'In Our Minds, None of Us Are Old.' Tackling Ageism in Advertising

MullenLowe's Jose Miguel Sokoloff and Bronwyn Sweeney on representing those 55+

A 2021 AARP survey showed most consumers over 50 were disheartened by advertising today. Some 62 percent agreed that "I wish ads had more realistic images of people my age," while nearly half (47 percent) added that "ads of people my age reinforce outdated stereotypes." 

Yet the problem persists.

Muse spoke with Jose Miguel Sokoloff, chief creative officer and global president of the MullenLowe Group Creative Council, and Bronwyn Sweeney, creative director at MullenLowe in London, to explore the issue further—through a U.K. lens, but with many lessons that apply universally.

Here's what they said.

Muse: In your experience, how is age often misrepresented in creative advertising?

Jose Miguel Sokoloff: I think one of the problems is that a lot of the time these ads are created by younger people who think being old is simply having a few more years than them. This means it's directed to a group who knows that the definition of young is simply anyone who has your age or less, resulting in a huge disconnect because older people in advertising are then subject to false stereotypes.

We know that ageism is one of the industry's most common forms of discrimination, and the research is there to prove it. When older people are shown in advertising, they're often portrayed as frail and vulnerable, or as inspirational triathletes, rather than rounded human beings. 

Bronwyn Sweeney: Let me preface my response by saying I am fully aware that I am a 36-year-old woman talking about this. I imagine anyone reading my thoughts on advertising for the 55+ might roll their eyes in the same way my work wife and I do when a Gen-Z creative tells us they found a "new" song on TikTok that's a cover of a '90s song. But representation of any kind is something I'm incredibly passionate about, and I feel hopeful that people in our industry are starting to take note. 

To answer the question, I'd say age is misrepresented in that the stories featuring people 55+ are written by people who bring their own experiences to the table rather than really understanding the audience. We picture our parents and think that must be true for all 55+. Often it feels like people past a certain age are playing a character rather than getting to represent their authentic, multi-faceted, nuanced lives. 

Are there similarities internationally? Or is this inherently a U.K. issue?

Jose Miguel Sokoloff: Ageism as a whole is widely acknowledged as one of the biggest social issues, and it's certainly an unmistakable issue for advertising worldwide. For example, in 2019 the AARP [advocates for older people in the U.S.] reported that the over-50s make up over one-third of the population there, yet they appear in just 15 percent of images. And when they are included, it's often the same problem: being depicted at home, with an older partner or a carer, and with no interest in technology. 

Bronwyn Sweeney: I can't speak for international ads beyond watching the Super Bowl spots or catching the odd bit of TV the two times I went abroad last year. But last time I checked, people older than 50 were still playing wholesome grandparents.

What do you think the reason is? Are there specific taboos which need overcoming/challenging? 

Jose Miguel Sokoloff: There are no taboos here—it's simply a point-of-view issue. When you're 25 looking at 55+, it seems like that's a whole lifetime away, and when you're over 55 yourself, 25 doesn't feel very long ago. In our minds, none of us are old, yet that's a fundamental viewpoint that seems to be repeatedly ignored or overlooked.

Bronwyn Sweeney: The reality is that being a creative is still a young person's game. The average age of a creative department is 34. It may not be intentional, but we all have unconscious biases that mean we write what we know and we cast in our own image. That being said, we also need clients to be willing to let 55+ people be the hero of the story. That's why it's so exciting to see older models being cast in fashion campaigns now. I hope that will show brands that people of all ages are happy to see a more diverse group up front and center.

What are good examples of using humour to represent people 55+? 

Jose Miguel Sokoloff: In my opinion, the only "good" examples that represent those over 55 focus more on tenderness and respect for older people, and that's still not really the right approach. While these two things are obviously important, the issue of not portraying them as rounded human beings remains. 

Bronwyn Sweeney: Great question, and the fact that I can't really think of any off the top of my head says a lot! 

What work have you done for MullenLowe Group in this space? 

Jose Miguel Sokoloff: We've done a lot of work for Magnum with Iris Apfel, the legendary fashion icon, businesswoman and modern-day muse, and that's something we're incredibly proud of. She is younger at heart than the majority of us, and she's now 100! It was a window into her fascinating life as she encourages a new generation to let go, indulge, and be authentic to their own personalities. Our latest Magnum Classic campaign also showcases the strong desire to enjoy life at all of its stages. Magnum recognizes that pleasure is ageless and is a stronger brand for it. 

Magnum - The Will
Magnum | Get Old or Get Classic

We're also launching some new research with Kantar called the "Invisible Powerhouse," which identifies seven distinct groups within the 55+ market that differ by attitude, not age. The overall aim of that is to help brands be more effective and accurate with their future messaging and depiction of this group. 

Bronwyn Sweeney: What JMS said. Iris Apfel is a timeless legend. We also did some work for sloggi that redefined "granny pants" in the category. I'm also really proud of all the people featured in our NHS ads—these are of course real people, but it's an example of an ad being better for showing a spectrum of stories and heroes of all ages.

Have any brands taken a surprising turn to address this challenge using humor?

Jose Miguel Sokoloff: As Bronwyn mentioned, sloggi took "granny pants," a demeaning description of a type of underwear, and owned it. It was funny but also makes the case that granny pants are comfortable and cool, despite years of prescriptive ideas about what female underwear should look like. 

sloggi | Granny Got Pants

Bronwyn Sweeney: I saw an Airbnb ad that featured an older couple going on a "bae-cation," and my heart leapt with joy. The spot didn't pander to their age by playing an older track but instead used "Bonnie & Clyde" by Jay-Z and Beyoncé. I think whether you lean on humor or something more heartfelt, it comes down to representation. The 55+ category deserves to be the main character in all kinds of ads from dating apps to DIY. 

Bonnie & Clyde | Made possible by Hosts | Airbnb
What do brands need to keep in mind when representing people 55+ in their ads?

Jose Miguel Sokoloff: The over-50s already control well over half of all household expenditure and nearly 70 percent of all household wealth. They're a powerhouse, so it would be crazy for any brand to overlook or risk alienating them. Many need to remember that the over-55s' opinion of these brands is the key to their success. 

Bronwyn Sweeney: First of all, brands need to give them a lead role, not a minor one. They also need to think about the honest connection that audience has to the brand. Authenticity is what we should all be striving for in our storytelling and that should extend to the real-life experience of the over-55s, not just how we imagine them to behave. I remember learning STIs among people aged 50-90 doubled from 2002 to 2012, and that stat is 10 years old. So, next time I see a cruise ad featuring an older couple, maybe we can imply they're doing more than just playing shuffleboard.

What's your advice for young creatives trying to use humor in an area where they don't have lived experience?

Jose Miguel Sokoloff: See if the people you are trying to entertain think if you're actually achieving it first. Don't just assume something is funny, and the same goes for simply thinking "dad jokes" are written by dads for dads. 

Bronwyn Sweeney: Stay curious and don't project. Go out there and do the research. Talk to people outside your life circle. In our business, we have resources that give us access to new voices beyond the comments section. I remember writing ads in my 20s for people in their 30s that were all based on assumptions of how I thought my life would look at this age. Now that I'm here, I realize I got a lot of things wrong. Turns out that when you reach 35 you don't magically grow a family and house in the country. Oops. 

How can you build teams within agencies that look beyond the echo chamber, and look to sell product for their clients?

Jose Miguel Sokoloff: Mix it up—diversity is always the answer. While the ads themselves are suffering from a lack of diversity, so are the teams responsible for creating them. Our industry seems intent on overlooking the valuable skills that older people have to offer, and that's not right. As more recognition is being given to the benefits of having a diverse team in terms of gender, race, sexuality, etc., we should also be factoring in age. After all, there's a lot that people over the age of 55 can bring to the table. 

Bronwyn Sweeney: Did we all see that movie The Intern? It may have been a cheesy rom-com—that I secretly loved—but why can't we broaden our diversity initiatives to bring in people who haven't been aged out of the industry? Our DEI chapter is an incredible resource to turn to when telling stories beyond our own experience, but let's make sure that it includes people past a certain age too. That way, we don't have to ask our parents for help with our homework.

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards, editor of Muse by Clio, and host of the podcast Tagline. He is the former creative editor of Adweek.

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