How big screen lessons in ageism can help marketers connect with older consumers

Meta Redstedt, Global Master Brand & Communications Director at TENA introduces the Ageless Test and highlights the importance of ending ageist stereotyping.

Meta Redstedt

Global Brand & Communications Director TENA


The ease with which ‘people over 50’ became shorthand for ‘old’, ‘vulnerable’ and ‘most at risk’ is one of many knock-on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a timely reminder of a long-standing, damaging marketing stereotype. It is an important wake-up call, too, for the need to consider more careful representations of older people, women, especially, in advertising and marketing as we all work to build back better once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

If you think ageism in marketing is old news, think again. Some 75% of older people think they are ‘never’ represented in mainstream ads, one 2020 survey from SunLife shows. And it’s easy to see why. According to research from Lloyds Banking Group, while those aged 65+ make up 17.7% of the UK population, they only feature in 6.2% of advertising.

Women, however, have it worst. They start to feel ‘invisible’ in advertising from the age of just 52, 11 years younger than men, Lloyds Banking Group research recently found. Furthermore, while older men in ads tend to be accurately depicted age-wise, younger-looking women tend to be used instead, feeding the stereotype that men age well while women don’t, 61% of all those polled for the same survey said.

Ageism occurs as much by omission as from stereotyping.

Meta Redstedt

The Ageless Test

At TENA we’re dedicated to destigmatising stereotypes around incontinence and challenging negative perceptions of female ageing. And, in research we carried out earlier this year, we found that 51% of women over 50 now think it essential that we change perceptions of ageing in media.

Because of this, we launched ‘Ageless’, the first UK ad campaign to feature women aged over 50 openly talking about their sexuality and incontinence, when it broke in March 2020. And now it has led us to partner with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to publish ‘The Ageless Test’: ground-breaking analysis of the representation of women over 50 in movies with powerful lessons for brand owners and their agencies. Not just about the importance of doing the right thing, but the opportunity that lies in doing so to achieve a clear and tangible competitive edge.

‘The Ageless Test’ examines whether women aged 50+ are presented as having fully realised lives in films, rather than serving as scenery in younger people’s stories. To assess this, we rated films according to whether they had two things: first, one female character aged 50+ who matters, so she is tied to the plot in such a way that her removal would have significant effect; second, that 50+ female character to be presented in humanising ways rather than reductionist ageist stereotypes.

Shockingly, just one in four films passed when we applied The Ageless Test to 2019’s top 30 highest grossing films, while no women aged over 50 were cast in any leading roles in the films assessed.

Older adults in popular films were commonly depicted in stereotypical, degrading ways tied to age, we found. Over half (56.9%) of characters aged 50+ were depicted with at least one stereotype with female characters aged 50+ more likely to be depicted in stereotypical ways than equivalently aged male characters (2.8 vs 1.5 stereotypes, on average). Worse, when mature women did appear, they were cast in stereotypical roles such as stubborn (33%), grumpy (32%), unfashionable (18%) and unattractive (17%).

It was also found that characters over 50 were less likely to be show in sex scenes, implying that their bodies are less worthy to be shown as sexual or, that older people just don’t have sex. But this is far from the truth. Research by TENA found that confidence comes with age, and 63% of women over 50 care less about what others think of them than ever before. They feel more experienced, wise, confident to speak their minds, happy, adventurous and sexy.

Big screen parallels for advertisers

It would be easy to dismiss these findings simply as a movie industry failing. But the sad fact is that it’s a failing that’s media-wide and especially relevant to advertising, where there are striking parallels.

Both industries share an over-abundance of younger employees, for example. In advertising, 62% of workers are under 45. The median age is 40.2 and has remained virtually the same for more than a decade. Additionally, according to an IPA Excellence paper, people over 50 represent just 6% of the ad industry workforce in the UK.

Both industries also share an over-abundance of male decision-makers at senior levels, and high drop-out rates among women, especially at earlier stages in their career such as when they have kids, but also as they take on elder-care responsibilities and or experience menopause.

[We need] to end ageist stereotyping by making more effort to walk in older people’s shoes.

Meta Redstedt

Rethinking aspiration

Both industries are characterised, too, by widespread misunderstanding of what older people, women, especially, are like, want and aspire to. It may be true that many younger women aspire to beautiful and younger role models, for example. But this is far less true for many experienced women because, as they age, many of us grow more comfortable in ourselves, less concerned by what others think, and so more confident.

We know that to appeal to an audience it is essential to be relevant and insightful about them. Yet why do we casually throw this basic marketing principle out of the window?

Whether all this is down to ignorance or laziness the net effect is damaging, not just to older people’s self-esteem but, considering the fact that the over-50s control 80% of the UK’s disposable income, also to brand owners’ bottom line. Why? Because the sub-text of ageism in marketing to the older woman is: ‘The brand does not value me’.

So, as we look to 2021, what better time is there for marketers and agencies to step up and take the lead by learning lessons from big screen mistakes. It’s time to stop ageism by omission by being more inclusive, to end ageist stereotyping by making more effort to walk in older people’s shoes, and to start being age positive.

Guest Author

Meta Redstedt

Global Brand & Communications Director TENA


Meta Redstedt is the Global Brand and Communications Director of TENA, a multi-billion euro brand of Swedish health and hygiene company Essity. Meta joined Essity in 2011 and has extensive global experience in media, communications, marketing and brand building. She is a former partner of ad agency Forsman & Bodenfors and was named as one of AdAge’s Women to Watch Europe, Class of 2018. In previous roles, Meta has worked on several global FMCG and Health Care brands within Johnson & Johnson and Unilever, always with a strong passion for insight driven and purpose led advertising.

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Representation Media Ageism