Mythrepresentation: What’s stopping brands targeting over 50s?

Something unexpected happens when you turn 50.

The films you used to cry at, they still give you a wet eye. Those things that annoyed you before still annoy you. In your head, you’re the same person you’ve always been… a little older, a little wiser.

But as you watch TV, read magazines, listen to the radio, you gradually notice something’s changed. Media culture isn’t for you anymore. Unless someone’s trying to sell you a cruise or a pair of incontinence pants, culture doesn’t have any interest in you.

Almost nine in ten over 50s agree that the media doesn’t represent us anymore. It’s disheartening for us and a missed opportunity for brands

It’s a missed opportunity for brands

There’s clear commercial justification to call this out. People like us, over 50s, make up more than a third of the UK population, and 68% of the consumer spending power – a figure that will only grow as we get older as a population.

Who’s more likely to own their own home these days? And yet how many people over 50 do you see in an ads for homeware or furnishing products? Why the cultural ambivalence towards older generations?

It’s not powered by logic, but by misconceptions about what happens when you get older. Persistent, self-perpetuating myths that not only dissuade brands and the media from engaging people like us, but fuel ageism, exacerbate generational divide, and a stoke an unhealthy fear in us all. A fear of getting older.

Myth one: People over 50 don’t change

Cultural energy comes from change, and outdated industry wisdom says that because nothing changes for people over 50 – other than the inevitable - why plough budget and energy into us?

Big life changes affect us all, regardless of age. Take work. Research suggests that over 50s represent the biggest cohort of people returning to the workplace, and not simply returning to the jobs we’ve done in the past. People like us are taking on new roles and looking for new challenges.

What about relationships? Divorce rates are through the roof for people in their 50s and 60s. We’re breaking up and finding new love in record numbers. And yes, we still like sex. We’re having lots of it. Sorry. We’re not sorry.

Doesn’t feel like a picture of an audience resistant to change. Far from it. Today’s over 50s are in constant flux. When it comes to choices, our lives are more glut than rut.

Myth two: Targeting older people will alienate younger audiences

This patronising notion is fuelled by assumption rather than empirical research. A 2018 study of brand perceptions in the fashion industry concluded that “reluctance to use older models may not be justified for brands”. And as far back as 1982, Rotfeld et al found “little evidence to support the hypothesis that the younger model is objectively better”.

However, what likely does alienate young audiences are ads depicting older people as weak, vulnerable, or decrepit. Harmful stereotypes alienate everybody.

Young and old, we’re motivated by the same themes, humour, triumph over adversity, friendship, love. At ABG, we work by telling stories about these universal human qualities in ways that resonate. And we know targeting older audiences in this way doesn’t alienate younger people. Authentic, creative reflection and representation doesn’t alienate. It shows us how we’re the same – it shows us all in our true colours.

Myth three: Targeting people over 50 is easy because they’re all the same

This is a segment as rich and diverse as any other. What’s missing is the industry insight from years of detailed research that’s been poured into younger audiences.

The oldest millennials – think the Spice Girls - will all be 50 in just a few years, and nobody would assume that Scary, Sporty, Posh and co could ever be categorised as a single, homogonous group.

This perceived homogeny promotes the notion we’re easy to reach and engage, which is perhaps why we feel so patronised by ads targeting us with lazy stereotypes.

Our years of experience mean we know who we are, what we like, and what we need. That makes us harder to engage, but also quicker to convert when you show us something that speaks to us authentically.

Myth four: Older people can’t use technology or social media

Of the 45 million people actively using Facebook in the UK, about a fifth are over 55 (almost 20% of these are accessing on smartphones), and more than a third of Facebook users are over 45. We’re one of the fastest growing user groups on both Instagram and TikTok. But the interesting bit is how we’re using these platforms.

Particularly on TikTok’s, with its user-friendly interface and easy editing tools, authentic updates from older users with mundane, entertaining, or uplifting skits about their life, thoughts, and experiences are engaging huge audiences across multiple age cohorts.

A 2022 Singaporean study found that almost three quarters of the most popular of these videos featured older adults defying age stereotypes, while nearly a fifth showed them making light of supposed age-related vulnerabilities. Conclusion, older people are debunking the stereotypes and younger people are lapping it up.

This trend of young and old coming together to bust stereotypes should be an eye opener. As marketers and advertisers, we should take note, because this cultural ambivalence isn’t just a threat to the bottom line.

In a culture where ageing is either negatively misrepresented or completely absent, getting older has become taboo. Our culture’s relationship with ageing is suffused with fear and denial. Maybe social media is showing us there’s an appetite for something healthier.

Anything But Grey is the creative communications consultancy that speaks for the over 50s, challenging stereotypes to help brands connect and unlock the consumer spending power of this forgotten cohort.

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