Have you heard of Bryan Johnson? He’s the tech entrepreneur who made international headlines because he spends millions of dollars a year trying to reverse his biological age. That involves a gruelling fitness and diet regime, taking hundreds of pills a day, and getting blood transfusions from his teenage son. The result? He’s 45 and looks…42.
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Johnson is far from the only person out there terrified of aging. Advertising has always been besotted with youth—an obsession reflected in the demographics of staff at marketing agencies. A 2023 Marketing Week Survey, for example, found that of the more than 3000 UK marketers taking part in the survey, almost three quarters were aged between 26 and 45-years-old—almost half were under 35. I’m 40 and I already feel like I’ve aged out of the advertising industry.
Then there’s the work itself, which has traditionally treated any woman over the age of 40 as suitable only as models in ads for adult incontinence products. An analysis of 2019 Cannes Lions ads by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found only 7% of the characters in ads were older than 60, and men outnumbered women two to one across all age groups. Similarly, a much-discussed 2019 analysis by the AARP (a group with advocates for Americans age 50-plus) found that although 46% of U.S. adults are age 50 years or older, only 15% of the online media images include people of this age. When they do appear in imagery the portrayal doesn’t tend to be flattering.
While the AARP report caused the industry to sit up straight and promise to do better at the time, change has been slow. A 2021 follow-up study by the AARP found 62% of older people still feel ads have unrealistic representation of the over 50s, and 47% agreed “ads of people my age reinforce outdated stereotypes”.
Still, the important thing to note is that change is happening.
Slowly but surely, we’re seeing brands start to update their attitudes around ageing. One way that’s manifesting is more ad campaigns that portray aging as something positive rather than something to be warded off at all costs. In Spain, for example, Ausonia (a Procter & Gamble feminine hygiene brand) recently launched a breast cancer research campaign called We Want to See You Get Old which reframed growing older as a sign of good health and something to celebrate. We’re also seeing more beauty brands move away from terms like ‘anti-aging’ and start to talk about ‘pro-aging’.
Shaking of ageist attitudes and embracing the older consumer is good for business. The rich world is getting older, due to declining fertility rates and increasing life expectancies. According to BCG, “mature consumers" (which it defines as the 1 billion consumers around the world between the ages of 50 and 70) “control a substantial share of global consumer spending". In the 12 markets BCG studied (Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, the UK, and the US) they found “870 million people from 50 to 70 years old are responsible for 27% of spending, around $7 trillion each year in the nine product categories…researched.” Despite these massive numbers, consumer brands are still neglecting mature consumers and underestimating the influence they wield.
Still not convinced you should be rethinking what your advertising looks like?
A study published in the Journal of Advertising Research earlier this year found that featuring older women in ads has positive effects on social connectedness, brand attitudes and purchase intention for both young and older female consumers: “these effects can be explained by increased social connectedness with the decorative models”, the study’s authors by Hanna Berg and Karina T. Liljedal write (both at Stockholm School of Economics). “For male consumers, responses do not differ between ads featuring older and younger female decorative models.”
Ultimately, we shouldn’t need academic studies or research by global consulting groups to tell us all this. It’s common sense. The fact that there is a good ROI on making your customer base feel included and represented is common sense. The fact that older people don’t want to be treated like decrepit has-beens by marketers and will reward brands who treat them with dignity is common sense. And yet it still seems to be taking large swathes of the industry a long time to catch onto this. It’s almost like common sense isn’t that common after all.
So here’s my message to the industry: grow up! Get over your obsession with youth and start embracing a broader spectrum of ages. And if you’re finding it difficult to do that? Then hire more women over 40. They’ll sort you out.