By Tiffany Hsu
Older consumers, who hold trillions of dollars in spending power and make up a growing portion of the global population, would seem to be a prime target for advertisers.
Instead, the demographic is shunned and caricatured in marketing images, perpetuating unrealistic stereotypes and contributing to age discrimination, according to a new report.
More than a third of the U.S. population is older than 50, but the group turns up in only 15% of media images, according to research from AARP, the powerful advocacy organization focused on older Americans. The report, which will be released Monday at the Advertising Week conference in New York, was based on a random sample of 1,116 images published or posted by popular brands and groups.
More than 53 million people older than 50 are employed, making up a third of the American labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But only 13% of the images reviewed by AARP showed older people working.
Instead, they appeared at home more than in any other setting, often in the company of a partner or a medical professional. Younger people were more likely to be featured with co-workers.
Less than 5% of the images showed older generations handling technology, even though the Pew Research Center has found that 69% of people between 55 and 73 own a smartphone. More than a third of the images analyzed by AARP portrayed younger people with technology.
Martha Boudreau, AARP’s chief communications and marketing officer, said that many advertising agencies had never dealt with marketing campaigns targeting older consumers. Recent ads have described being 50 years old as “basically dead” and characterized older people as selfish and out of touch.
“Marketers reflect the culture and the conversation in our country,” Boudreau said. “Stereotypes about the 55-plus demographic were really limiting people’s sense of what they could do with this half of their lives.”
AARP is pressing advertising agencies and their clients to update their portrayals of aging, ramping up its presence at major advertising events like the Cannes Lions festival, she said. The group teamed with Getty Images, the stock media supplier, to introduce a collection of 1,400 images Monday that show older people running businesses, playing basketball and hanging out with younger generations.
“What we needed was imagery showing mature adults leading full lives,” Rebecca Swift, the global head of creative insights for Getty Images, said in a statement.
Many advertising professionals blame the ageism rampant in their own offices for contributing to the invisibility and distortion of older people in marketing campaigns.
At advertising, public relations and related companies in the United States, more than 81% of employees are younger than 55, according to government data. In Britain, where the average age of advertising employees is not quite 34, only 6.2% of the workforce is 50 or older, according to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.
In trade publications like AdAge, employees have described the industry as a “Peter Pan,” and say few employees last long enough to have a retirement party. Duncan Milner, who helped develop some of Apple’s best-known advertising campaigns, accused his longtime agency TBWA of age discrimination in a lawsuit last month.
Efforts to support older advertising employees, such as the Society of Very Senior Creatives, have sprung up in recent years. The agency 3rdThird Marketing, which targets consumers in the latter portion of their lives, posted a photo this summer listing the ages of some of its employees (they ranged up to 58).
McCann, which runs a network of advertising agencies, suggested in a report last year that marketing campaigns consider perspectives of aging as “a journey of limitless opportunities and personal growth” rather than “as a time of anxiety and uncertainty.”
There have been some shifts for the industry.
In June, customer searches on Getty for images of “seniors” had increased 151% from a year earlier. The most popular image in the category now shows a group of women in T-shirts practising yoga. A decade earlier, the best-selling photo featured a couple in sweaters embracing on a beach.
Advertising outside of the pharmaceutical and financial planning sectors is increasingly featuring older models. In 2017, beauty company CoverGirl hired model and dietitian Maye Musk, now 71, to appear in commercials.
But many ads, including some in Singapore and Australia this month, continue to be criticized for their portrayals of older people.
An ad last year from Lumen, a dating app, was accused of objectifying its 58-year-old model, who appeared wearing suspenders over his bare chest as part of the company’s “Sexy Santa” campaign. The company put out another campaign this spring showing six older men and women, all naked and holding signs with slogans like “grey hair don’t care” and “do you see us now.”