Ageism in Marketing Is a Problem — Let’s Fix It

By Joanna Valente


Ageism in marketing has been a problem for a long time. Really think about it. When was the last time you really saw older people in ads (that weren't specifically geared toward aging)? You know, ads in which older people are portrayed as themselves, living their lives, joyously?

So many of the ads we see celebrate and only show youth. But we all grow up. We all age and get older. That's normal. What's not normal? Living in a Peter Pan-esque fantasy as if no one ever ages. This is why Alive Ventures released their Growing Older, Better insight report for 2022 alongside its campaign.

The report and campaign are meant to highlight how the needs of older adults in the U.S. are not being met, or even being discussed publicly. According to the study, 46 percent of U.S. adults are over the age of 50, yet only 15 percent of ads include them.

The report begins with the dating needs of single older adults. In an age where there are numerous dating apps, it seems like meeting people shouldn't be a problem. However, it is, considering the apps, and the marketing for them, are geared toward younger users.

As the report states, older adults are skeptical about apps, and for good reason; many encounter scams and fake accounts, consequently, older adults don't trust the apps: "As a result, these services engender low levels of trust. Older adults would value vetting or verification being built into these offerings to give them confidence that they have a genuine chance of finding a real, quality partner."

Fifty-one percent of adults surveyed between the ages of 50 and 64, for instance, don't believe dating apps are a safe way to meet people, followed by 59 percent of people ages 65 and over. Moreover, 38 percent of people between the ages of 30 and 49 agree that it is not safe. The report also found that "current dating apps account for 38 percent of catfishing victims, and in the U.S. women over the age of 40 are the most common catfishing victims."

Of course, it isn't just about dating, or advertising to older adults for dating apps, but also how older adults connect in general.

How do marketers help with this? Creating digital environments, ads, and movements for connection, ensuring safety and trust on digital apps, as well as developing tools that help them.

This is why marketing expert and influencer Helen Polise founded Socialize, which is, according to its website, for "creators of all skill levels. We teach creators like you how to tell your stories visually by giving you the tips, tricks, and tutorials from experts. We believe that learning about social media shouldn't be complex or intimidating."

The community is geared toward older adults who are unsure of how to use social media, and Polise founded it as a way to help and reach people who want to connect with others through their platforms, specifically TikTok. As Socialize states, Polise "demystifies the whole process, and teaches people — step–by–step — how to start creating their own TikTok videos." Polise herself currently has 600,000 followers on TikTok.

Of Socialize, Polise told the ANA that the mission is to empower people, saying, "It gives them the confidence. You can do it just like I can do it. We're all in this together. We're going to have a good time. We're going to have a community of support. I want to create a community of people that want to help each other and also learn."

On the marketer's side, it's important to reframe thinking around who appears in ads and why —  specifically, why we choose to focus on youth. It's a no brainer that marketers need to create ads and narratives that speak authentically to older adults. The report states, "Despite making up more than half of consumer spending in the United States, older adults are yet to be accurately reflected in the products and services that target them" and the group makes up "50 percent of consumer spending."

This means creating narratives that don't just revolve around aging, but reflect real life, as well as have older adults involved in the creation process of these narratives.

Like any generation, older adults need to be met where they are. Therefore, working with older adults who are influencers, or experts or leaders in their field, is crucial when it comes to branding. The constant stereotyping is harmful, as the report found that "portrayals of those over 50 are negative 28 percent of the time."

Polise stresses how important it is for the marketing world to understand this demographic, explaining, "There's so many people of my age, and even older, that have influence now. And our followers are so much more loyal than young followers, because young followers, they come, they go. You say something, and then they get annoyed, and they never follow you again. I feel that my followers are so loyal. You know, if I'm gone for two days, they're like, 'Are you okay, what's happening?' And they're true friends of mine now, it's been very interesting."

Polise added that older adults "have influence, it's just that the brands don't believe in it necessarily. When I was in advertising in the early years, I did a lot of toys. And we always had to cast older kids, because that was aspirational, because the younger kids are going to want what the older kids have."

She went on to say, "Now it's almost like it's flipped around; people think you have to cast younger people, because older people want to be younger. But actually, I don't want to be younger. I'm happy to be how I am right now, and I'm really happy to be at this point in my life where I care less about what people think. I want to live my life more fully, and spread positivity — and be a role model for someone that maybe has something to share that's important but they are afraid to do it."

Polise believes social media apps like TikTok humanize people, stating, "[Marketers] have to set design, we have to do wardrobe with hair and makeup. Everything has to be perfect. And so the flip side to what happens to me on social media is I learned how to create the content that doesn't have to be perfect."

Polise further explained why TikTok is a huge asset for older people, saying: 

"First of all, I love TikTok. When I got on it, it was so different from any other social media platform that I had been on before. And I love doing Instagram. I always was, I always adopted immediately. And so, I've navigated through those platforms, and TikTok was just so much grander in terms of being able to be creative, find content that you want, be inspired, and learn things. [With] older adults, I don't think we are putting that pressure on ourselves. I think we're just so excited to embrace, to share, to show who we are now. And I think it's just a game changer. So, TikTok is my favorite."

Marketers should take note of this when considering influencers and social media platforms to use when creating campaigns, to avoid stereotyping. Some stereotypes include the fact that older adults are incapable of working or providing value, and this harmful view leads to ageism in the workforce. The report stated, "According to a 2018 study by AARP, 61 percent of respondents over the age of 45 reported seeing or experiencing age-based discrimination in the workplace." In 2020, baby boomers "made up 26 percent of the freelance market."

Intergenerational relationships in the workplace are extremely valuable, and building age diversity is crucial to fostering an inclusive work environment. This is the same for ads in that people of all ages should see themselves authentically portrayed in ads, which deepens our connection to each other and our understanding of common and universal experiences. 

Ultimately, marketing and advertising should be inclusive of all people — and everyone's humanity should be celebrated and portrayed accurately, realistically, and diversely.

Joanna Valente is a director of editorial and content development at ANA.

The views and opinions expressed in Industry Insights are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.