Ageism in Advertising: Older Adults are Often Overlooked and Underserved

We’ve been addressing the topic of ageism not just because we serve a mature audience, but because ageism is a form of discrimination, one that impacts everyone at some point. The question is why does ageism exist at all?

“Partly it’s cultural,” notes John Mastronardi, Executive Director of the Nathaniel Witherell. “In our society, older adults are not as revered for their wisdom and experience as they are in Eastern cultures.” But we also believe that ageism is reinforced by the stereotypes perpetuated by the advertising industry, which for decades has portrayed older adults in patronizing, misleading, and even discriminatory ways. (Journal of Advertising)

Recent Ad Industry History

According to industry sources, ageism in advertising is a carryover from the 1950s and 60s – the “Mad Men” era – when Madison Avenue ad executives and creatives helped to perpetuate a youth-obsessed culture. At the time, a rapidly expanding economy was fueled by consumers who enjoyed more leisure time and greater disposable income than any previous generations. Youth was prized as they were perceived to be the big consumers of the future. Unfortunately, nNegative stereotypes of older adults resulted and, 60 years later, still resonate.

In 1961, a Pepsi campaign introduced the slogan “For those who think young.” This was followed by “the Pepsi generation” – subtle message: don’t drink coffee like your parents do.  Likewise, a “youthquake,” the term coined by Vogue magazine’s editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland, took over the fashion and cosmetic industries, which began targeting their products and advertising to the youth market. Research showed that the attractiveness or the beauty of product endorsers had positive effects on consumers, which impacted their purchasing decisions.

It was only until recently, when yesterday’s boomers (those born after WWII during the “baby boom” era, 1946-1964) became “older adults” did advertising begin to shift – but not in a major way. Older women continued to be underrepresented compared to older men; Caucasians rather than people of color predominated, even with audience segmenting; and older people were portrayed in an often insulting stereotypical fashion.

“For as long as I can remember, advertising’s path has been to negatively portray older people,” says Mastronardi, who believes ageism continues to permeate our culture.  “The stereotyping has merely reinforced bias against this demographic. When you repeat images of frailty and make fun of their technological abilities or portray them as incompetent or unattractive, you are devaluing their worth.” He said it can have unintended consequences. “It can create problems in terms of how older adults are treated when applying for jobs, trying to find housing, getting appropriate health care, or even socializing. It’s a big problem and it’s not right.”

The Silver Economy is undervalued

Product lines aimed at older consumers have tended to be in the realms of health, hygiene, medical products, and dietary supplements. While there may be some truth in why this is so – older people often do cope with medical problems and need medical products and attention —   this line of thinking does not represent the entire picture.  Three-quarters of consumers ages 55 plus, categorized as “Active Agers” or adults who are mentally, socially, and digitally active happen to be part of the wealthiest generation in American history.

An estimated:

  • 4 million baby boomers in America today control approximately 52.8% of all household wealth (Forbes), giving this age group huge spending power, more than any other generation;
  • 83% of Americans ages 50 to 64 and 61% ages 65+ own smartphones, and 50-64 (73%), and 65+ (45%) are on social media;
  • More than 53 million people over the age of 50 are employed (that’s one third of the American work force).

And there’s more:  According to Fortune, Americans 65 and older account for 22% of all consumer spending (May, 2024).  “That’s real consumer power.,” says Mastronardi.  Additionally, Forbes magazine (March, 2022) found that ageism is actually bad for business. “Consider this,” they wrote, “more than half of new vehicle purchases are reportedly made by buyers 55 and older. Close your eyes and picture the last car commercial you saw. Was the customer 55 or older?”

The issues don’t stop there. According to the Journal of Advertising (2022), ageism also affects how people see and portray themselves. From their mid- to late twenties and on, most people report a younger subjective age (i.e., how old they feel) compared to their chronological age (i.e., how old they actually are) indicating the wish to be around ten years younger. Even advertisers who want to use endorsers for an older market may still use a model up to 10 years younger than the targeted group.

Time to Break the Mold

Truth be told: people over age 50 are a force to be reckoned with. An AARP survey that found that the over-50s are fed up with how they are portrayed in marketing campaigns and that almost two in three of those polled agreed with the statement: “I wish ads had more realistic images of people my age,” and nearly half believed “ads of people my age reinforce outdated stereotypes.”

While some progress has been made recently, there is still lots of room for improvement in the way the media talk about, portray, and sell to older adults.

  • For starters, as the advertising industry embraces the fact that there is a growing silver economy, industry creatives might benefit from trading inauthentic young endorsers for authentic, age-appropriate people.
  • Second, older consumers shouldn’t have to accept the status quo. They can make their voices heard on social media channels – both their own and those run by the businesses and corporations that produce and advertise the products.
  • Third: show older adults as they are: active, at work, at cultural events, in social situations with mixed generations, participating in civic affairs – not just sitting alone at home, looking depressed.
  • Fourth, companies should be encouraged to use older celebrity endorsers – “granfluencers” – to help sell products. These days, granfluencers are being used more and more on TikTok for this purpose. Although it still skews young, TikTok has seen a 57% rise in Boomers using the platform since 2021. According to studies, granfluencers’ “warmth, authenticity, and refusal to “act their age” attracts followers from all generations.” They also foster trust and emotional ties. And depending on how the ad is written, granfluencers can punch a hole in the typical ageist stereotypes, showing vitality, warmth and humor.
  • Fifth: You can criticize a company for the ads it produces, but you also should congratulate it when they get it right. However, if you feel strongly that a company is not responding and persists in running ageist ads, you can always turn to AARP and ASA for help, EEOC (re employment issues) and your local or state Consumers Protection Department to register a complaint.

Recently interviewed by the New York Times, Supermodel Lauren Hutton, who will be 81 in November, was asked why she’s still working.

“I do it because I think it’s useful to wave the flag for full-grown women. I looked around and saw that there were no older women in ads or on magazines. There were all these guys getting old – actors, athletes who still had value – but no women. So, I keep working.”

To sum up: “We need to change the narrative if we hope to reshape culture,” Mastronardi says.



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