Are brands suffering from a myopic view of the 50-plus market?
In an ad for Airbnb that premiered earlier this year, a couple checks into a cozy Spanish villa. To the tune of Jay-Z’s cover of “Me and My Girlfriend,” the ad shows the pair settling into their rental and setting their collective dial to chill. They play ping-pong, sip some wine, and get ready for a night on the town. They’re also in their 80s, celebrating their 57th wedding anniversary. In no way does the ad characterize the couple as elderly or portray them as needing special aid or services — they are just active people who happen to be old. It’s a rare example of ads featuring a realistic depiction of aging.
Media portrayals of those aged 50-plus are negative 28 percent of the time, often depicting them in isolated situations or as the recipients of care, according to “Growing Older Better,” a report released earlier this year by Alive Ventures, a startup company that funds organizations catering to the 50-plus market.
For comparison, the report, which is based on a poll of 83 older adults aged 54 to 86 across the country as well as secondary research conducted by the Pew Research Center and AARP, found only 4 percent of depictions of younger people to be negative.
The report says the 50-plus crowd will spend an estimated $84 billion on tech products by 2030, per AARP, yet just 5 percent of images of people aged 50 and over show them using technology.
“There’s billions of dollars being left on the table by misunderstanding older adults as consumers,” says John Zapolski, founder and CEO of Alive Ventures. Companies “think the goal is to solve the functional problems that are coming up. But if you think about older adults as consumers — that’s not what motivates somebody to engage with a brand.”
Indeed, despite the growing power of the “silver economy” and traditional notions of aging being upended, fealty to the 18- to 49-year-old demographic is alive and well among advertisers. Call it a failure of imagination or a chronic case of confirmation bias among ad creatives around aging, but experts see ageism in marketing as a significant problem.
“Ad images are outdated and unrepresentative for many brands as they focus on the 50-plus market,” says Martha Boudreau, EVP and chief communications and marketing officer at ANA member AARP, which represents 38 million members aged 50 and older. They’re wrong, she says, because they don’t understand the lifestyles of this demographic and have not taken the time to understand how older people live. “And it’s not wearing beige sweatsuits sitting on a bench alone,” she adds.
To help educate people, AARP in 2019 launched #DisruptAging, an ongoing marketing campaign that shatters stereotypes about aging. “The enormous variety of lifestyles is really what needs to be used … as a way of targeting people in the 50-plus age cohort from a sales and brand standpoint, rather than age,” Boudreau says.
The Longevity Economy
Brand managers ignore the size of the 50-plus market at their own peril. In 2018, the 50-plus cohort in the U.S. was composed of 117.4 million people, or 35 percent of the population, according to an AARP report titled, “The Longevity Economic Outlook.” That figure will rise to 132.3 million by 2030. The report is based on a series of input elements, which took into account preferences by population segments for consumption and labor supply. It is also based on collected data on tax receipts from various government sources, including the Congressional Budget Office and the Internal Revenue Service.
According to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s National Demographic Analysis, between 2010 and 2020 the number of people over age 55 grew by 27 percent, which is 20 times greater than the growth rate of the collective population under 55 (1.3 percent). The largest driver of this divide is the baby boom generation, which passed the age of 65 during the past decade, increasing the size of the 65- to 74-year-old age group by a half.
“The next population revolution is the aging population,” says Paul Irving, a senior fellow at the Milken Institute and distinguished scholar-in-residence at the University of Southern California Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “Marketers and designers who are advising leaders in the C-suite really need to understand the potential of the new age demography and change their thinking and, ultimately, they will be well rewarded.”
Older Americans also own a vast amount of wealth. According to the AARP report, the 50-plus population contributed $8.3 trillion in economic activity to the U.S. economy in 2018 and that amount will more than triple, to $26.8 trillion, by 2050.
“We’re on the cusp of a change,” says Susan Gianinno, senior adviser at Publicis Groupe, which owns Leo Burnett, Saatchi & Saatchi, and Epsilon, among other major advertising and marketing firms. “You’ve got more and more people over the age of 60 who are overturning the stereotypes, so it’s getting harder and harder to continue to abide by those stereotypes because we are being confronted with vivid, living counterpoints.”
The Airbnb ad “Bonnie & Clyde” is not the only recent spot to feature this age market. In an ad for Laura Geller Beauty called “Let’s Get Old Together,” 56-year-old model Paulina Porizkova talks about the reality of aging. “Sure, I’m getting older. And I’m the best I’ve ever been,” she says.
ANA member Procter & Gamble, the biggest global advertiser, launched several new products in the past two years appealing to consumers over 50. Generation Beauty by Pantene rolled out last December and includes three different solutions catering to the life stages of a woman’s hair — such as fine or thinning and white or gray — rather than targeting hair types. Hair Biology, which debuted in April 2020 in an exclusive partnership with Target, encompasses four lines designed for the specific needs of aging hair.
“Fifty-plus women make up 40 million of the U.S. population and their purchasing power is $15 trillion, but when you look at the beauty industry, they are largely invisible, and if they are advertised to it’s a series of stereotypes or tropes,” says Maris Croswell, senior brand director at P&G North America Hair Care. “The reality is at 50, she’s in the prime of her life, she’s at the crux of her career, is done with the B.S. of her 20s and 30s, and she knows exactly who she is.”
The launch results for both products exceeded the year-one goals by 28 percent, while Hair Biology was among the top five drivers of Target’s salon category growth last year, P&G says. To get the word out about Hair Biology, P&G partnered with several brand ambassadors via Instagram and dropped an ad campaign titled “Show Your Age” featuring a diverse trio of women celebrating their individual and unique hairstyles.
“You have a market opportunity that’s there for the taking,” says Michael Hodin, CEO of the Global Coalition on Aging, which partners with 20 global brands, including Home Instead, Intel, and Pfizer, on reframing the ways businesses deal with longevity. “If you start now, you can really benefit because you’ll be one of the leaders, and you can also have your cake and it eat it, too. I wouldn’t for a second abandon 20-, 30-, and 40-year-olds, but you can do both.”
In concert with the coalition, Bank of America is codifying its efforts to address the senior market, including creating a network of partnerships with experts in aging, science, and health, to help cultivate new business strategies catering to older consumers and building trust for the long-term.
New Voices in the Room
Changing the marketing mindset when it comes to aging consumers may be the next frontier for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) that has gripped advertisers the past few years.
Gianinno, who is chairwoman at Encore.org, a nonprofit organization designed to bring older and younger people together to address societal problems, stresses that brands and their agencies need to ramp up their efforts to recruit, hire, and retain older workers.
“What’s happened is people [in the marketing industry] have only paid attention to what defines a young person’s intelligence, which is called ‘fluid intelligence,’ and that biases toward innovation and new ideas,” she says. “The opposite is ‘crystallized intelligence,’ and that’s the ability to see patterns, perspective, and context, which I think is what’s desperately needed with all this data.”
As the definition of “cool” becomes more malleable and less wedded to younger generations, brands also have an opportunity to develop messaging that encompasses multiple generations, such as recent campaigns from vacation rental company Vrbo and makeup brand ILIA Beauty and the mission of 19/99, which touts its beauty products as designed for women aged 19 to 99.
“Your 50-plus consumer is the mother of your gen Z consumer,” P&G’s Croswell says. “Who do you think talks to and influences each other? It’s not just a one-way street. … Brands have got to recognize the connections these generations have. There’s so much to learn.”
Source: ANA Magazine