The Problem With Ageism in Advertisements

The Problem With Ageism in Advertisements

As those of you familiar with our brand Hot Octopuss will know, we are based in London. According to census data, around 28 percent of London’s population is over 50 years old. You probably wouldn’t know that from looking at adverts and billboards around the city, though. On a recent journey on the London Underground, I was struck by how rare it is to see older faces in the ads that glare out of screens on the escalators, or smile down from inside train carriages. I went on a mission to try and count the number of older people represented in tube ads, and perhaps the journey I was on was an anomaly, but I genuinely struggled to find even one.

We hear a lot about the "invisibility" of older women, but to me it seems older men are pretty invisible too. When marketers are looking to sell us something new and shiny, they seem to focus most often on younger people as their target demographic. But why?

Parents and grandparents have sex, and they don’t stop having sex just because their children have flown the nest.

Over-50s tend to have more disposable income than younger people, and it’s not like you hit a certain age and suddenly stop acquiring new possessions — or taking up new services, switching jobs, going out and enjoying life! Yet when you scan the media around you, you’d be lucky to see representation of older people outside products and services like multivitamins or hair loss clinics. It’s bizarre. Why would so many marketers leave all that money on the table?

The key problem is the obvious one: ageism. We live in a society that tells us people have a “best before” date, encourages us to focus on youth at the expense of maturity, and prefers not to talk directly to older people, assuming they are “irrelevant” or unlikely to buy — or worse, assuming that people over a certain age are helpless. That the process of aging in itself makes you less capable of doing the things you enjoyed in your youth.

The Centre for Aging Better rightly asks why we consider aging to be the “last taboo,” especially given the fact that our active, growing aging population can be seen as a genuine success story.

“People tend to think of aging in terms of loss: whether it’s of loved ones; physical and mental capability; or independence, identity and sense of purpose,” reads a blog post on the organization's website. “Why do we tend to see debate about the impact of our aging population — an extraordinary success story of public health, nutrition and medical science — framed not in terms of celebration and opportunity, but in terms of an impending fiscal apocalypse?”

They have a point. It seems like people are squeamish about old age, and that squeamishness prevents them from seeing how positive and exciting later life can be. Blogger Joyce Williams, who writes at GrandmaWilliams.com, is currently campaigning for #AgePride. As part of her mission to highlight the positive aspects of aging, she’s written some fantastic posts recently debunking the idea that when you get older, your life is inevitably “less” than it was when you were younger.

She points out that problems such as loneliness are not exclusive to older people, and in fact while 8 percent of 25-34 year olds report feeling lonely often or all of the time, only 3 percent of over-75s said the same. While isolation and loneliness is a real problem that needs addressing, the image we have of older people as universally isolated and vulnerable simply isn’t the full picture.

When it comes to sex, as with most other issues of stigma and taboo, the problem is heightened. If the average person struggles to conceive of elderly people getting out and enjoying life, they likely also struggle with the idea that older people have sex. It’s wrapped up in squeamishness about the idea of one’s parents or grandparents having sex, which is itself a bizarre notion. After all, how does anyone believe they came to be? Parents and grandparents have sex, and they don’t stop having sex just because their children have flown the nest. In fact, as many older people like those mentioned here are working hard to remind people: sex when you are older can in fact be better than the sex you have when you’re young. You understand your body more, have had more practice at articulating your needs and desires, and although our bodies do change as we mature, those changes don’t necessarily mean a loss of libido or sexual function. There are many ways to enjoy sex, no matter what the year on your birth certificate.

So how do we in the sex industry tackle this ageism? This month, sextech entrepreneur and marketing guru Cindy Gallop wrote a popular article for Ad Age. In it, she made eight suggestions to marketers on how they could turn ageism in the ad industry on its head. One of her key tips?

“Stop, catch yourself and actively brief your casting agent/director/photographer to cast talent 10 years or more older than the age you were about to go with.”

I like this approach, and to be honest, while I’d thoroughly recommend you read all of Cindy Gallop’s tips, you can begin fairly simply by implementing just this one. Consider, when you’re taking product shots for packaging or new toy launches, which of your customers aren’t being represented. Could you make a big change just by adding “all ages welcome!” or ”‘older models encouraged!” to your model recruitment?

I’m working on a campaign at the moment (watch this space!) in which we’ve done exactly that — encouraged people of all age ranges to apply, as well as reached out to great bloggers like Joan Price who blogs about ageless sexuality, and asked them to spread the word of our model hunt within their networks. By specifically asking older people to apply to be the face of our products, we’re hoping we can show that sex — like other aspects of life — doesn’t have to have an age limit. And maybe if enough of us do this, my tube journeys in the future will reveal more older faces, which in turn will help us tackle this “last taboo.”

Julia Margo is the co-founder of Hot Octopuss.


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