It’s Time for Advertising to Stop Perpetuating Negative Stereotypes About Aging

Older consumers offer huge spending power but are largely ignored

Instagrannies are stylish influencers who are giving millennials some serious competition. Instagram: @baddiewinkle
Headshot of Lauren Crichton

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a brand in possession of a good marketing strategy must be in want of a customer under the age of 35. So obsessed are we with millennials and Gen Z today that there are now agencies whose sole purpose is to help companies understand how to market to them. We might forgive the proclivity if it was where the most significant financial opportunity lay, it is, in fact, older people who hold, and will continue to keep, all the spending power for the foreseeable future.

The fact is, humanity as a whole is obsessed with youth and always has been. Myths like the Philosopher’s Stone and the Fountain of Youth can be traced back thousands of years. The fear of aging, much like the fear of our mortality, is part of the baggage of being human.

Our collective antipathy for getting older is reflected in our use of language. Enshrined for decades both in products and their marketing is the directive that age is a battle to be fought at all costs. Conventional marketing wisdom still tells us to feature younger people in our adverts than our actual target audiences—the underlying assumption being that the bait of youth will lure the older generation.

The fetishizing of youth is not a foregone conclusion. In Greek, Indian and Native American cultures, old age is a sign of wisdom, revered and respected. In Korea, 60th and 70th birthdays are special occasions at which children celebrate their parents’ transition into old age. However, for the majority of Western cultures, the negative stereotypes around aging persist to the point where we equate old age with a second childhood.

So why do we stay so quiet about it? A quick Google search returned just 16,900 results for “ageism in advertising,” compared with 103,000 and 458,000 for “sexism in advertising” and “racism in advertising,” respectively. Yet survey results have highlighted that women as young as 40 feel ignored by brands, along with as many as 89 percent of over-50s in the U.K. These are disappointing statistics.

We should take inspiration from the body positivity movement. Earlier this year, U.S. retailer Everlane launched a minimal women’s underwear collection, designed around comfort and support rather than sexuality and objectification. To strengthen this empowering message, Everlane used unretouched imagery of women in all shapes and sizes, generating a 30,000-person wait list.

Instagram: @baddiewinkle

The fact is that generations have more in common than we realize, and there are campaigns out there that have taken on up the mantle. In the Ad Council’s “Love Has No Labels” campaign, Eugene and Mary show that finding true love is possible at any age, and in Netflix’s comedy series Grace and Frankie, we see that freedom and creativity are as important to two 70-year-old women as to our rebellious youth. We can even reach this audience through channels generally perceived to be the domain of the young: The New York Times’ NYTGender Instagram recently featured the Instagrannies, an emerging group of female sexagenarians who are giving millennial influencers a run for their money with their style, vitality and confidence. These few examples show what can be done when we address the older generations for who they really are and appeal to them through the lives they can actually lead rather than through some unreachable youth-inspired fantasy.

The opportunity is enormous: a vast audience of people, with spending power, are either being completely ignored or subordinated via unrealistic expectations of age. It’s time to fill the void with relevant products and messages that speak to the lives, hopes, fears and aspirations of our aging populations as they are. We’ve got over the idea that you need to be thin and beautiful to be noticed and appreciated by society. Now it’s time to get over the idea that you need to be 21.


Lauren Crichton is AKQA’s associate strategy director out of the Gothenburg studio.
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