Ageism in advertising.
We like to think the world belongs to the young, but the statistics aren’t in our favor.
The population is aging, and due to advances in medicine and technology the number of people over 60 is expected to double by 2050.
Yet advertisers are almost completely out of touch with the demographic.
The Institute of Communication Agencies, which works with marketing, advertising, and public relations companies, surveyed more than 4,000 employees. It found that only 10% of those in the industry are 51 or older. Other studies place that number as low as 5%.
It’s an unsustainable model: the young don’t have the knowledge required to effectively communicate with the old. They’re also pushing people into retirement and alternate careers earlier and earlier. In fact, 79% of those working in the advertising industry believe it comes across as ageist, and a quarter have been told they’re ‘too old’ when turned down for a position. For many agencies and companies, the rise of digital has given them an easy way to terminate employees; with veiled comments about cultural fits and lack of digital nativeness, regardless of experience and competence.
For two decades 22% of discrimination charges received by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission have been based on ageism. Those as young as 32 keep their ages a secret. It’s a problem that isn’t just bad for culture, it’s bad for business.
The grey market.
Over-50’s have never had more spending power than today. In some countries they hold up to 80% of the wealth. Yet despite having enormous spending power, 89% of the demographic feels advertisers and companies aren’t interested in them.
They’re offended by advertising that paints the older demographic as frail, weak and insecure, and for years they’ve been complaining that they don’t fit the stereotypes of previous generations.
In a society which values the working, growing old is a source of fear and anxiety. But a study which interviewed those between 50 and 92 found that the retired feel freer than ever to be themselves, less weighed down by societal expectation and responsibilities, and have time to finally pursue many of the things they couldn’t before. They’re less anxious about aging than young people are, but they are worried about losing their independence.
This isn’t a demographic that is tired and slow. This is a demographic that is eager to make the most of the time they have. They want to be respected. They want to be seen.
They have money.
But when they do see themselves in advertising, the connotation is often focused on the downsides and difficulties of ageing, rather than being reflective of their lives as a whole.
How is it, that this enormous, wealthy demographic is consistently ignored by the advertising industry? Could it be because of a workplace culture that deifies the young and ages out employees over 40? Or does this problem run deeper?
The stereotypes of growing old.
Are ageing people pushed out of employment, and not advertised to, for the same reason?
If so, it might be attributed to the boundless stereotypes which surround them.
Stereotype one: Seniors are all the same.
Ageism has often been compared to sexism: the practice of assuming everyone from one demographic is the same and being dismissive towards them. As people age they don’t simply lose their characteristics and personality. Adapting products to make them more accessible to the elderly makes good business sense: assuming that the elderly simply have no interests, or have only the same interests as one another, is ignorant.
Stereotype two: Seniors are all on the brink of death.
Studies have shown that people don’t stop travelling until their late seventies and eighties. Seniors account for half of the international flights yearly. In fact, they’re drawn to Adrenalin-heavy and demanding activities. They don’t associate themselves with old age. To assume that anyone over 50 is set in their ways, dull and dying isn’t just a mistake: it’s offensive.
Stereotype Three: Seniors don’t have sex.
In a society as sex-obsessed as ours (skeptics need only consider the ‘sex sells’ mantra), it’s key to note that sex isn’t limited to our fertile years. While many young people say they find sex amongst seniors normal, a study showed their implicit belief was one of prejudice, with young men particularly uncomfortable with the idea of senior sex. But by removing and denying the sexuality of those in the over 50’s bracket, advertisers and youth flatten them into one-dimensional people: sexless, and old.
Seniors are much more vital than they’re perceived to be.
Stereotype Four: Seniors are already brand loyal.
A study by New York company Crowd Twist found that only 46.6% of those in the baby boomer age range (those between 55 and 75) are truly loyal to brands. They’re interested in better value and will switch brands if products are too difficult to use, or don’t offer them enough loyalty points. 17.1% are extremely willing to change brands if they encounter something of interest – and yet less than 5% of advertising dollars are spent on the demographic.
Stereotype Five: Seniors don’t have money.
Seniors do have money. After saving up their whole lives, they realize in their golden years that they can’t take their wealth with them. So, what do they do? Spend.
Of all demographics, over 50s spend the most on meals and eating out, and after a lifetime of caring for others they’re willing to make the most of the money they’ve earnt. In fact, women over 50 account for over 27% of all spending and spend 3.5 times more than other demographics.
Stereotype Six: Seniors don’t understand technology.
Most seniors use the Internet as a daily part of their lives. They text. They browse. 70% have Facebook accounts to stay in touch with their friends and families, and 73% of those in the 50-64 bracket own a smartphone. In the 65 plus category, it’s still 46%. If you show them technology, and support them in learning how to use it, they will.
Advertisers must stay open-minded.
Advertisers and marketers are missing out on an entire segment. They are missing the opportunity to sell existing products more widely and are out of touch with what people really want.
For example, take light cars. They can only drive up to 45 kilometres an hour, have a limited engine, and are promoted to those as young as fifteen. For many, they’re seen as the ideal practice vehicle, and in Germany, they can be driven with only a moped licence.
They are advertised primarily to the young, and yet, increasingly, are being driven by the old: for drivers who want to remain mobile but who are losing confidence in their driving skills, light cars are an ideal precaution.
For advertisers working across every industry there are massive opportunities: they only need to step away from the stereotypes and start evaluating how people are truly living their lives.
A key part of this process will be systematically battling the ageism within advertising companies themselves. While the problem is slowly receiving a little light, few companies have implemented any changes – if a shift is happening, it is happening at far too slow a rate.
A proposed solution.
The number of advertisements labelled tone deaf because they lacked members of their target demographic on the creative team is staggering. From Ancestry.com whitewashing history to Audi comparing picking a bride to buying a car, creative teams which lack their target demographic often end up offensive.
Without many advertisers over 40, and with ageism being one of the most institutionalized forms of prejudice, it’s no surprise that advertisements featuring seniors often fall flat. Even the 2018 Superbowl featured an offensive advertisement: the ETrade This Is Getting Old advertisement showed seniors as being out of touch in the workplace, weak, and clumsy. Their message was that seniors are only ever in the workplace because they can’t afford to leave. The problem runs so deep that even women as young as forty feel ignored and invisible.
Let seniors be the heroes in their own stories. A 2017 insurance campaign by Sunlife did just that; beginning with a man on a cruise declaring that he, at 59, was too young to be there – before zip-lining onto a beach bar. The tagline? I have a life.
Towards the end of the advert, a woman on a motorcycle calls out You see, it turns out we’re not very good at behaving like people think we should – something which rings true for the entire demographic.
There is little information available about how the demographic really does behave. How to connect with them. How best to communicate.
For advertisers looking to create respectful, engaging advertisements for over 50’s there’s only one thing to do: stop forcing people out of the industry at forty and let the target demographic have a say.
If advertising wants to benefit from the current over fifties market, and the massive group that is the baby boomers, they need experienced advertisers and marketers now.
Older demographics can and do learn how to use technology and social media sites. So if being non-tech natives is what’s holding employees back, employers should consider introducing yearly training weeks to keep them up to date.
Research shows that inter-generational communication is essential for respect and positive attitudes. Companies which attempt to foster inter-generational communication will see more inter-group harmony within employees and more positive attitudes at work..
With most over 50’s feeling misunderstood, having people closer to their age bracket within the office could help reduce the alienation and stigma – and bring in big advertising dollars.