Ageism in advertising: Our industry needs to reflect the people it’s trying to engage

A recent AARP report into how older Americans are represented in media images shows that they are either stereotyped, misrepresented, or completely ignored by advertisers.

The study – which analyzed images posted online and on social media by brands or thought leaders – noted that 46% of US adults are over 50, but only 15% of images show adults of that age. Only 13% show people aged over 50 in a work setting – even though they make up 30% of the workforce. Only 5% show people interacting with technology, even though the 50+ market is worth $84 billion in tech spending by 2030. The list goes on. 

So it’s not a great surprise to read that, according to a study by Digiday, 43% of people who work in advertising with more than 15 years of experience have felt discriminated against based on their age. Forty is old in advertising years. 

Connecting with older audiences 

Are those two things connected? You bet they are. How can an industry staffed almost exclusively by people in their 20s and 30s be expected to create campaigns that ring true for someone two or three times their age? Of course they resort to stereotypes. What else do they know?

Diversity includes age 

Diversity matters not just because it’s right to give everyone an equal opportunity. It matters because an industry that isn’t diverse won’t be able to connect with great swathes of the population who don’t look, feel or think the same as you do. That’s as true when you’re talking about age as it is when you’re talking about gender. Or ethnicity, or socio-economic background, or sexual orientation, or disability, or neuro-diversity. We need diversity of thought.

I’m really proud to work for an agency that’s bucking this trend. Our average age is 39 – we have a lot of young people working for us of course, but we have a lot of people who are hitting retirement age and beyond, too. How could we engage with older audiences – high-spending, technically-savvy, smartphone-using older audiences – otherwise? 

Creating genuine human connections takes an understanding of different experiences

We have a population that’s aging, but that refuses to be constrained by age. We’re all working longer and spending more. That’s a huge opportunity for brands. But if their agencies have to resort to outdated images because there’s no-one on the campaign who understands the human experience of what it’s like to grow older, they won’t be able to create campaigns that genuinely connect with older people. 

Advertising’s obsession with youth is unhealthy. It means it’s losing great talent, and alienating nearly half the population. It’s time the industry thought differently about age. If it doesn’t, it risks becoming irrelevant to the fastest-growing segment of the population.

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