Businesses need consumers to buy their products. While consumers who have worked their way up the employment ladder might be in the best position to spend money, advertisers have long targeted the youth market — consumers between 18 and 34. They reasoned that older consumers already have what they need and are saving rather than spending. Advertisers also believed that consumers form brand loyalty while they are young.
The focus on young audiences creates a disconnect between television viewers and advertisements. The average age of a primetime broadcast television viewer is nearly 58. Viewers who stream content are slightly younger than broadcast television audiences, but consumers between the ages of 50 and 64 are streaming more television than viewers between 35 and 49.
People under the age of 26 account for just 3% of consumer spending. Consumers between the ages of 42 and 76 account for 63% of spending. Charles Taylor, a marketing professor who contributes to Forbes, recently commented that advertisers who continue to value young consumers are failing to meet the needs of older consumers.
Older Consumers Are Underserved
Professor Taylor argues that advertisers pay insufficient attention to older consumers. While seniors have substantial spending power, businesses make little effort to acquaint them with goods and services they might use. Advertising that targets older adults typically focuses on medical alert systems and prescription drugs. Too many advertisers assume that older adults don’t want to buy a new car or replace their sneakers.
The reality is that older consumers purchase the same goods as younger shoppers. Older buyers might nevertheless want different information about the products they buy. Most new cars are purchased by people who are 55 or older, but those buyers might be more concerned about crashworthiness and reliability than a sporty design. Older consumers need shoes, but they might value comfort over trendiness.
People of all ages need smartphones, but older consumers might prefer one that represents good value for the money even if it doesn’t feature up-to-the-minute technology. Older consumers do not always have the information they need to make the best choices when advertisers focus on a younger audience.
Ageism in Advertising
Older adults are underrepresented in advertising for products that are purchased by consumers of all ages. An AARP study found that only 15% of adults seen in online ads are over the age of 50.
When advertising images show seniors at all, they are often portrayed in doctors’ offices or sitting on a rocking chair. Few images show older adults in the workplace or playing a sport. The AARP study found that seven in ten images of people over 50 depicted them in isolated situations or being cared for by someone younger, while younger adults are shown as “participating in the world.” When older and younger people appear together in advertisements, the older people take a secondary or background role while the younger people are shown as active and vibrant.
Advertising often pokes fun at older adults, stereotyping them as incompetent, confused, or frail. A former advertising executive told AARP about a Tide commercial that ends with a “befuddled Grandpa entering the scene in his boxers, looking for his pants.” The AARP study found that older adults are seven times more likely than young people to be portrayed in a negative light.
There may be multiple causes for ageism in marketing. Marketing researcher Martin Eisend has suggested that advertisers are misinformed about the shopping interests of older consumers. They target young consumers with advertising about new gadgets without realizing that older adults are just as likely to try new products and to talk about them with their friends.
In addition, employees in the advertising industry tend to be younger adults. The industry prides itself on its youthful image. Ageist attitudes that are prevalent among younger people may be reflected in advertising created by young people working in the industry.
Advertising executives who harbor ageist attitudes mistakenly see older consumers as passive and unlikely to spend money. Professor Taylor notes that most people who are older than 55 are “active agers.” That is, they are “mentally, physically, socially and digitally active.” Advertisers who fail to target older consumers are hurting their clients and failing to serve a vital market.
Eisend observes that academic researchers in marketing have been criticized for losing interest in the twin problems of stereotyping seniors and failing to include them in marketing campaigns for products that appeal to people of all ages. Marketing researchers have conducted insightful studies that focus on women, racial and ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities, but have given far less attention to the ways that advertisements address older adults.
As the nation ages, advertisers and researchers are beginning to understand the importance of serving older consumers. Eisend notes that including older people in advertising images may enhance the advertisement’s credibility. Positive images of older people in advertisements are likely to sell more goods and services than ads that stereotype or that ignore older people entirely. Eisend argues that more research is needed to create evidence-based reasons for advertisers to pay greater attention to a large and growing market of older consumers.
To meet the needs of older consumers, advertisers need to appreciate that seniors are a diverse group of people. They must also understand that what it means to age is changing. Seniors are healthier, more active, and less lonely than at any point in American history. Marketing professionals need to recognize that how seniors live their lives is more important than chronological age.