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T-Mobile's 55+ Plan Highlights What's Wrong with How We Market to Seniors

Clichés, stereotypes and a general lack of inclusivity alienate the elderly

Kindra Cooper

T-Mobile 55 plus

T-Mobile’s newest wireless plan aimed at empty nesters age 55-plus highlights everything that’s wrong with how most companies market to seniors.

Launched today, the Essentials Unlimited 55 plan offers two lines for $55 with unlimited data, talk and text, unlimited 3G for hotspots and scam protection to fight robocalls. 

In announcements for the new service, the company takes aim at rivals AT&T and Verizon, whose senior-targeted wireless plans implicitly assume that the elderly don’t want or need access to otherwise standard features like mobile data, music streaming services, or unlimited texts and calls. They’re also higher-priced despite offering fewer perks.

“Boomers deserve respect from the wireless industry they helped create, and T-Mobile gives it to them,” reads a thornily worded news release from T-Mobile. “Meanwhile, Verizon keeps insulting, stereotyping and mistreating them.” 

This swipe at Verizon refers to its 55+ plan, reserved exclusively for Florida residents. Meanwhile, AT&T’s Senior Nation plan harks back to the early days of prepaid cell phone plans, where users were allotted minutes for talk and text, with different rates for weekdays, nights and weekends. At $29.99 per month, AT&T’s senior plan does not include data and only those 65 and up need apply. 

A promotional video from T-Mobile features CEO John Ledger, 61, decrying how rival carriers market to seniors - “the belittling, condescending offers, and not to mention the way they jack up prices on [seniors].” 

The video contains a pariodied infomercial showing an older couple sitting on their sofa using their smartphones when they’re interrupted by a disembodied voice urging them to get a dumbed-down phone with “big buttons” and no data. “But what about Facebook?” the woman asks.

“You’re too old to know what Facebook is!” the syrupy voice enthuses.  

“Um, I don’t think you know us very well,” scoffs the man.  

Of course, the implication here is while those ill-advised carriers don’t understand their older customers, T-Mobile is on your side.

Read more: AARP and Refinery29 Take on Ageism in Advertising

Having billed itself an “Un-Carrier” in a 2013 campaign, T-Mobile’s approach has always been to shed policies that give wireless carriers in general a bad name, like tricky contracts, coverage fees for data and early termination fees.

T-Mobile makes a huge gesture of circumventing elder stereotypes in its visuals for the 55-plus campaign, reinventing its brand guidelines for the first time in decades to appeal to an older generation by using animations that appeal to their youthful sensibilities.

T-Mobile 55 plus

Image credit: Decoded Advertising

“The traditional thing to do would be to get some stock photography of some people with white hair. What is 55? Fifty-five is not the same as it was a long time ago - and people are always trying to look younger,” Tiffany Holland, digital enterprise marketing director at T-Mobile said at a recent event in New York City. 

T-Mobile 55 plus

Image credit: Decoded Advertising

Working with ad agency Decoded Advertising, the company experimented with three different positionings that depicted seniors as:

1)Thrivers newly liberated from the responsibilities of child-rearing 

2) Seasoned veterans in the school of life

3) Cultured world travelers 

In initial experimental design tests, 2) and 3) performed best in terms of generating qualified leads, so they combined it into the customer persona of “savvy traveler.”

Read more: LGBTQ Workers Still Struggle with Inclusivity in the Workplace, Studies Show

What emerged were colorful, cartoonish images of seniors going hot air ballooning, snorkeling, boating, riding camels, their hair blue instead of white. T-Mobile saw its qualified leads surge by 225 percent since the start of the campaign. 

T-Mobile 55 plus

Image credit: Decoded Advertising

“There’s all these stereotypes and clichés that we portray to them. Maybe this appealed to their youthfulness, to a generation that grew up with The Simpsons,” said Matt Rednor, founder and CEO at Decoded Advertising.  

According to Havas Group, only 5 percent of US advertising is aimed at people over 50. They’re seen almost exclusively in ads for products specifically targeting the elderly, like the condescending infomercial for the Safe Step Walk-In Tub.