Festival of Marketing 2015: “Ageless advertising” – Panel discussion asks why we aren’t better at marketing to those over 50

How should we reconsider language and casting when marketing to older people? Are we ignoring demographic realities? Why are we still so obsessed with youth? These are just some of the questions considered by a group of industry experts at a panel discussion during the Festival of Marketing 2015

On the panel was Rebecca Valentine, founder of Grey Model Agency, Jane Cunningham, editor of britishbeautyblogger,com, Michael Cutbill, former marketing director of Saga and the AA, and Rosie Arnold, deputy executive creative director at BBH, who discussed terminology, role models and ageless advertising, with CR editor Patrick Burgoyne chairing the session, ‘They’ve Got Money, They’ve Got Time… Haven’t They? So Why Aren’t We Better at Marketing to Those Over 50?’ at FoM 2015.

“I think the first problem is calling them a group, because what you are talking about are people fro 40-99 and beyond,” Valentine says. “I think it is very difficult to refer to a group of people who share 50 years between them as one entity. That has to be broken down into who those people are and their lifestyle choices, [without] thinking about them as just over-40s or over-50s.”

This is “inappropriately homogenising” people as Cutbill sees it – “mistakenly lumping people together”, Arnold agrees, who span a large age range with vastly diverse interests and lifestyles. The language, definitions and terminology of marketers around the issue of age are ripe for an overhaul, the panel agree. And the beauty industry is one of the biggest culprits for Cunningham when it comes to “making older women feel like shit”:

“When I think about the terminology they use to describe women my age, and I’m 50, words such as sagging, old, wrinkled, grey, jowly, creased … when we look at the English language there really aren’t many terms that are complimentary for older women,” Cunningham says. “We have to exclude things like cougar which just implies women are sexual predators over-50 … We are very short on words … One thing I hope comes from this is that clever marketers start coming up with words and terminology that aren’t derogatory.”

From derogatory to ridiculous, some are certainly still getting it very wrong: “I’ve was sent a press release recently, to do with health, for someone in my age group, talking about me as ‘senior fitizen’,” she exclaims.

The panel (clockwise from top left): Jane Cunningham, editor of britishbeautyblogger.com; Michael Cutbill former marketing director of Saga and the AA; Rosie Arnold deputy executive creative director of BBH; ebecca Valentine, founder of Grey Model Agency
The panel (clockwise from top left): Jane Cunningham, editor of britishbeautyblogger.com; Michael Cutbill, former marketing director of Saga and the AA; Rosie Arnold, deputy executive creative director of BBH; Rebecca Valentine, founder of Grey Model Agency

And visuals are just as important – so how genuine is the use of faces such as Charlotte Rampling, Helen Mirren or Joan Didion in fashion and beauty ads, and what are the new rules of casting?

“I think for a long time brands, marketing people and agencies have been peddling a concept of age that’s so outdated,” Valentine says. “When I was coming here on the tube, I saw an Age UK poster of frail old man with a Christmas party hat on, on his own. I think Saga is also guilty of this – presenting an idea of age that is fear driven. … And because you are presented with this perception of age constantly through media and marketing, it creates a separation between those that are ‘doing’ and those that are supposedly ‘done’. So a huge gap has opened between the 50+-age group – whatever that means – and those desperately trying to sell to them.”

An Age UK billboard ad from earlier this year (Photo: JWT / Age UK)
An Age UK billboard ad from earlier this year (Photo: JWT / Age UK)

However, the aims of certain campaigns, from charities in particular, clearly involve a different level of sentiment and an emotionally driven message that requires a level of visible vulnerability. “Just to clarify, the Age UK campaign is about befriending older people,” Cutbill says. “The organisation’s mission is about stopping loneliness and loneliness being the blight of our time. So yes I agree that you end up with a vision that’s not positive, but it’s understandable in terms of the campaign.”

For a long time, the majority of older people in ads have been presented as frail, grey, and alone – images which have an important role to play in certain instances – but this inadequately represents the reality of audience/customer demographics and the diversity of ages and lifestlyes in the “over 50’s” range.

“Life in progress”, is too often what marketers are missing – but how can you reach them, if you don’t really understand them or talk to them, Valentine asks. Cunningham agrees: “There is nobody of our age creating for people of our age, especially in the beauty industry, and it’s slightly shocking to be spoken [with] a 25 year-old-man’s idea of what it must be like have wrinkles – you have nothing you can say to me that I can’t say better myself,” she says.

Photograph of Mrs Robinson Management model ‘Valerie’, by Natalia Lipchanskaya
Mrs Robinson Management model ‘Valerie’ (Photo: Natalia Lipchanskaya)

“Looks are absolutely everything, its actually gutting to see,” Cunningham continues. “This is generally a business, with marketing and PR, where it’s young women talking to other young women and only using pretty women or young women to talk to them.” Their “fears about ageing are coming out in advertising”, as she understands it, and Arnold agrees, suggesting that we need to “make being older more aspirational”.

“I would love to see a car company have an older woman getting out of a car,” Arnold says. “I really like the fact that Marks & Spencer are using an unknown but beautiful older woman as opposed to a celebrity. Or, some other brands use very quirky models … a really out-there crazy use of a model as opposed to a more genuine, ‘this is actually somebody who is gorgeous looking and aspirational’ – but I’d like to see that. I’m beginning to feel alienated by companies constantly talking to a much younger me.”

So how can brands appeal in an honest way to a broader demographic? Perhaps it is about aiming to be “ageless” or “not age-specific” as Cutbill suggests: “The best advertising for older people, is advertising where you don’t think it’s for older people,” he says. “I think briefing has quite a bit to answer for … its easy to explain something by putting an age number down, rather then to try to express an attitude, or an interest, or motivation, but the really good marketing is based on the latter.”

Ad showing Joan Didion for Céline (Photo: Japanese Forms)
Ad showing Joan Didion for Céline (Photo: Japanese Forms)

The panel largely seemed to agree that marketers need to try moving away from a focus on age and towards interests and attitudes, whilst pushing the boundaries, playing with stereotypes and turning them on their heads, with more diversity (beyond just diversity in age).

“I love the sentiment of having an ageless campaign or an ageless brief. That would be so refreshing – as long as that brief really is looking at the visual aesthetic character of the person,” says Valentine. “I think that if you are going to reach this demographic, and make them stop yawning at ads and marketing promotions that you are doing then you need to capture their creativity, their interest, by doing something fresh and new, which shows somebody who happens to be 50/60/70/80 or 90, doing something that over the last 30 years has only been given to models and actors 25-30.”

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