When you age, you either become a really cool, hip older person who has great sex, retires to Costa Rica and rocks fabulous, celeb-style locks -- or, decrepit obsolete, confused, and completely dependent.
At least that’s how the media presents it, creating a potential long-term problem for marketers.
Just look at some of HuffPo 50’s stories: “Nine Celebs Who Prove You Can Wear Long Hair at Any Age.” Or, “Why Every Woman Over 50 Should Practice Bisexuality.” Next Avenue’s newsletter recently featured, “Sex, Smiles and Stilettos: Things that Affect Longevity.” The AARP also tends to fixate on the younger side of old. Sure, some articles are highly informative, but the overriding tendency is to showcase the sensational, to a point that marginalizes the character of most average folk who — gasp — are over 50 and haven’t yet ventured into sexual experimentation. Have these publications have completely forgotten who they are talking to? Fifty is not the new 30. And aging at 50 is very different than aging at 70, 80 or 90 — yet there is no distinction being made; where is a much needed “HuffPo 70?”
Maybe these saucy articles have become an accepted form of infotainment, but even if so, aligning difficult end-of-life and retirement topics with “how to drive your man crazy in bed” articles feels off-kilter — and slightly disrespectful.
On the flip side, when the media does address the tougher issues, the tone is morose. What can we make of the stock art showing a painfully frail and ancient-looking, white-haired woman illustrating this Atlantic.com article about how caring for aging parents can affect careers? How about the editor’s image choice of a pair of tragically gnarled, heavily wrinkled hands accompanying this piece in Cognoscenti on understanding and embracing hospice? To me, the image conveys utter hopelessness; yet in fact, the piece discusses the power and control a hospice program can provide to the terminally ill.
To be fair, the outlets’ editors were probably confronted with slim pickings when searching for photos using keywords like “aging,” and “hospice.” But the lack of representative artwork drives home the disconnect between the reality of how people used to age, how we actually age now and the way the media thinks we should do it. Getty Images has recently updated their imagery of women to better convey the state of our complex times. Perhaps they can tackle the elderly next.
There’s also a suite of blogs and news sites devoted to senior care and aging. But sadly, those that offer truly valuable information are typically a visual parade of depressing images and archaic design and feel like grim reaper central. This is exacerbated by their duality of being information portals on the one hand, and on-line stores for adult diapers, walkers and arthritis-friendly sporks on the other. (Note: none of these sites sells stilettos.) Access to both good information and products that assist us as we age is critical; but does it all have to be so damn ugly? Surely there’s a happy medium between making a difficult subject more palatable and keeping it real.
At some level, the paradox on aging reflects the imperatives weighing on the media and driving it to extremes. The super-rich, the super-sexy, the super-stupid or super-dysfunctional simply make for more tantalizing stories that draw a bigger audience – so why not feature either a super-hipster grandparent or a super-old invalid? The notion of a cultural middle ground (where most of us actually fit) is getting lost.
While the current approach seems to be working for media outlets now, as a former marketing exec I expect them to backfire. There’s a serious lack of segmentation in the aging space that may one day prove to be the downfall of the many industries that serve that space — including the information providers. As today’s 40-somethings turn 50, then 60 etc., we will demand to be spoken to in a way that represents us. Until then, can we at least get some better photos?