Ageism is perhaps one of the last and most invisible threads when it comes to “woke” generational values infiltrating into the media.

Of course, there is still much work to be done in terms of media visibility for people of colour, queer people and women but arguably one group that’s had little screen time is the elderly. 

Ageism in advertising can be seen all across the globe and has been carried out by a plethora of brands. Early examples would be Wendy’s 1984 commercial in the US which portrays three cranky old women, one of them shouting, “Where’s the beef?” Not only is this ageist but also sexist and such stereotypes infiltrate to this day. Take Duracell’s “Beach x Bear” ad from 2019 which features a silver-haired man wandering around a beach with a metal detector. He says he’d rather his battery have extra life than extra power. By the commercial’s end, the caricatured old man can’t even stand up. Though some may find this humorous, we must release that it portrays older people as almost non-human. 

There are, however, great ads that portray older people in a real and respective light. One of our favourites is the American commercial by Gillette in 2017 called “Handle With Care.” It showed a real-life adult son caring for his ageing father, who needs assistance with shaving after a stroke. The ad won multiple awards at the Cannes Lions festival, the largest gathering in the creative marketing community. 

When it comes to ageism, we tread a tricky wire in regards to society’s relationship with them. Unlike people of colour or queer people who have been marginalised their whole life, older people are a particular case in that their marginalisation begins somewhere around sixty. This is where the situation becomes nuanced because many of those older people were the ones who had power and status for much of their lives particularly if they are white, cis, straight and/or male. Furthermore, many older people, have a reputation for spouting racist, sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic views which can encourage younger generations to lack sympathy and oftentimes with reason. However, like any group of people, it is unfair to stereotype. Older people are still people and where one may be offensive, another is kind and compassionate just like the rest of us. 

A 2021 AARP survey showed that most consumers aged 50-plus want marketing campaigns to grow up. Some 62 percent agreed with the statement “I wish ads had more realistic images of people my age.” And nearly half (47 percent) concurred that “ads of people my age reinforce outdated stereotypes.” Yet some advertisers still ignore or show little respect for older people — a remarkably shortsighted attitude. Yet advertising is still out of sync with this large demographic. 

The bias toward the young in advertising traces back decades. During the Mad Men heyday of the 1960s, young people represented the most potent growth sector of the economy. Tens of millions of boomers hadn’t decided what kind of shampoo, shoes or cars they preferred. Older people were thought to be frugal and already brand loyal. It was smart for marketers of nearly everything to target people between ages 15 and 25, when young consumers decided what they liked.

However, this demographic has grown up to become a group of savvy consumers who are being ignored. It is particularly strange in an economy where older people hold the most revenue. Outside of advertising, British pop sensation Adele recently expressed similar concern at only the age of 30. She said in her interview with Apple that her management had raised the issue of TikTok in an attempt to attract teenagers to her music. “Don’t they have mums?” said Adele “surely they heard my music growing up from their parents. Besides, I don’t want to make music for twelve-year-olds, my album ‘30’ is a bit too deep for them really. I want to make music for people my age in their 30s and 40s going through therapy and reflecting on everything you’ve been through when you reach this age”. 

A major cause of ageism in advertising may be the lack of age diversity among those who are actually creating the ads. The median age for a manager in America’s advertising agencies is 37, and the average age of a creative person in the industry is only 28; 71 percent of creative directors are male.

So what’s the answer: always, more diversity in the workplace!

Categorized in: