Commentary

Expressing Herself: What Marketers Can Learn When Madonna Tackles Ageism

“Granny needs to take it easy, she could break a hip.”   

“She seems to be in denial about her age and abilities. There's got to be a retirement home available, right?” 

“Old hag needs to stop. How old is she?”

If you didn’t know better, you might think those comments were made about someone 75 or 80 years old. But they’re not. They were directed at the eternally youthful Madonna, age 56. She’s recently become an Internet-world target simply for challenging conventional wisdom about aging.

Always one to express herself, Madonna has her own thoughts on the issue, recently saying, "It's a form of discrimination that still has not been dealt with and it should be. I think it should be as verboten as making racist remarks or making homophobic remarks, judging somebody by their age. It's sexist and it's ageist and it's bullshit." 

Is Ageism the Last Acceptable Prejudice?

Madonna was once praised for her inventive stage performances and for promoting self-expression and female sexual empowerment. Somewhere around age 50, that praise turned into criticism. 

Even public figures have weighed in. Piers Morgan mocked her after a recent onstage fall at The Brit Awards: “Ambulance for Granny, please.” Sharon Osborne criticized her decision to appear topless in a new magazine spread: “I think she’s insecure about her age because she constantly has to keep showing it.” 

There’s been no media backlash to these comments, a clear indication that ageism is still tolerated in today’s hyper-PC world. 

Boomers Will Struggle More with Ageism

With all Boomers now over age 50 and the oldest of this generation turning 70 next year, fighting ageism will become an increasingly common struggle as Boomers seek to remain relevant in today’s youth-obsessed culture. 

Their battle will be waged not only against the external ageism, but also against their own internal grievances with aging. Half say they feel no more content with each passing year, and nearly half believe they are not better at coping with life as they age. 

An Opportunity for Marketers to Connect With Boomers

New research documents a positive correlation between how people feel about aging and their overall satisfaction with life. This signals an opportunity for marketers to create loyalty simply by helping Boomers feel better about aging, and ultimately, increasing their life satisfaction. Three key findings provide insight into ways brands can do this.

1. Help Boomers Become More Accepting of their Own Aging

Boomers have been known to resist aging, but those who are accepting of it are 63% more likely to report high levels of satisfaction with life.

A key concern as people age is that relevance, opportunities and respect will diminish. Even more troubling is the fear that Boomers will become increasingly invisible in our society, and in fact, one in four people over age 70 says they have felt invisible to younger people. 

By providing Boomers with realistic, positive images of aging, brands can make it easier to feel good about and embrace aging as a normal part of life. 

2. Portray Life at Age 50+ as a Time of Possibility and Opportunity

An inevitable part of life as we age is loss. Our parents die, our careers end, our friends depart, and our health can decline. Given these pivotal life events, it would be easy to see life after 50 as a time of loss, and those who do so are 72% more likely to report dissatisfaction with life than those who maintain a more positive perspective on life. 

Marketers should seek to align their brands with the many upsides of life as we age — more free time, increased wisdom, less concern over what others think, deeper personal relationships, and greater clarity about what’s important in life.

In doing so, brands become an advocate for healthy aging by keeping the focus on what is gained, rather than lost, as a result of aging.

3. Help Improve Societal Views on Aging

Six in 10 Boomers believe that American society is driven from the perspective of youth. This is a sobering belief for a generation that prides itself on being relevant. 

Brands that show Boomers as relevant to today’s society will win their favor and also help change general views on aging. 

Progress is Being Made

Ironically, the youth-focused fashion industry has taken a leadership role in this regard with the recent use of older women to promote spring lines, including Céline (Joan Didion, 80), Saint Laurent (Joni Mitchell, 71), Kate Spade (Iris Apfel, 93), L’Oreal (Helen Mirren, 71), and Versace (Madonna, 56).

This is exactly the kind of progressive marketing that is needed to grab Boomers’ attention at this stage of their lives. It gives Boomers permission to feel good about aging, and it gives them role models they can reasonably emulate as they seek to live with a sense of dignity as they age.

What’s Next

Look for Madonna and other famous Boomers to continue to reinvent how we look at aging, and for smart marketers to find ways to celebrate older Americans, not ask them to change who they are, and expand opportunities for them enjoy life as they age.

11 comments about "Expressing Herself: What Marketers Can Learn When Madonna Tackles Ageism".
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  1. Matt Thornhill from Boomer Project, April 2, 2015 at 11:17 a.m.

    Nice piece, Mark. Unfortunately, so many of those involved in decisions about marketing and advertising are themselves in their 20s and 30s. Some years back we polled art directors and copywriters at large agencies and asked them at what age someone is "over the hill."

    They said "56."

    Maybe that's why Madonna is getting slammed. But she's right, if the comments about "old people" were modified and the word "old" was replaced with "black" or "female" we wouldn't stand for it. The time to change attitudes about growing older is upon us. It is up to Boomers to encourage that transformation.

    Of course, it would help if marketers didn't try to sell their products as something to "cure" aging, as if it were a disease. How dumb is that? Growing older is one condition everyone is born with.

  2. Barbara Morris from Put Old on Hold Journal, April 2, 2015 at 12:34 p.m.

    As an 86 year old non-conformist I know ageism is alive and well. Below is (in part) what I wrote about the "Tyranny of Traditional Expectations" in the April Put Old on Hold Journal:

    When you are “old” the expectation is that mentally and physically you are less competent than you used to be.

    Before continuing, let’s establish the prevailing cultural understanding of “old”, chronologically speaking. If we are to judge by the number of retirement communities for those “50 or better” or if we are to judge by the number of people who retire at age 55, then it seems safe to say “old” begins at age fifty and that’s when the expectation that you are losing it starts to kick in. You know how it goes:

    “Take it easy — you are not as young as you used to be.”

    “Why are you still working when you should be taking it easy”

    “Why are you spending money on THAT! At your age!”

    “What? You have a boyfriend/girlfriend?” That expression of disgust may be followed by a sarcastic “how cute”, “tsk tsk”, “act your age” or perhaps a raised eyebrow that suggests you must be teetering on the brink of senility. After all, “old” people don’t fall in love, that’s the province of young people.

    All mentally competent “old” persons know their degree of competence. To suggest they are not realistic about assessing their abilities is condescending.

    That said, in many cases, expectations of decline are accurate because of failing health. In other cases, decline in competence is a result of giving in to expectation.

    But let’s be real. “Old” people often are responsible for some of the “old people expectations” when they behave like teenagers trying to be “cute” or demean themselves with “old people” jokes, or think their age allows them to ignore acceptable standards of speech or dress.

    But let’s also acknowledge that it doesn’t help that supposedly funny TV shows portray old people as senile (“Off Their Rockers”). And let’s not forget TV ads that depict old people as less than competent or engaged in ridiculous behavior, or ads that consistently show “old” people in stereotypical "old" roles— rarely in roles that reflect the reality of many “old” people who still have a job they go do every day or in some other way are still productive. And let’s not forget snarky comments made by TV pundits in response to older persons who make comments they don’t agree with: “Oh, she’s/he’s old.”

    Anyone fortunate enough to avoid the scourges of dementia, cancer or other debilitating disease can be “wonderful for your age” if it is understood that youth is a gift received at birth but lasts only approximately only 40 years and then fades away, UNLESS effort is made early on in life to retain the most vital aspects of youth — mental and physical competence.

    We need more "visible" outspoken "old" anomalies like Madonna. They inspire us to challenge our potential and be all that we can be — chronological age and cultural expectations be damned.

  3. Mark Bradbury from AARP Media Sales, April 2, 2015 at 1:09 p.m.

    @Matt -- "The time to change attitudes about growing older is upon us." I couldn't agree more. Growing older is one condition everyone is born with." Nice line that I will use in the future.

    @Barbara -- "We need more "visible" outspoken "old" anomalies like Madonna. They inspire us to challenge our potential and be all that we can be — chronological age and cultural expectations be damned." LOVE THIS.

  4. Steve Climons from Crossover Creative, April 2, 2015 at 5:03 p.m.

    Ah yes and what did I hear the Rolling Stones are touring again this summer? So much for enigma of ageism....

  5. Barbara Morris from Put Old on Hold Journal, April 2, 2015 at 5:44 p.m.

    Steve, I'm anticipating the day that "ageless anomalies" like Madonna and the Rolling Stones are the norm rather than curiosities. We have a long way to go.

  6. Andrew McNaughton from Andrew McNaughton Professional Services, April 2, 2015 at 5:46 p.m.

    I think Madonna is using ageism as an excuse. I think it's all too easy for us to ignore our biology and how it links into the way we exhibit ourselves. The reason why there is sometimes an almost unconscious negative reaction to a woman of Madonna's age exhibiting herself the way she does is because she is no longer biologically capable of bearing children. This is what is actually attached to sexual display. Most uneducated people won't realise this. Most will say sexy is sexy. Well that's kind of modern human ignorance. Sexy exists for attracting a mate. So when popstars display themselves they're actually attracting mates or those who would be inspired by the display to mimic themselves. It's not just society's attitude or culture. It's something much more primordial. Something which we can't really fight. So when people say act your age it's because you're displaying yourself trying to attract reproduction when you can't reproduce. You can be sexy but in a more mature way. One which allows you to be sexy and beautiful but in a way that is true to biology. Madonna won't change anything because it's not a failing in our culture or society. It was one thing for her to flash her breasts 20 years ago but now we are naturally repulsed by it because it serves no purpose. She ends up looking like a fool. Women who are of reproductive age are not going to look up to Madonna as she's dressing and behaving now. Not if they want to attract a mate. Madonna would do better if she stopped wasting time on the manufactured and got real. The kids would appreciate that more and buy her records in ways they're not now. She's also losing her gay audience too as they perhaps are also unconsciously driven by the same reproductive analysis. I don't need to see her tits and ass. I just want good, honest music. At least half of this latest album is desperately trying to cling to reproductive activities which just aren't right for her. I listened to the leaks and there were some great songs that only had honest agendas. She demoted or binned those for these silly songs which make her sound so desperate.

  7. Barbara Morris from Put Old on Hold Journal, April 2, 2015 at 7:27 p.m.

    Andrew, an interesting perspective. However, while Madonna's behavior and how she presents herself to the world may be crude exhibitionism, it has nothing to do with ageism. She is spot on when she says that ageism (". . . is a form of discrimination that still has not been dealt with and it should be."

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 2, 2015 at 8:23 p.m.

    Huffington Post wrote a lovely article about Frieda Lefeber for her 100 birthday. She wears jeans with the best of us, not to mention does things people half her age do not do. WPVI-TV (local ABC) station has a great clip of their interview with Frieda last week at her art show at Rosemont College.

  9. Marla Goldstein from Around The Bend Media, April 2, 2015 at 10:26 p.m.

    Piers Morgan mocked her after a recent onstage fall at The Brit Awards: “Ambulance for Granny, please.”
    And Piers Morgan is how old? According to Wikipedia, he turned 50 himself on March 30. Stones, meet glass houses.

  10. Barbara Morris from Put Old on Hold Journal, April 2, 2015 at 11:03 p.m.

    Piers Morgan will never be old because regardless of age, men never think they are old. Like the guy in the beer commercial, old guys grow a beard to cover their wrinkled face and convince themselves they look sexy, interesting and distinguished. Of course, it helps that advertising perpetuates the fantasy.

  11. Montse Monllau from ESCOOL, April 9, 2015 at 8:56 a.m.

    Oh, it's so much of importance this matter for the present and future of all women on Earth! Thanks for writing the article, Mark.


    I'm sure Madonna is THE leader woman who can better "fight" this ageism prejudice, starting by making it visible, as she has been doing all her life for other taboos...  

    The general opinion will need to adjust to the new reality... "Age, increasingly irrelevant. Ageing, increasingly meaningful.". And even more for women!

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