As a retired marketing professional, it is especially painful for me to see how today’s marketers characterize older Americans. Sadly, most of the advertising Boomers are exposed to seems to be squarely aimed at the Millennial, Gen X or younger generations. As I watch television or flip through magazines, the few ads targeting Boomers incessantly pitch prescription drugs to the elderly, poke fun at aging, or portray anyone with gray hair as a doddering, incompetent sedentary fool. And don’t get me started on the handful of ads that target men over 50! Apparently, our main worries in life center around hair loss, erectile dysfunction, high cholesterol and “leakage” of one kind or another. Of course, the medications we’re unfortunate enough to see advertised on television come with a laundry list of side effects that seem far worse than the problems the drugs are intended to solve.
AARP research proves ageism is alive and well in American advertising. AARP recently sampled more than 1,000 random images and found that Americans age 50 or older appeared in just 15 percent of the images, although that demographic makes up more than one third of the population. It gets worse. About one third of the workforce is 50 or older, but only 13 percent of the images showed older people working; they were most commonly shown at home, often with a partner or a medical professional. Young people, on the other hand, are often shown with co-workers. While over two thirds of Americans ages 55 to 73 own a smartphone, less than 5 percent of the images showed older Americans using technology, but over one third of the images showed younger folks using technology.
The disregard for our age group and the benign neglect perpetrated by marketers toward Boomers doesn’t really make good business sense. The fact is, the older demographic is growing more rapidly than any other segment in this country and globally. There are about 74 million Boomers in the U.S. and 10,000 Boomers turn 65 every day. The majority of the country’s wealth is concentrated in our hands, and we are responsible for the lion’s share of consumer spending. We continue to work longer and, as a result, spend more longer.
Wouldn’t you think marketers would be wise enough to create campaigns that depict us in a positive way instead of maligning us? What are we Boomers to think when the media, advertisers, employers and others marginalize us and discriminate against us for growing older?
I have a theory about all of this, and it may sound a bit cynical. I believe American society is generally predisposed to accept and embrace youthfulness and shun growing older. We’ve been conditioned to it through the media. Magazine articles focus mostly on younger celebrities. Mainstream television shows and movies are youth-oriented, and older actors find it tough to get leading roles. Hollywood’s TV shows and movies tend to show our generation in decline, focusing on feebleness instead of strength. Advertising either emphasizes youth or peddles pharmaceuticals and adult diaper products to Boomer audiences in a condescending manner.
What is covered in the media is a reflection of society’s values. If the media ignores Boomers, or worse, derides us, then one has to wonder whether we are valued in American society. We can only hope that such attitudes toward aging will change as more Americans age. Hopefully, the younger population will realize that getting older is not “bad” – it’s an inevitable part of everyone’s life.
I’m willing to bet that you’ve seen one or more ads that have looked upon people our age with thinly veiled scorn – or you’ve noticed that the vast majority of ads don’t even acknowledge our existence. Maybe it’s time for Boomers to take the advice of ex-TV anchor Howard Beale in the 1976 movie, Network, who said:
“You’ve got to say: ‘I’m a human being, God-dammit! My life has value!’
So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell: I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!
I want you to get up right now. Sit up. Go to your windows. Open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!…You’ve got to say, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’ ”
There. Now don’t you feel better?