Do These Ads Make Your Life Look Sad?

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Even avowed Luddites can’t claim to be totally immune to the way older people are portrayed online — when you can find them there at all: a bit feeble, immobile, badly dressed, and all alone or in the company of a doctor or caregiver. And a recent study strongly confirmed that’s not just an optical illusion or some brand of sour grapes.

Media Image Landscape: Age Representation in Online Images,” an analysis undertaken by AARP researchers, recently revealed some disturbing realities in 1,116 images randomly taken from digital and social content on news sites, blogs, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

The survey found that:

  • Only 15% of the images depicted people aged 50 and older — though they make up nearly half the U.S. population;
  • Only 13% of the online media images studies showed a middle-aged or older person in a work setting, despite the fact that the more than 1/3 of those currently in the workforce are 50 or older;
  • Those ages 50 and older were portrayed “in a positive light” about 72% of the time — far less often than their younger cohorts, who were portrayed positively 96% of the time; and
  • Adults over 50 were most often pictured seated — generally alone at home or with a medical professional, while the under-50 set was most often shown standing with peers — or doing something active, such as giving speeches.

The researchers concluded with an understatement: “Adults 50-plus appear apart from the integrated hustle and bustle of the under-50 world.”

Welcome to the Modern Insult

And it’s not only that seniors aren’t integrated. They’re also portrayed as technologically timid. A scant 5% of the images featuring older people showed technology in the same frame. This, despite the projection that consumers in the 50+ age range will spend more than $84 billion a year on tech products by the year 2030.

And when older adults are pictured with some item of technology, they most often just seem flummoxed by it. Take the recent commercial for Esurance, for example. It features, Beatrice, a white-haired woman clad in thick oversized glasses and an ugly animal print scarf who brags to her gal pals that she’s saved “a ton of time” by posting picture of her recent vacation on her “wall “ rather than mailing out copies to family and friends. She then gestures proudly to her living room wall, on which she has taped dozens of photos. A younger, brown-haired companion chirrups up: “That’s not how this works! That’s not how any of this works!” And a perky announcer concludes: “Welcome to the modern world.”

After the commercial ruffled more than a few ageist-sensitive feathers, an Esurance blogger wrote the confusing CYA disclaimer that the intent of the ad was “to show it can be difficult to keep pace with technology these days (no matter your age).”

Taking Aim at Ageism

Spurred by the findings in its recent research, AARP recently teamed up with Getty Images to launch the Disrupt Aging Collection. It features more than 1,400 stock photos that media outlets, ad agencies, and other firms can view online and pay to license and use.

“This stereotype-shattering collection reflects the reality of what aging looks like today,” wrote AARP communications and marketing director Martha Boudreau at the launch. “The collection shows the 50-plus in the workplace, traveling, entertaining, and living active, healthy lives.”

Boudreau also noted the older demographic’s weighty wallets, adding: “This age group drives our economy and makes new demands on product development and marketing in virtually every industry sector.”

Rebecca Swift, who’s harnessed the lofty title of Global Head of Creative Insights at Getty Images, sounded equally optimistic notes. “By telling real life stories of adults aged 50 to 100 through visuals depicting everyday experiences, The Disrupt Aging Collection illustrates the fact that older adults live increasingly full lives, while simultaneously combating ageist biases and assumptions,” she said.

‘Old’ Habits Die Hard

In truth, there is some whiff of irony in the partnership.

AARP, founded 61 years ago as the American Association of Retired Persons, now shuns the longer moniker, preferring to be identified by its acronym alone. Though it originated as a nonprofit organization focusing on the needs and rights of older people, it has been heavily criticized over the years for its commercial activities — especially for its hard pitches of insurance to its phalanx of members who are 50 years old and older. Its well-publicized cruise trips, as another example, typically feature youngish couples in clutches, nary a gray head on any of their heads

And while the efforts in the Getty Images recently curated “Disrupt Aging Collection” are to be applauded as a step forward, many of the identifying photo captions are more than a bit jarring to the age-attuned. Take the oft-pictured fellow in gym garb featured holding a plank pose; then again toting a surfboard on a beach; then chucking his photographic “grandson” under the chin as the two don protective bike helmets. The older gent is labeled in each as “an active Australian senior male” — and while his activeness seems unquestionable, one kind of wishes he were identified as just a plain “male.”

Are Whippersnappers to Blame?

Some claim the disconnect between the reality and media portrayals of seniors’ lives and lifestyles stems from the fact that the leaders and employees at advertising, public relations, and related companies skew young. According to recent data, in the U.S. more than 81 percent of them are younger than age 55, with the majority in their 20s and 30s.

Courts may ultimately be called upon to help shed light on the issue. In a telling twist, Duncan Milner recently sued his former employer, ad agency TBWA, which ironically bills itself as “The Disruption Company,” alleging wrongful termination based on age discrimination. Milner, 61, was touted as the brains behind Apple’s iconic “Mac v. PC” and “Shot on iPhone” ad campaigns, among others. Milner worked at TBWA for 31 years — more than half his life — before being transferred and offered either a 50% pay cut with three additional accounts added or a severance package. His position was then eliminated.

In a recent critique of age discrimination in the advertising industry, Ian Mirlin, a longtime creative director in Canada, noted pointedly: “If ours were the music business, we’d be saying that nothing of any consequence happened before the advent of Justin Bieber.”

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