The problem with ageism in advertising

Credit: Nina Hill via Unsplash

Diversity is a hot topic for marketing professionals in 2022 but advertisers might have a problem when it comes to older consumers.

The graying brigade can’t be ignored. In Australia, almost half the voting public, and those with spare capacity in their personal budgets, are aged 50 and over.

But still marketers fall back on cliches – the old are frail, isolated, or lonely.

The UN-backed Unstereotype Alliance, polled more 100 senior UK brand, agency and in-house marketers, finding that while 70% of respondents are planning to showcase greater diversity in campaigns, 64% said a fear of “getting it wrong” was holding them back from making content that better reflects real society.

Almost half (47%) said a lack of experience in portraying diverse communities was the next biggest obstacle and 36% said a lack of diverse talent in agency or brand teams.

The bulk of academic research shows that older individuals are underrepresented in mainstream media and when they are featured they are shown in stereotypical or disempowering ways.

Lee StephensCEO Switch Digital, told AdNews: “Ageism is alive and well.”

And Kiranpreet Kaur, managing director, Archibald William said: “As an industry, we flock to and put more effort on the ‘next’ gen – millennials, gen y, gen z, etc. – while we throw the entire ‘older’ generation in a bulk bucket of 55+.

“Usually, the strategy behind targeting new generations is about acquisition of new audiences, as well as developing brand relationships and loyalty at an early stage – they have their whole lives ahead of them, after all.”

But a closer look will reveal the potential ROIs for older audiences are immense.

The 55+ group is by far the biggest demographic with the average lifespan increasing and populations around the world aging at a faster pace.

Older generations also have trillions in spending power, much higher than younger segments, and their buying habits are less utilitarian since most are debt free and own property.

Stephens said: “The authority construct for older audiences is different to younger audiences – word of mouth is valued among a tighter personal network with trust not easily given to unrecognized information sources.

“Unfortunately, there is a myriad of examples where this trust has been betrayed (AMP).

“The conversion rate once the audience receives personal service is higher as they place a higher value on personal contact relations.”

What are the key factors contributing to the ageist approach?

Kaur said: “We don’t see as much of the older generation in advertising these days, and when we do, it’s either the same trendy gray-haired cliché or a comedic approach that shows them in these‘ young ’scenarios in a funny way.

“As society places extra value on youth, the tone of advertising has broadly become much younger. We aim to be ironic, funny, and witty in a way that relates to the current youth culture that dominates.

“In my opinion there are three key factors contributing to this existing approach:

“1. We see a lot of advertising around for new services and products which just didn’t exist before and now aren’t relevant for the older generation (the 55+ category did grow up in a pre-internet world, after all).

“2. Media metrics have evolved with new channels and behaviors – ie TikTok, Spotify, YouTube, etc. These platforms have metrics that are measured in higher volumes (millions of impressions, clicks, views), and are a greater consideration in KPIs for marketers. These channels are also skewed to younger audiences, so this approach naturally shifts advertising efforts to younger audiences and behaviors.

“3. The staffing of the advertising industry, in general, is skewed younger, so there’s isn’t lived experience in enough people making the ads.

“In a nutshell, there is a strategic and business problem to be solved, before trying to crack the creative one for this audience.”

A more considered approach: the solution?

A recent Queensland University of Technology (QUT) study identified several trends of aging in media reporting across 13 Australian outlets.

And from that ethical guidelines were developed. While originally developed for journalists, AdNews spoke to Dr. TJ Thomsonlead researcher on the study and senior lecturer at QUT, who says the agenda-setting function of news can have roll-on effects on other types of media.

“If journalists are under-representing older people or representing them in shallow and problematic ways, it’s more likely that other types of communication professionals will subconsciously mirror these practices, too.

“The messages we see about aging and older people — whether on billboards or television spots — inform our perceptions of how older people should behave, should be treated, and should view themselves.

“Advertisers and marketers share in this responsibility of ensuring that the representations they create are ethically made and appropriate.

“Marketing professionals can gain a more loyal audience by [following these considerations and] creating more inclusive campaigns.

“People don’t like being pigeonholed into restrictive categories, ignored, silenced, or made to feel invisible.

“Campaigns that acknowledge this and seek to respond to these feelings of isolation and exclusion can be powerful vehicles for inspiring brand engagement and loyalty.”

The nine ethical considerations:

1. How much are you showing older people as frail, isolated, or lonely? Media coverage can shape how older people see themselves as well as how the broader population sees them. Is your coverage representative of the connections older people have to family members, friends, and carers, or does it portray them as isolated or lonely?

2. How much are you focusing on the financial or political implications of an aging population entering aged care? Do you do this at the expense of stories about the social implications for individuals, families and communities?

3. How prevalent are older people’s views, images, and stories in your coverage? Is this representative of your audience’s demographics?

4. Does your coverage humanize older people and cultivate empathy and compassion toward them, or does it present them as depersonalised? Our ability to empathize with older people can be hindered or prevented entirely when we see them not as individuals with unique stories and histories but rather as statistics or depersonalised figures.

5. Does your coverage draw on disembodied visual clichés, such as clasped hands, mobility aids (walking sticks, wheelchairs), or pills being dispensed? Using specific imagery — such as footage of older people interacting with family members or carers, or participating in activities or hobbies, as well as specific details such as their favorite possessions in their room and family photographs — is more engaging and helps humanize older people and enhance empathy for them

6. How egalitarian are your sources? Do you tend to over-rely on elite sources — such as peak bodies, politicians, businesspeople, or experts — at the expense of ordinary people in your coverage of older people and associated topics? Have you sought the perspectives of older people, their carers, nurses, family members and advocates?

7. How inclusive is your coverage of compounded identities on the margins? For example, does it include older people who are also queer or Indigenous? These groups tend to be under-represented in general news and doubly so when multiple marginalized identities, like age and Indigeneity, are combined.

8. How generic are your representations? About 20 percent of the imagery accompanying aged-care related coverage from 2018-21 was stock photography. Without concrete context and specificity, such stock images depersonalize the issues of aging and aged care, and make it appear less important or serious than it is.

9. How much are you relying on the ‘consonance’ news value and reinforcing existing stereotypes rather than disrupting them? For example, are you perpetuating the myth that older people aren’t users of digital technology or are you disrupting this?

A case study

Cameron Lawgroup strategy director, Carat Brisbane, told AdNews: “The first step [when targeting] any audience should really be to shut up and listen, it’s no different when talking to older Aussies! ”.

“We’re in our second year of partnership with the Aveo Group, a Retirement Living provider who helps guide emotionally charged conversations amongst older parents and their families.

“One thing we’ve been focusing on is, rejecting the fake‘ everything is awesome ’imagery you typically see in retirement living communications.

“This authenticity is driven by real understanding across the entire customer journey, which can often span several years.

“And, it’s working! This year we’ve seen consistently strong business results for them, showing that this mix of authentic messaging and real customer journey touchpoints are resonating with the audiences of both older Aussies and their families. ”

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