr. Demko said, “and they’re prime targets for scams, so when they see a celebrity, it’s like, ‘There’s a life raft. That familiar face is going to help me figure it out. I’ve got problems, and Tom Selleck or Alex Trebek represents someone who has solutions.’”
In a certain way, Dr. Demko suggested, retirees may see themselves as being in the same boat as a celebrity spokesman. They know the risk of not having enough money to stay in their house; celebrities know the risk of sullying their reputation.
The biggest hurdle when trying to appeal to older adults is, simply, that they’re older adults, Amy Doner Schachtel, president of the Amy Doner Group, which brokers deals between celebrities and pharmaceutical companies, said. “They’ve been around a long time,” Ms. Doner Schachtel said. “They’ve been through so much, so they do more due diligence than the younger generation.
“They may take longer to make a decision,” she added, “but the reward is, once they make the decision they’re sticking to it. Once they’ve been won over, they’re sticking with you.”