Advertisers’ portrayal of older people isn’t just alienating, it’s self-defeating

Treating broad age cohorts as an ‘amorphous lump’ is a costly form of ageism

Our significant birthdays aren’t always the ones with zero at the end: we know when we hit 25 or 35 or 45, marketers will likely put us in a new box, or ask us to tick or click the next one on their list. But as we get older, something strange happens. Those once tight age bands stretch out a bit, then a lot. Eventually, the box has no upper limit. The only one left is 65-plus, or maybe even 60-plus or 55-plus.

It should be hard to call this group a “group” with a straight face. And yet this is the point at which marketers appear to say there is no difference between our wants and needs and those of our parents’ generation. Are you a child of the 1960s or approaching your centenary? It seems nobody cares enough to make the distinction.

So when will ageism in advertising finally grow old? Age Friendly Ireland is understandably wondering. Its consultations with Older People's Councils tells it that people above a certain age reject and resent how they portrayed in advertising – though that's if they are portrayed at all.

Advertisers' depiction of older people is very often alienating, patronising and – beyond a narrow range of product categories – weirdly rare, its business consultant Orlaith Carmody last week told a webinar hosted by the Institute of Advertising Practitioners in Ireland (IAPI). Attendees heard how the representation of older age cohorts is not only out of date, it fails to occur at a rate that reflects their collective spending power.


A selection of US ads were played: two that used caricatures to poke fun at older people (Tide, E-Trade) and two that proved it was possible to do a lot better (Ikea, Diet Coke). The organisers chose not to single out any Irish-created ads for criticism because the point they were trying to make was that, when it comes to ageism, everybody is at fault. “It’s about the future, not the past,” said Carmody.

But even in Irish advertising’s present, portrayals of older people have been known to induce at least a few squirms.

Bank of Ireland's "welcome home" ad for its home improvement loans was probably aiming for a poignant yet uplifting family moment by showing an apparently thoughtful son renovating a room in his new house so it precisely recreates the living room in the home his mother once shared with her husband. Instead, as architect Emmett Scanlon pointed out in a viral Twitter thread, it seems as if the older woman and her lifetime of memories are being "archived".

On television, older people do not frequently appear in the ad breaks. At the moment, there's Paul McGrath expounding on the delights of Chef curry sauce, but he's Paul McGrath and, in any case, a mere 61. And there's octogenarian actor Jim Gibney grooving to Thin Lizzy's Dancing in the Moonlight in a spot for Specsavers' hearing aids. This is a nice ad, in my view, though let's not get carried away. It does what it should: speaks directly to its target customers and represents them in a way that isn't completely abject.

ITV4-type ads

Experience has taught me that if I want to fast find ads with older people front-and-centre, I should head to reruns channel ITV4, where thanks to the surprisingly upbeat testimonials for a UK outfit called Pure Cremation, the marketing of death is never more than 15 minutes away.

Up comes Debbie McGee flogging an over-50s life assurance policy, delivering the customary insurance industry fear-stoking over cosy tea and biscuits. In 48 hours, you could learn a new dance or a magic trick, but also you might die. Could your family afford the bills if you did? This ad made me laugh, but only because it compares the price of cover favourably to that of another “older person” product: a newspaper.

However cheery their tone, these ITV4-type ads are inexorably tied up with what a 2019 report by Ipsos MORI and the UK’s Centre for Better Ageing called the “narrative of decline”. They’re not super-concerned with presenting the second half of life as a time of opportunity, discovery or learning. The problem is, few brands are.

Perhaps the most glaring insult the industry makes to anyone past the first flush of youth is this fundamental lack of curiosity about them.

“In your industry, you are so good at segmenting, you know exactly what a 15 year-old wants, what a 25 year-old wants, what a 30 year-old wants, until you get to 60, when it seems to be all grouped in together,” said Carmody.

When older generations are treated as “one homogeneous group” like this, it has the particular effect of disappearing the “younger older” group from mainstream advertising, as though once we’re no longer baby-faced, it’s the cruise ship or nothing for us.

And by shoving older people into an "amorphous marketing lump" – as Carolyn Odgers, business director at media buyer Carat Ireland, summed up the tendency – advertisers are missing several tricks.

Unwelcome associations

Odgers (61), who described herself as “something of an anomaly” in the forever-young Irish advertising workforce, made clear that this is not an accident, but a deliberate choice.

“Unless brands are specifically made for the older age group, they don’t want to be associated with older people, because it might mean that younger people – who have a perceived longer lifetime value, but are not nearly as brand loyal – are put off the product because someone with grey hair buys it.”

While that might be “a valid concern” for some brands, for a wide spectrum of others, it is “patently ridiculous”, and becoming ever more so in light of the rising age profile of linear television audiences. None of us are getting any younger (which is why we now have the concept of the “elder millennial”), but television viewers are ageing faster than most.

It’s a “somewhat hackneyed phrase”, concluded Odgers, but it is nevertheless true that you are as a young as you feel. Alas, when a bad ad deigns to condescend, it is possible to age multiple decades in just 30 seconds.