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TikTok’s ‘aged’ filter hits different because it sharpens our murky future

By Ling Groccia | Strategist

M&C Saatchi Group


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October 5, 2023 | 8 min read

What does it mean to market the future when we fear we have no future? Ling Groccia and Elena Claró of SS+K (part of the M&C Saatchi group) look at aging filters in light of a generation’s fear of doom.

TikToker home.with.stefania using the aging filter

What does TikTok's aging filter say about a generation's dreams of the future? / Home.With.Stefania on TikTok

If you had a crystal ball and could see into the future, would you look?

There’s no need, because now we have AI. TikTok’s new aged filter allows users to see their elderly face, and it’s taken the internet by storm.

Photo app filters have always been popular, but this one stands out for its dermatologist-verified accuracy and the myriad conversations and reactions that have spun out of it.

Reaction camp #1: shock. Horror. Jumpscares. Many, myself included, were stunned to see our faces grandma-fied. TikTok users traced their wrinkles and patted at the softness of their jowls, saying “this can’t be true” and scrambling for better lighting in hopes of a different reflection.

Reaction camp #2: capitalization. Born out of the horror from camp 1, dermatologists and skin care enthusiasts took to their ring lights, offering procedures and products, and encouraging people to look at the bright side: we can use the filter preventatively for a less busted face down the line.

Reaction camp #3: acceptance. While camps 1 and 2 were to be expected (it’s a lot to see your elderly self pop out of nowhere and people have bills to pay), a larger portion of TikTokers embraced their aged faces, imbuing the filter with sentimentality.

People teared up seeing their loved ones, parents and grandparents alike, in their aged faces. Families got emotional after young people shared their aged face with their parents who won’t be there when they’re older. Adoptees who don’t know their biological family saw visions of what they might look like in their old age for the first time. And people created stories upon stories for their elderly selves: “I think I like her, she looks like she’s going to tell you dirty jokes and let you sneak an extra cookie while your mom isn’t looking.”

A different future

Nostalgia and sentimentalism are not new, but they usually rises to the surface when we look to the past.

This summer, we’ve seen a devastating number of climate crises that battered us from left and right: flooding and mudslides in Vermont, funnel clouds and Tornado threats in Connecticut, derecho winds across the Midwest, and deadly wildfires in Maui. More than a third of the US was under air quality alerts from Canadian wildfire smoke. Across the globe, people experienced heat waves as July 2023 became the hottest month on record.

As threats of climate crises assault us from every angle, every day, we’re forced to alienate ourselves from the future. It becomes easy to hyper-focus on the present, to want to live in the moment, to say “f* it, we ball,” and try to just get through the day.

All of these alarms were ringing as we looked at our elderly selves. It’s surely no coincidence that this filter took off.

Through this silly little app, we’re struck by the fact that this aged version of ourselves exists in an AI vacuum that cannot account for how our future will actually unfold.

This look into the future is so emotionally fraught because who knows if we’ll ever get to meet that future. For all we know, our cute little grandma selves might need a snorkel because we’ll all be underwater. Or maybe the lack of gravity when we live on Mars will do wonders for our wrinkles, and this filter will all be for nothing.

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Future nostalgia

No matter what the future ends up holding for us, it’s valuable for us today to sentimentalize our future selves.

As brand strategists, we think about who brands are to consumers and what they can uniquely offer people. In a time when people are nostalgic for a future because they fear we might not have one, brands can offer a kind of hope. Brands and their marketing have always presented a glimpse into the future. Often, it’s a peak into a shinier, happier, more abundant one – this enhanced future wrapped up in a brand promise and dangling just a purchase away.

But as people (yes, consumers) reckon with the very real and worrying vision of our climate future, brands can start to shape, define, and take action to build a future with meaning. Maybe it will be a little less shiny, but amid our present crises, the aging filter resonates with us because it connects us to a future that does have meaning. Perhaps longing for a viable future is enough to help us create one.

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