Sign up to get full access to all our latest content, research, and network for everything customer contact.

AARP and Refinery29 Take on Ageism in the Advertising Industry

Here's why diversity and inclusion needs to consider age

Add bookmark

Kindra Cooper

Ageism advertising

Companies spend 500 percent more marketing to Millennials than any other demographic, according to a 2015 analysis from advertising technology firm Turn, even though they earn 20 percent less than Boomers did at the same age.

While it might seem like a mind-boggling case of barking up the wrong tree or, ahem, a total misallocation of marketing budgets, it’s symptomatic of a deeper societal problem.

Marketers seek to seize upon our aspirations, and the assumption is we yearn to remain young at all costs. Conventional marketing wisdom dictates featuring younger people in ads than the target audience and exploiting our insecurities to make us buy, of which ageing is one.

Ageism advertising

Example of an ageist advertisement

“Advertising is a very important shaper of perceptions, attitudes and behavior,” former advertising exec Cindy Gallop said in a panel discussion at Social Media Week New York. “And the problem is that when you do not have older people actually creating, directing and producing the ads, what you get are cliches and stereotypes.”

In 2009, Gallop founded, the world’s first video-sharing platform hosting user-generated videos of real couples having sex. Following a number of bedroom-related disappointments while dating younger men, she started the company to re-educate Millennials conditioned by internet pornography to have unrealistic expectations about intercourse.

Read more: 4 Brands That Practically Invented Customer-Centric Advertising 

As Gallop’s work shows, diversity and inclusion manifest in numerous ways. In pop culture it’s largely limited to representing a smorgasbord of skin colors, shapes and sizes; youth is still overwhelmingly evangelized.

AARP, the nation’s largest membership organization for the 50-plus community, is attempting to reach Millennials and Gen-Zers with its #DisruptAging campaign, a cogent move for the business seeing as the oldest Millennials turn 40 next year.

In its debut ad, AARP set up a hidden camera on a food truck with a sign declaring that the business only serves people under 40. Upon approaching the food truck, people were asked their age, and those over the age limit were turned away.

“We just don’t think you would fit our culture,” one incredulous woman was told.

Some held their ground, others skulked away looking dejected. The campaign contrived to highlight the type of workplace discrimination that happens behind closed doors everyday, in conjunction with the book Disrupt Aging by AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins.

“Everyday as consumers we are bombarded with visual clichés and negative stereotypes of aging that really paint a misleading portrait of different generations, whether it’s the lazy Millennial or the frail boomer generation,” said Patrice Woods Wildgoose, social media brand strategist at AARP.

Under the campaign, the company has been generating educational content around saving for retirement, financial planning and caregiving for a sick or elderly family member – issues which affect the young and old.

Gallop, who is 59 and "loves to tell people that as often as humanly possible" says advertisers should reverse-engineer taglines like Evian's "Live Young" to something more like "#LiveOlder," because older generations have superior spending power, self-awareness and career development - something younger cohorts should aspire towards. 

Brands have not only started to feature older faces in display ads, but are now focusing on telling their stories to show that the elderly live full lives.

The New York Times NYT Gender Instagram account recently featured the Instagrannies, a group of Instagram influencers ages 60 and up. This week, pop singer Rihanna selected 67 year old model JoAni Johnson to be the face of her luxury clothing line with LVMH, Fenty.

But for a brand to take a stand on any social cause, it has to be vested in that message, otherwise it not only comes off as corporate window dressing but it’s forgotten. It’s not enough to book one heartwarming, anthemic TV spot about say, military families, and be done with it.

Read more: Product Market Fit - How to Design Products Your Customers Will Love 

“It’s like the old joke about the lightbulb,” said Gallop. “How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.”

It’s hard to change the status quo around diversity and inclusion when a homogenous demographic occupies the C-suite, or, as Gallop puts it, “a closed sleeve of white guys talking to white guys about other white guys.”

However, consumers wield enormous power to call B.S. on, say, an all-male conference speaker lineup or excessive Photoshopping of magazine cover girls, and it’s reached a point where failing to adapt compromises the bottom line.

“We’re definitely reaching a place now where companies know that mission and money can work [together], that the audience won’t buy from you unless you align with their belief systems,” said Lydia Pang, who, at 30, is the creative director for Refinery29.

“That kind of threat to the bottom line is healthy because people realize they need to show up for the consumer in a meaningful way.”

Last year, the female-targeted publisher launched Unbothered, an Instagram channel made by and for black women and earlier this year announced a partnership with NBC to share stories of female Olympians through the Instagram account, On Her Turf.  

Even if bids for inclusion start as a PR stunt or to reframe the brand as an attractive employer, it “forces you to work backwards and change the content as well,” said Gallop, who called on the audience to create their own social networking sites and safe spaces as an alternative to traditional social tech giants like Facebook and YouTube, where internet trolls have free rein.  

“I designed Make Love Not Porn around human curation,” said Gallop. “Every single video submission is watched from beginning to end by our curators - and by the way, human curation is where every single huge social technology platform should have started.”