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Your typical 70 year olds?

A study in Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Science (cited in livescience, December 4, 2008) showed that older people tend to feel about 13 years younger than their chronological ages. This is a bit misleading in that there’s a difference between how old you “feel” and which age image of a senior you would point to as best representing you in a picture line-up.

Based on interviews and focus groups with dozens of seniors over the years, I believe that most seniors would actually choose images that would be about fifteen to twenty years younger than their chronological ages.

This is an important issue as I often have to recommend to my clients what age to depict seniors in advertising. With retirement community clients, there is a strong inclination to use residents in the marketing materials. Average resident age is often north of 80, and Executive Directors at these communities don’t want to be seen by their residents and by potential residents as engaging in misleading advertising.

I am often forced to point out that this is a subtle form of ageism.

If you were selling a suburban home to a young married couple with two children, would you depict them all as overweight, which the average American is? Would the teenage girl have a bad case of acne? Would the boy have unsightly braces?

Of course not.

In much of advertising, we depict the individual who is supposed to represent the consumer in a flattering light. Why should it be any different with seniors?

Pharmaceutical advertisers caught on to this much earlier than advertisers in many other categories. The “seniors” in Viagra advertising have always been closer to fifty than seventy. You can’t depict a senior as looking too young, only too old.

When applying this precept, bear in mind that the actual purchaser of the product is what determines the age you show—and it’s often not the senior. It’s appropriate to show a 70 year old looking 50 in a hair product commercial, but woe betide the marketer who shows a sixty year old in an advertisement for an assisted living community where the actual client is the daughter of the potential resident. That daughter is not going to recognize her frail 80 year old mom when looking at a healthy, sixty year old model, and she will assume that the community is not appropriate.

In sum, not just beauty, but also age, is in the eye of the beholder.

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