There’s a common saying that age is just a number. Unfortunately, it is not a phrase reflected in modern marketing. Right now, the marketing industry is failing to tackle a bias, which has been forgotten – Ageism.

Ageism, specifically for the older generations, has been silently pervasive in marketing for decades and remains ignored today.

Negative and potentially harmful stereotypes relating to age still feature heavily in advertising. Portraying the older generations as dependent, weak, and forgetful is archaic, and could be doing more damage to your brand than you think.

The older generations want to see marketing that truly reflects them, yet so many brands are getting it wrong and creating ads that are patronising and reinforce outdated stereotypes.

So, what are these common stereotypes and how can we adapt our marketing efforts to represent the older generations in a positive and empowering light?

What Is Ageism in Marketing and Advertising?

Let’s start with the basics. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines ageism as:

“Ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.”

In this article, we will be focusing on ageism against the older generations – anyone who is over the age of 50 – as this bias is often misrepresented in marketing.

Ageism can cause generational divides, devalue what the older generations can offer to society, and limit perceptions of their capabilities.

Discrimination against the elderly in marketing is where marketers and advertisers will rely on ageist stereotypes to create content, which can be harmful, misrepresentative, and reaffirm ageist stigmas.

Ageism against the older generations has been around for decades but has become even more prevalent in marketing since Covid-19. During the pandemic, millions of people united for a common cause: to protect the most vulnerable, and the most vulnerable to Covid-19 were people aged 60 or over.

The message to protect the vulnerable was everywhere and this message remains a key focus for a lot of marketing targeted toward the older generations.

4 Common Ageist Stereotypes

Ageist stereotypes are rife throughout the marketing world. And right now, there are four main stereotypes marketers tend to fall back on.

Technological Literacy

    One of Age of Majority’s studies found that almost 70% of those surveyed felt that advertisers are still reliant on the stereotype that elderly people are technologically illiterate. This stereotype is portrayed in ads frequently.

    Elderly people may be shown struggling to answer a video call on their smartphones or use their computers to shop online. Some adverts imply that the older generation is unaware of modern technologies like tablets or voice assistants. In reality, this is not the case...

    The older generations are a lot more tech-savvy than they are portrayed to be. Today, 90% use smartphones and computers, 85% shop online at least once a month, and 54% have and use tablets regularly.

    Physically Weak

      Another harmful stereotype advertisers fall back on is depicting the older generation as physically weak or suffering from severe medical conditions.

      And again, while this is a common representation in ads, it is not indicative of the older generation today. According to one of Age of Majority’s studies, 95% of the people surveyed said they exercise weekly, and 45% exercise more than twice a week.

      The Wall Street Journal also reported that this particular stereotype is significantly overplayed by the younger generations. Among the younger generations surveyed, 42% of them expect the older generations (65+) to be suffering severe medical conditions, but in fact, only 21% of the over 65s surveyed suffer from serious medical conditions.

      Lonely

        Analysis provided by the AARP found that 7 in 10 images of people over 50 are depicted in isolated situations—often seated, alone, vulnerable, with a family member or partner, or with a medical professional where they are the recipients of care.

        More often than not, the older generations are shown as dependents and isolated from the rest of the world. This particular stereotype can be incredibly upsetting and doesn’t necessarily represent the majority.

        Recent studies have found that loneliness in older generations has been on the decline, and been on the incline for Millennials and Gen Z.

        73% of Gen Z reported feeling alone either sometimes or always, which is the highest level of any generation.

        Cognitive Inferiority

          Memory loss or lack of cognitive functions appears quite frequently in adverts that either feature or target the elderly. This one is a particularly negative stereotype as many of these depictions feature someone older looking lost, vulnerable, and mentally inferior.

          And while 40% of us may experience some form of memory loss after the age of 65, it is a part of life that many people don’t want to be confronted by in an advert. You would think this stereotype would be one that marketers would try to avoid, but unfortunately, it still exists in advertisements.

          Ignoring The Older Generation Is Costly

          By mid-2030 it is estimated that 50% of all UK adults will be over 50 years old. And with the over 50s already spending £319 billion a year – roughly 54% of total household consumer spending – they are still ignored by almost all marketing and advertising.

          And though older adults have the most disposable income, only 5% of ad spend is targeted to adults aged between 35 and 64. This means that a lot of businesses are missing out on huge profits.

          The lack of ad spend is only part of the problem. Right now, there is a growing problem with ageism in agencies. In a survey conducted by Campaign, it was found that 42% of advertising, marketing, media, and PR employees had witnessed ageism towards a colleague, and 32% had experienced ageism themselves.

          On top of that, the advertising industry lacks an older perspective. In the UK alone, only 6.2% of advertisers are 50 or older.

          Without the voices of the older generations in our agencies, we are losing an authentic look at this audience and a true understanding of how best to target this demographic.

          3 Ways to Advertise to an Older Demographic

          Marketing to older adults is much easier than it’s thought out to be. So, instead of relying on our usual marketing tropes, here are 3 top tips you can use to create successful content for the older generations.

          1. Focus on the Positive

            When creating ads for older generations, it is easy to focus on the negative parts of ageing. But focusing on the negative can turn customers away.

            Research found that older people respond better to faces with positive expressions compared to sad ones, and place higher importance on positive information than negative.

            So, try to frame your marketing content in a positive light, as this will increase engagement. However, it’s important not to ignore the negative as this can be misleading. What you should do, is find ways to put a positive spin on a negative situation.

            A great example of this positive reframing comes from an ad created by Sloggi. This underwear brand took the negative term “granny pants” and turned it on its head.

            This funny online ad features an older woman, front and center stage, and shows that granny pants are comfortable, and stylish, and shouldn’t be stigmatized in a negative fashion.

            2. Create Meaningful Content

              Emotive and meaningful content resonates better with older adults. One study found that older adults would respond better to adverts that included language that was meaningful and rewarding.

              For example, older adults were shown two alternative slogans for a camera ad, and they preferred the slogan: “Capture those special moments” over an identical ad with the slogan “Capture the unexplored world.”

              Airbnb recently released this great ad, which captures the sentimental moments from an older couple's romantic “bae-cation” without pandering to their age and relying on outdated stereotypes.

              3. Stop Relying on Stereotypes

                Recent studies have shown that older adults can feel around 13 years younger than their chronological age. This tells us that most older adults feel subjectively younger than they are... yet we still choose to ignore it.

                So, instead of ignoring the voices of older adults, it would make sense to ditch the archaic stereotypes we associate with the older generations and create ads that reflect how older adults want to be seen.

                One of Magnum’s ads shows just how easy it is to move away from ageist stereotypes. For this particular ad, Magnum worked with Iris Apfel, who at 101 years old, is a legendary fashion icon and muse. In the ad, Iris reaffirms that age is just a number, to enjoy the pleasures of life, and live life to the fullest.

                Final Thoughts

                People of all ages should be able to see their authentic selves in marketing. Yet, authentic marketing for older generations is still way behind the times.

                Showcasing these true representations of older adults can help break down ageist barriers, promote stronger intergenerational relationships, and help create a world that celebrates all ages in their truest forms.

                Everyone should be celebrated and portrayed accurately, realistically, and diversely no matter how old they are.

                You’ll Also Love...

                7 Ways to Make Your Website More Accessible | Ella Fisher, Marketing Assistant

                Discrimination in Advertising: Defunding Diversity | Liam McNamee, Programmatic Trader

                Performative Activism: The Problem with Rainbow-Washing | Ella Fisher, Marketing Assistant

                Not an Option: Cultural Sensitivity in Advertising | Francesca Bonis, Account Executive

                Gender Bias in AI: Why Voice Assistants Are Female | Ella Fisher, Marketing Assistant