‘Who Do They Think We Are?’

In the early 1990s, when my parents were living in Florida and concerned about their future need for my support, my mom, dad and I went shopping for an independent living community near my home in Charlotte, NC. We toured nearly a dozen places, always guided by cheerful salespeople in their 20s through 40s (far younger than my parents’ cohort), who reassured us that their communities offered the best in fine retirement life: well-maintained apartments, high-quality dining and a full calendar of stimulating activities.

However, something seemed amiss in their approach. It was as if they were reciting from a memorized script, making all kinds of assumptions about who my parents were.

“You’ll find a great home here,” was the prevailing sales-closing pitch.

But they didn’t know my parents. Moreover, they never asked them about their lifestyle and preferences. Instead, my mom and dad had to proactively share information that filled in the picture of who they were as active, engaged people.

More than once after a visit, they would find themselves pondering the question, “Who do they think we are?” They were unconsciously responding to the two main problems with marketing to older adults that still exist: underrepresentation of people like them (in their case, regarding the sales staff) and misrepresentation via the stereotyping of elders and what they want.

Overlooked and Underserved

Today, as a 71-year-old, I’m stupefied by the fact that even now some marketers and advertisers underrepresent older adults in their campaigns because they are either unaware or skeptical of the fact that the ages 50 and older population in the United States is a formidable source of consumer spending, amounting to nearly 70% of the nation’s GDP in 2020.

No one would contest that we olders overpopulate ads for reverse mortgages, funeral insurance, easy-access bathtubs, hearing aids, medicines, supplements and other products that address such concerns as memory issues, erectile dysfunction and incontinence. You get the picture.

‘The goals of many marketing efforts don’t correlate with how we older customers perceive ourselves.’

But what about products and services that relate to a wider age range that includes us, namely cars, credit cards/banking, travel, restaurants/dining, furniture and jewelry? According to a 2019 media survey conducted by AARP, “While 46% of the U.S. adult population is age 50-plus, only 15% of images containing adults include people this age.” Moreover, a more recent AARP survey reported that 86% of women ages 50 and older believe they are underrepresented in advertisements.

Fortunately, more companies have gotten the message. As research conducted by Age of Majority revealed, “Four out of five marketers (84%) reported they want to target consumers 50+ more effectively than they do today and almost as many (79%) agree that consumers 50 and older are a growth priority for their businesses.”

Despite this growing awareness, the goals of many marketing efforts don’t correlate with how we older customers perceive ourselves. That’s because if ads include us at all, they often depict us as being weak, out of touch, technologically inept or comical. In fact, people ages 50 and older are seven times more likely to be portrayed negatively than those younger than age 50.

Ironically, such ageist stereotypes can turn off the very people marketers are trying to engage, a response that can affect the bottom line in a big way. Advertisers may be surprised to learn that older adults aren’t necessarily brand loyal. Age of Majority found that 54.9% of people ages 55 and older regard “being more authentic/realistic when portraying people my age” as a relevant criterion when deciding on purchasing a specific brand of product. As in the case of my parents, the question “Who do they think we are?” can drive our responses and product choices.

So why would companies adhere to this counterintuitive approach?

Selling the Fear Factor

A logical explanation is that marketing and advertising often rely on appealing to consumers’ desires by promoting “manufactured insecurity.” When it comes to aging, this translates into the widespread cultural desire to remain young due to a fear of growing old.

Probably the one marketing exception in which older and younger consumers are more equally represented is in “anti-aging” ads for cosmetic injections, plastic surgery and skin-care products. Twenty- and thirty-somethings as well as older (and not surprisingly, always female) celebrities have become the spokespeople for Botox injections and anti-wrinkle, skin-rejuvenation creams. Such role-modeling confirms a wide acceptance of aging’s fear-based narrative.

Under- or misrepresentation of people ages 50 and older keeps reinforcing systemic age discrimination.

But here’s the catch: The otherwise underrepresentation or misrepresentation of people ages 50 and older keeps reinforcing the systemic age discrimination that seriously limits our work opportunities, impacts our health and longevity, and decreases our contribution to the American economy by approximately $3.9 trillion. And it’s not just the external influences of ageism on our lives; relentless negative messaging reinforces the ageism we may internalize and believe about ourselves.

In general, older adults whose viability and quality of life are significantly affected either externally or internally by ageism work less, earn less, save less, and—are you listening, marketers?—spend less. And it goes without saying that today’s younger consumers are tomorrow’s older ones. Simply put, the long-term effect of current fear-based advertising is the loss of future customers and thus profits. Not a smart move.

The Better Pitch: Fulfillment

Luckily, changes in messaging are slowly happening across the media. Several stock photo companies have established collections of pro-aging images that depict us older adults in realistic, life-engaging situations. In addition, the FrameWorks Institute, AARP, Shutterstock and ASA, and others (including me) have provided dos and don’ts tips for marketers to design campaigns focusing on our desires for personal fulfillment rather than on the fear of aging.

But relying on the slow trickling of corporate initiatives isn’t enough to change the marketing landscape in a larger and more timely way. Because companies depend on two things from customers, brand loyalty and word-of-mouth endorsements, we older consumers—along with younger advocates—will need to convince businesses that we’ll reject products and services marketed through campaigns that rely on ageist memes.

But how?

  • We should start by asking ourselves, “Who do we think we are?” Only by becoming more aware of our own ageist attitudes can we better detect and call out ageist examples in commercials, print and online ads and videos.
  • Let’s boycott companies that portray us in negative ways and support companies that embrace pro-aging messages. A great example of this is to stop buying over-the-hill and black-balloon birthday cards and instead purchase cards that celebrate age.
  • We can use our social media networks to spread the word about which companies to support and to share examples of ads that appeal to us as well as those that tick us off. And while we’re at it, let’s tag the companies in our posts so that our messages get through to them.
  • And let’s make it a point to thank and congratulate those companies that take pro-aging approaches in their campaigns. The word will get back to the ad firms they use.

To drive ageism from the world of advertising, “You’ll find a great home here,” should be the two-way pitch that marketers and consumers share.

Jeanette Leardi is a social gerontologist, community educator, public speaker, and creator of the Ageful Living blog.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/G.MARTYSHEVA

Oct. 7 is Ageism Awareness Day, find out how to engage with ASA here: https://asaging.org/ageism-awareness.