Working in marketing and communications in the not-for-profit sector, I have am always considerate of how people are portrayed in both words and images. How we represent people to the rest of the community can have a really big impact on how that particular group of people, whether it is people experiencing homelessness, people with disabilities, people of different ethnicities or older people, are perceived by the general community. That perception in turn drives how those people are treated in society.
Today I’ve been trying to set up a photo library specifically images of older people. I buy photos from a stock library so they are taken by different photographers from all around the world. Most of the photographers are taking the photos they think people will want to buy so they have a commercial purpose in mind, which tends to play up stereotypes even more than usual.
As I scan through literally thousands of images, our stereotypes of older people are evident –
• Older people drink tea and do lots of gardening
• Older people live in nursing homes and spend a lot of time with doctors and nurses
• Older people find technology difficult to understand and need younger people to help them with it
• Younger people, when interacting with older people, always take the leading role – and often feel it is necessary to lean over the older person or pat their arm
• Older couples are always heterosexual (although never actually sexual)
My list could go on forever…
And while I think it is important that we challenge these stereotypes and make an effort to represent a broader picture of older people, there was something else I learned today that I felt was even more important.
You see, as I looked at thousands of old faces, all I could see was incredible beauty. I didn’t expect this – I am willing to accept that as we get older wrinkles, grey hair and changes to our body shape are inevitable but I also generally accepted that beauty was for the young. We are surrounded every day by young models – even the older people in the funeral plan and incontinence commercials on television aren’t really that old. Our acceptable version of an older person is usually someone barely at retirement age -someone with more than a third of their life still ahead of them!
Spending hours looking closely at the faces of a huge variety of people, of different nationalities and genders, aged from around 55 to 80, I feel robbed by the limited portrayal of beauty our society has accepted. Perhaps we wouldn’t all be quite so scared of growing older if we saw more older people every day. Perhaps we would accept our own wrinkles and grey hair much more easily if we had the chance to see how beautiful they look on someone else.
If advertising is supposed to use aspirational visions to get us to buy stuff, why aren’t they showing us how beautiful it is to grow old?
Written by Jacqueline O’Donnell
Founder, Just Good Marketing