Age is just a number: why we should reverse aging adult stereotypes in advertising

If you’re a marketer, when you hear “age is just a number” you might roll your eyes a little bit. Or maybe just wince.

Because if you’re in the business of segmentation, you know that age is so much more than just a number. It’s an identity, a shorthand way of reaching people. An age can tell you so much about a person. Everything from what they wear to what they drive to where they buy their coffee every morning.

When figuring out how to market to an aging adult population (specifically baby boomers who just reached 60 years to more elderly seniors), it’s important to know that there is more to the story than just numbers.

Start with some context

So how exactly are aging adults being portrayed in advertising currently? Everyone remembers the spoof-able yet iconic “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” tagline from the late ‘80s--a scare tactic so powerful that Life Alert has continued to own it over the decades, including in this 2014 spot. In this commercial, the camera pans through a dark, lonely home as a fallen elderly lady helplessly delivers the emblematic line from the bottom of her stairs.

On the other end of the spectrum, The Seasons Retirement Community in Canada put out an upbeat spot that features the usual suspects: a lot of pastel polo shirts, sport coats and gray hair. In our research, there were various other comparable ads. Retirement Transitions LLC is another example, which features a feeble, gray-haired character who learns the benefits of its Medicare Supplemental Insurance for the 65+ demographic.

Sure, it’s not flattering. But is it working?

If we were to go off of these ads, one might assume life for aging adults is filled with communal dice games, the fear of falling down, and a new, shapeless wardrobe. However, consumers age 60 to 80 simply do not see themselves in today’s advertisements. In fact, most aging adults feel like they did 20-30 years ago.

Aging by the numbers

Aging adults are a diverse group that is hypersensitive to being stereotyped. And in the same way that brands devote substantial resources to targeting and segmenting within the Millennial population, brands must recognize there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to aging adult marketing.

This population is both nostalgic and seasoned, with members who are excited to keep contributing to their communities. They don’t want to hear about what they’re losing; they want to know what’s on the horizon. Many are comfortable with the latest forms of technology and don’t want to be patronized by brands.

Though conducting research and building out more realistic and wide-reaching consumer personas for aging adults may not be as ‘sexy’ as those of the ever-coveted millennial consumer, aging boomers (aged 50+) are a large and powerful group that will soon control 70% of the disposable income in the United States, with the average senior being nine times richer than the typical millennial.

So who’s hitting the mark?

In a 2011 TV spot for their sports utility vehicle Venza, Toyota takes on stereotypes by challenging the youthful ignorance that often minimizes the vitality of aging adults. Here, a millennial assumes her parents aren’t really ‘living’ since they have few Facebook friends. When her Venza-driving parents return home from a wild mountain biking adventure, the audience can draw their own conclusions.

Another great example is AARP’s “Disrupt Aging” campaign. This campaign empowers aging adults to redefine what it means to age. Their social media usage of #DisruptAging, creative video content (such as the Twitter video included here), and national bestselling book of the same title by CEO Jo Ann Jenkins invite people to educate themselves and share their stories.

The takeaway

Although a handful of brands are leading the charge, marketers still have a long way to go to close the gap between real aging adults and what we’re seeing in the media. Remember, this is a diverse generation that put a man on the moon, invented the Internet, and continues to contribute today in grand form.

As marketers, we must resist the urge to stereotype this age group into a gray-haired caricature defined by the plea “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”

After all, age is just a number, isn’t it?

Anne Ryan is director of brand strategy at Brownstein Group

Ben Kripke, account planner at Brownstein Group, contributed to this article.

Anne Ryan

Anne Ryan is director of brand strategy at Brownstein Group

All by Anne