Lots of fantastic work has been done in recent years to combat ageism in all walks of life. However, it’s still one of the UK’s (and the world’s) most serious issues.
In fact, the British Safety Council tells us that it’s the most prevalent form of discrimination, with one in three people experiencing it – especially older adults.
One of the ways older adults might encounter ageism is through advertising. This could be due to a lack of representation or the use of discriminatory language, imagery, or narratives that perpetuate ageist stereotypes.
To give readers a clue of how widespread ageist stereotypes are in this space, this research claims that negative descriptions of older adults are six times more common in the media than positive and neutral ones. In addition, this 2017 YouGov data showed that 68% of over 50s in the UK felt that adverts aimed at their age group didn’t accurately portray them.
What is the impact of ageism in advertising?
Advertising doesn’t just reflect society’s views concerning ageing; it has the power to influence them.
For example, one study examined people who were exposed to more or less negative stereotypes. They found that those who encountered more had increased negative views about ageing. It also found that older adults who encountered more negative stereotypes concerning memory loss and ageing performed worse in memory tests.
Research like this shows how powerful negative stereotypes around age can affect our views, behaviour, and overall quality of life – and why all companies should be mindful when advertising their brands.
Plus, from a business standpoint, the population of older adults is growing – with over 21 million people aged 50 and over currently living in the UK. Without being mindful of ageist advertising practices, companies risk alienating this vast and valuable source of customers.
With this in mind, we thought we’d discuss a few of the most common ageist stereotypes portrayed in advertising and why companies should be challenging them.
Stereotype one – older adults are unable to use technology
Ageism in advertising extends far beyond the UK. According to surveys conducted by the U.S. organisation Age of Majority, 68.9% of mentally, socially, and digitally active older adults said they saw older adults portrayed as unable to use technology in advertising.
While, generally, over 50s may have a different level of tech skills than ‘digital natives’ – younger generations who’ve been brought up in the age of the internet – the assumption that older adults are unable (and unwilling) to use technology is false.
Aside from digital geniuses like Bill Gates (68), there are plenty of examples of tech-savvy older adults around us. For example, back in 2020, we interviewed 83-year-old Han van Doorn. After a career working for IBM, Han developed an app that helps people check in on vulnerable loved ones by analysing their electricity meter usage.
As well as those who already possess digital skills, research also tells us that many older adults want to learn more about using modern technologies. So, it’s important to consider how you represent older generations and technology in promotional materials.
Stereotype two – older adults are physically weaker than younger people
Another negative stereotype commonly found in advertising – as highlighted by the Age of Majority’s survey – is that older adults are physically weaker than younger people. In fact, 52.6% of respondents said they’d encountered this idea.
And this stereotype is just as prevalent in the UK as it is in the U.S. According to studies, words like ‘frail’ and ‘disabled’ are among the top descriptors for older adults in the UK’s popular media, which, of course, isn’t reflective of many modern over 50s.
While we typically lose strength and muscle mass as we age, the assumption that older adults are physically weaker than younger people simply isn’t true.
Take Allison Rodger (63), for example, who took home the top prize for weightlifting at PureGym’s over-50s fitness competition last year. As well as winning strength competitions, she reports being as fit as most of the 30-year-olds in her gym classes.
Plus, as Age UK tells us, recent research also tells us that over 55s in England are “leading the way in improving their activity levels, with increases higher than any other age group” in the 2015-2020 period. With this in mind, health and fitness brands should be mindful of how they represent older adults in advertising.
Stereotype three – older adults are less mentally fit than younger people
Portraying older adults as less mentally fit than younger people is another harmful and inaccurate stereotype often presented in advertising. Sadly, 45.5% of the respondents to Age of Majority’s survey reported seeing it in marketing campaigns.
While there are natural declines in cognition associated with age, studies tell us that getting older can bring about positive cognitive changes too. In fact, they show that older adults tend to have wider vocabularies and can have greater stores of knowledge than younger people due to their many years of life experience.
The idea that older adults are inflexible when it comes to learning and adapting is also a misconception – and more and more are using later life to gain new skills. For example, this poll of 2,000 older adults, commissioned by Warner Hotels, found that over a third of respondents have learned a new skill since turning 50.
While these stereotypes aren’t the only examples of ageism in advertising, they are some of the most common and harmful. Considering these biases and how to avoid them can be a good first step for companies looking to create more inclusive branding and tap into the vast and valuable source of later-life customers.
Is your company striving for more age-inclusive branding? If so, how are you doing it? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.