Time to think smart about ‘older’ people

Marketers, advertisers and the media need to be thoughtful and nuanced about how we depict people in society. The representation of older people is simply another important pillar of inclusivity and diversity, writes Emma Howe.

The representation of older people in Australia needs a radical rethink. Our media and advertising industry is a big part of the problem, but the good news is that it can be a big part of the solution. As professionals, it all comes down to the choices we make and the images and representations we choose.

If you look at representations of older people in media and advertising, they generally fall into two pretty inaccurate and unrepresentative categories. On the one hand, they’re super-seniors running marathons and strolling the beach in beige linen; on the other, they’re vulnerable, fragile and in need of protection. And frequently they’re not represented at all. 

The reality is, many of us already qualify as older adults, and certainly, all of us will, if we keep on living, so we need to think carefully about our knee-jerk assumptions.

Aged care needs a rebrand 

Through my work in the aged care sector, it has become extremely clear just how poorly older Australians are represented in Australian media and how damaging these negative portrayals can be for all our futures. 

In the wake of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, and as a result of the impacts of COVID-19, we have seen the resurgence of an ageist and paternalistic view of older people. Within this view, otherwise strong and capable older adults are treated and depicted as frail and vulnerable, purely because they need a little more support.

Let’s remember who these older adults are. Many have spent years building and operating their own businesses, managing their super, balancing jobs and families, running a household and making thousands of crucial choices throughout their life. While there are some exceptions, of course, the acquisition of a couple of health challenges in later life – some disability or impairment – does not rob us of our knowledge, experience and capacity as adults.  

Think about the impact that negative stereotypes about us (our gender, our race, culture, sexuality, age, etc.) can have on our well-being, confidence and quality of life at any age. Negative stereotypes don’t just harm individuals – they influence societal attitudes and responses too. Pervasive negative stereotypes actually serve to limit opportunities for older Australians to continue living full lives and they foster a system that removes their choices and control over their lives. If older people are ‘frail’ and ‘vulnerable’, or even ‘cute’ and ‘adorable’, they are rather more like children than adults – leading us to question how can they be responsible for managing their own lives.

These are not accurate views and also not how most of us envisage our own 70s, 80s and 90s.  

The marketing and advertising industry has an important role to play in fighting to change this conversation and redress poor representation, for all our sakes. Rather than limit, diminish and embarrass older people with narrow negative stereotypes, we can choose to represent older people as we do all people – as the enormously diverse, largely competent adults we actually are. And in the process, we will help enable a more respectful aged care system.

Putting older Australians at the centre of their decisions

The final report of the Aged Care Royal Commission, handed down earlier this month, proposes a new Aged Care Act to underpin a revolutionised aged care system in which “older people should genuinely be at the centre of their care”.

The values and principles of respect, capacity, individual choice and control make for a promising framework for the future of aged care. But, as the adage goes, if we can’t see it, they can’t be it. 

Three easy steps in the right direction

Here are three easy steps that the media and marketing industry can take to change how older people are represented:

  • Be inclusive through language – This is really important, but it doesn’t have to be daunting. Something as simple as using empowering language can make a difference. The rhetoric needs to switch from one of ‘awww, how cute’ or ‘oh, poor thing, so vulnerable’, to one that recognises older people as people, that values the lives they have lived and doesn’t consider them suddenly unable to cope with life and make their own decisions.
    Flip language that patronises and sentimentalises people based on their age – instead, adopt respectful, celebratory and appreciative language. Avoid terms like ‘the elderly’, ‘oldies’ and ‘seniors’ that suggest everyone over the age of 65 are the same and opt for ‘older Australians’, ‘older people’, or ‘older adults’. Resist the temptation to suggest frailty and vulnerability, especially if it’s not relevant!
  • Increase representation – There are over 3.8 million Australians over the age of 65, but they certainly don’t take up this proportion of the talent in the marketing and advertising space. Whether a product or service is specifically for older people, or whether it’s one that’s needed by all, ensure any talent in your communications is representative of the wider Australian community. With a raft of talent agencies (Silver Fox Mgmt and International Casting and Creative Management) specialising in this space, there really are no excuses.
  • Ask for (informed) opinion – Remember the call of disability advocates: nothing about me without me. It’s not complicated. Don’t settle for tired and lazy stereotypes that don’t cut it anymore. If you can’t imagine the reality of older adulthood, then ask someone who knows. Get a couple of older people onto your advisory board, do more focus groups, seek their views and actually listen.

Age is just another criterion for diversity

The advertising and marketing world has come a long way in the last 50 years in terms of representations of women, of people of different racial and cultural backgrounds and representations of a wide spectrum of gender and sexuality. It’s time we took the same diversity lens to age.

Outdated norms and stereotypes about older people need to go the same way as outdated norms and stereotypes of other marginalised communities. Older people are just people that have lived a few more years on the planet. Think about it – in every other sense, they are as diverse, if not more diverse, than any other group in society. As this reality begins to dawn on us as marketers and advertisers, I think we will see some really exciting and creative responses – and profits – for companies and brands. It’s already beginning to happen across the world.  

We have an important role to play in representing and reflecting an Australia in which we can all participate at every age, as we live our long lives. It’s something to look forward to.

Emma Howe is the CMO at Mable.

Photo by Philippe Leone on Unsplash.