When we think about age bias, we often think of older adults. While it is true that ageism predominantly affects older adults, age bias can create misleading and negative perceptions of individuals at any age. It’s crucial that we understand these commonly upheld age-based misconceptions so that our work can move beyond stereotypes and provide more nuanced representations of age.
Built with input from community partners, these U.S.-focused insights are a starting point to help you create marketing that positively and authentically represents people of all ages. Use them to help ensure that your campaigns do not reinforce age bias, but instead celebrate inclusion and authenticity in all age groups.
DEVELOPED IN PARTNERSHIP WITH THE NATIONAL COUNCIL ON AGING
Avoid ageist terminology
Ageism involves stereotyping or discriminating against someone based on their age. It can be a sensitive issue to tackle, given the varying preferences people have about how they are treated or described in terms of their age. For example, some people may view referring to someone as “young” as a compliment. However, some people feel the term signals negative stereotypes about inexperience and intelligence levels.
Since there is no broadly defined consensus on how best to describe people based on their age, consider only referencing age when relevant and necessary. If age needs to be mentioned, be explicit when possible. Use actual ages rather than phrases like “older.” (For example, say “adults over 50” or “adults over 60,” rather than terms like “seniors” or “the elderly.”) If you need to identify individuals over the age of 50 and can’t be explicit, “older adults” is preferred over “senior,” “old,” and “elderly,” which can have stigmatizing connotations.
Catch-all, pop-culture terms like boomer or millennial can be over-homogenizing and perceived as intergenerational finger-pointing. They do not reflect the full range of lived experiences because people in the same age group hold diverse identities, views, experiences, and interests. As such, avoid generational terms unless referring to a specific generational study.
Another inclusive way to reference age is by presenting age as relative. Referencing age in relation to someone else, i.e., “younger than” or “older than,” removes any bias or stereotype—being older or younger than someone else is a factual and an accurate descriptor.
Be aware of positive ageism
Avoid patronizing language, even if the goal is to praise a certain look or age. For instance, don’t talk about someone looking “good for their age” or being “X years young.” Ashton Applewhite, author, speaker, and the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, points out that using “young” as a positive adjective is ageist. Ashton says, “‘Young at heart’ for example, means ‘energetic,’ ‘optimistic,’ ‘open-minded.’ Why not use those words, which describe feelings we can have at any age?”
Patronizing language may also manifest as elderspeak. Elderspeak refers to the use of baby talk directed to older adults and can include the use of “dear” or “sweetie,” or talking slowly, loudly, or in a singsong voice. Health experts have found that exposure to elderspeak can increase rates of depression in older people.
In your marketing
Don’t use euphemisms such as referring to one’s “golden years” or glossing over the realities of old age with descriptors such as “sage” or “super-adults.” While positive ageism may not initially seem ageist, phrases such as “70 is the new 50” suggest that the preferred way of being old is not to be old at all but to maintain the appearance of middle-age functionality.
Beware of anti-aging messaging
Many ageist stereotypes are rooted in the idea that getting and looking older is inherently bad or to be avoided. The language and symbols we use can also reinforce negative stigmas around aging – think of “senior moments,” “over the hill,” “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” or road signs that depict older people as frail and disabled.
The concept of aging is changing
Aging is not what it used to be. We are not only living longer, but we are also healthier longer, and our biological age is becoming increasingly lower than our chronological age. This is known as the “Longevity Effect.” “People who are 65 today have more vitality and energy than people of the same age in previous years. They do not want to be labeled as elderly,” says Professor Hiroshi Yoshida of Tohoku University (Sendai, Japan). The “Longevity Effect” highlights that while people are aging in new and different ways, common cultural understandings of older people have not yet caught up. Ultimately, it is important to bear in mind that many older people do not feel “old” and are still very active members of society; however, they are either ignored by the media or targeted in stereotypical age references.
Common clichés in marketing and advertisements often represent older adults in ways that feel alien and removed from how older adults actually feel. According to FrameWorks Institute, “When the media feature older adults, they present them as one of two extremes: 1) as frail, diseased, senile, and in need of constant and expensive care, or 2) as active, healthy, wholly independent, and requiring no support.” Other representations of older adults may often include depictions of isolation, loneliness, and technophobia. Some stereotypes define older people by attributes, such as being a grandparent, asexual, or a “dirty old man,” or by their temperaments, such as the kindly grandmother or the grumpy old man.
Older people’s real behaviors and attitudes often involve activity, independence, socializing, and adventure; in general, they think of themselves as more calm and self-confident than other age groups. In terms of technology, they are often enthusiastic and use it regularly for communication, entertainment, and education. They may even be innovators of the technology themselves. Older adults, therefore, report feeling consistently misrepresented by this depiction in the media.
Show diversity and realism in imagery
Getting older is not equivalent to slowing down, and all older people do not inherently like the same things. Older people take up new sports, travel, play video games, have sex, and contribute to society as carers, workers, volunteers, and consumers. When designing campaigns with older audiences in mind, ensure your imagery reflects this diversity of experiences and identities. Less than 5% of media images show older generations handling technology, even though the Pew Research Center has found that 69% of people between 55 and 73 own smartphones.
In your marketing
Age is intersectional
When representing age in marketing, be sensitive to intersectionality, or how individuals identify with and are shaped by multiple social contexts. Try to represent diverse identities within each age category, including disability, gender expression, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and others.
For instance, consider the intersection between age and socioeconomic status. Contrary to many pop culture representations, retirement is more than playing golf and walking on the beach, especially as not all older people have large amounts of discretionary income. Many older adults must make do on social security checks alone and cannot retire in the lavish style often portrayed in most advertising. Always aim to represent nuance and authenticity in your portrayals of aging without perpetuating stereotypes like “lavishly retired” or “weak and dependent” older people.
Karyne Jones, President and CEO of the National Caucus and Center on Black Aging, Inc., points out the importance of acknowledging the disparate ways that age impacts marginalized groups: “It’s important to look at age through a minority perspective because as a nation, we have traditionally discriminated against a community, who, by the time they get older, the impact of the racism they went through is more prevalent. Think of access to healthcare and housing.”
Swap age for behavior
Age does not reflect behavior. Age should only be included if pertinent to the story. Instead, think about other commonalities or life stage moments within a group (e.g. caregiving or lifelong learning can occur at any age). Ashton Applewhite, an anti-ageism activist points out that age is almost always less relevant than we assume it to be. “Instead of referencing how old someone is,” she advises, “describe what they’re doing or listening to, or thinking about.”
A survey of U.S. and UK consumers across a range of ages found that 40% of people aged 18-24 believed that age had no influence on their hobbies or interests. Those aged 55-64 firmly rejected the notion that they have become any less passionate about life as they’ve grown older – and more than 90% of this age group in the U.S. disagreed that their lust for life had been affected by aging.
Ageism affects all ages
It is important not to conflate ageism with older people. While ageism is often associated with discrimination against older people, it can also impact young and middle-aged people.
Adultism is the distinct prejudice or discrimination against young people as a group. It refers to behaviors and attitudes based on the assumption that adults are better than young people and entitled to act upon young people without their agreement.
Many younger people may be offended by being called a “kid,” as it suggests inexperience or immaturity. And as anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite reminds us, “We’re ageist any time we make an assumption about someone, or a group of people, based on how old we think they are.”
Research has found that in the workplace, discrimination for being “too young” is at least as common as discrimination for being too old. Social institutions, laws, customs, and attitudes further reinforce this mistreatment. Adultism might manifest as the assumption that younger people are naive, uninformed, or entitled, or in statements such as, “You’re so smart for a fifteen-year-old.”