Age persists as one element of diversity that advertisers and romance fiction continue to ignore. Olders, to use the phrase coined by anti-ageism activist, Ashton Applewhite, are consumers of all sorts of products, from cars to food, to films, to romance novels. However, olders are typically ignored or misrepresented, and as Martha Boudreau, AARP’s chief of marketing and communications officer notes, are seldom valued as a marketing demographic. When they are included in marketing, they are frequently shown as absent-minded, out-of-touch, tech illiterate, frail, haggy, cantankerous, frumpy, sexless, senile, isolated, passive, and unfuckable, all stereotypes associated with ageing and older people.
In the broad world of entertainment, stereotypes of age begin far earlier for women (usually around the age of 40) than for men. It’s the double-standard of ageing, whereby ageing men are allowed to continue to maintain a certain status that casts them in mainstream entertainment roles as distinguished gentlemen, silver foxes, and Liam Neeson action heroes, while women of the same age begin to fall into a handful of acceptable representations, such as mother, grandmother, and the occasional ball-buster like Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada. Ageing women in film and fiction skirt the edge of negative stereotypes until they are sucked into the vortex of being devalued, demeaned, ignored, and rendered invisible. While this double standard has been easy to see in film and fiction, there has been some small creeping change occurring in Hollywood, with the representation of older women in TV series, such as The Chair, Grace and Frankie, and Big Little Lies. A TV series on Netflix, is, and perhaps I presume incorrectly, cheaper to produce than a Marvel blockbuster. It is clear that, like most products, TV, film, and fiction are big businesses with the goal of making money, but a Liam Neeson movie can’t be a blockbuster without an audience. And a product, any product is nothing without the consumer.
The entertainment industry works hard to attract consumers to their products. Advertising is all about getting the right consumer to buy the product—be it a film, a book, a video game, a clothing line, juice boxes, the licensed likeness of a Liam Neeson action figure, or retirement living. Whatever the product, the bottom line is to make money. When you examine entertainment and advertising practice, attracting the youth demographic is regarded as the key to making lots of money. Except that it is women, not youth, who are the consumers that actually drive the majority of purchases. However, here is where the sexist double standard begins to fall away. In advertising, olders, both men and women, cease to be a target demographic, despite the fact they are consumers with money to spend. Advertising becomes an equal opportunist that treats ageing men and women with similar disdain. Instead of focusing on attracting olders as consumers to a vast array of products like youngers (another Ashton Applewhite coinage) are, the products that don’t ignore olders, the ones actaully aimed at the older demographic, tend to be age stereotypes—adult diapers, retirement communities for over 50s, funeral insurance. And in ads that do feature olders, they are more often than not portrayed as absent-minded, out-of-touch, tech illiterate, frail, cantankerous, sexless, senile, and unfuckable stereotypes. Advertising forgets that their goal is to attract a consumer and make money. Olders, from 40 and beyond, are still consumers of all sorts of products, from cars to food, to films, to romance novels, just like youngers. So why are olders misrepresented and overlooked as a demographic? As I mentioned at the start, it’s age, that element of diversity that marketers and romance fiction continue to ignore.
When Forbes Contributor Paul Talbot, interviewed Boudreau, AARP’s chief of marketing and communications officer about ageism in advertising, I read the article (Marketers Take A New Look At An Older Skewing Demographic) and nodded furiously, and then got furious and up on my soapbox because there is so much Boudreau said about advertising and ageism, like this:
Ageism in advertising has been present since the beginning of the marketing industry. It is driven by many factors including implicit bias against older people as a meaningful, consumption-oriented segment worth targeting.
This seems so odd when one considers that there is money to be made by marketing across demographics. Basically, because I write in a genre that has an implicit bias against women over the age of 40 being cast as romantic leads, I’d like to point out that advertising treats olders like an invisible middle-aged woman, right down to the stereotypes I mentioned earlier. Boudreau backs up my theory, stating that,
Somehow 100+ million consumers over the age of 50 are ignored and misrepresented by the vast majority of marketers and creatives.
The marketing creatives, Boudreau mentions, have an average age of 28, but that’s another issue of ageism and employment and replacing old with new, which is too often though of a ‘fresh’ and better than experience. To use age as a demarcation for the end of creativity, spending power, interest in life or sex or love, to misrepresent and stereotype, to use as a target of humour and scorn is in fact NOT the way to make money, but that’s clearly how far too many products aimed at olders are marketed. Boudreau draws attention to this:
The marketing industry would never use humor to stereotype gender, race or ethnicity let alone disability or sexual identity. But age persists as one element of diversity that marketers both ignore and degrade through attempts at humor driven by outdated stereotypes.
Gee. Look how far diversity hasn’t come. As an anti-ageism crusader who tries to lead by example, I write books with main characters who are aged 40 and beyond, with a particular emphasis on a female protagonist who is not a stereotype. On this blog and on social media I bang on and on about ageism and sexism in genre fiction, especially in romance fiction, which itself is stereotyped and degraded, yet the romance fiction industry, like advertising, continues to ignore, stereotype, degrade and exclude older people, especially older women, from the narrative.
Yes, publishing is a business. Yes, the goal is for books to make money. What sells well will be replicated like a Marvel superhero franchise. Small town and Australian rural romance, for example, sell well, so there is a lot of it and, yep, they’re money makers. Something new is risky. Advertising a product to an overlooked demographic is risky because it’s new and different (probably since being older makes falling in love different because sex), doesn’t fit the pattern of what has sold, doesn’t fit the marketing brief, and what has sold is stories about younger people (especially younger women) falling in love. Why change what isn’t broken, right? Why take a risk on something that won’t sell?
‘Older won’t sell’ is a common thing authors who write older romantic leads hear. There’s a persistent idea in romance publishing that older women have no place in the genre, that they belong in Women’s Fiction, or in a handful of secondary roles: the mother, grandmother, the comedy relief, or some other stereotype. The notion ‘older doesn’t sell’ comes from a place of ageism and a lack of knowing how to alter the marketing brief to include an older demographic of readers. Rather than chasing the youth dollar, adhering to the notion that younger readers matter more than older readers, or that older readers like a certain kind of romance and are loyal to that subgenre, this is what romance publishers and advertisers need to pay attention to: Readers want to see themselves reflected in what they consume, whatever age, ethnicity, gender identity, and so forth. To reiterate, age persists as one element of diversity that marketers and romance fiction both ignore. And this is to their financial detriment because, as Boudreau indicates,
Image matters. Consumers 50-plus do notice how they’re presented in advertising, or if they show up at all. We also found 62% of adults 50-plus would switch to a brand that shows people their age in its ads.
It’s not a stretch to assume that 62% of adults would see films or read romance novels or switch to a brand (for example, Coke No Sugar rather than incontinence pads, a recliner that helps you stand, or Medic Alert braclets) that features people their own age in the advertising, is it? It is lazy and short-sighted to focus mostly on younger consumers, to insist that consumers are perpetually ‘brand loyal’. Brand loyalty may work with items like tampons and soft drinks, (for the record, I’m Coke No Sugar, not Pepsi Max) but as Boudreau notes, “it makes no sense for a marketer to turn their backs on the money, brand adoption and opportunity that rests with this [older] group.”
It both infuriates and disappoints me that the romance genre continues to turn its back on what many of us refer to as ‘seasoned romance’ or ‘later in life romance’, because the marketing brief can’t be altered to be inclusive of age. Several authors of seasoned romance have told me that their publisher passed on their book with older leads because another author’s book with older leads, one the pub ‘took a chance on,’ didn’t sell. I’ll suggest that the book the publisher took a risk on didn’t sell because the company had no idea how to market it, or did little to no marketing for it because, as Boudreau noted, ad agencies rarely receive briefs that focus on the older demographic. What this means is that advertisers and marketing departments have no idea how to pitch deodorant to a fifty-something or how to pitch a romance novel featuring older leads, or, heaven help us, an older female lead who has sex. As a result, romance fiction continues to be seen and marketed as a tale for youngers. From cars to coffee to romance fiction, as with so many products that ignore a sizeable demographic, never altering from the course is myopic and a missed money-making opportunity.
I can see the missed opportunity in romance fiction industry. I’ve been writing about this for years. As a student undertaking a MA, as doctoral candidate, and as an author, I’ve interviewed romance editors and authors and readers about the inclusion of older women as romance heroines. I’ve joined discussions on diversity, equity, and inclusion. I chair Australian Romance Writers of Australia DEI subcommittee. I push back against ageism, I make sure ageism is included in discussions of DEI and romance writing, and I call out ageism when I see it. Nowhere is ageism as massive as in advertising and romance publishing.
Until advertising agencies alter their thinking and open their eyes to the money-making potential of olders, until consumers and readers become more vocal about what they want to see in the entertainment they consume, until the romance fiction genre accepts that age is an issue of diversity, until an agency or a publisher or a film or TV series makes a crap-ton of money, the negative typecasting of olders will persist, and age as will remain an element of diversity that marketers and romance fiction continue to ignore or misrepresent.
Talbot,.P. (2021). Marketers take a new look at an older skewing demographic. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/paultalbot/2021/10/24/marketers-take-a-new-look-at-an-older-skewing-demographic/?sh=a468cb51f96a