Health and Wellness: How to Talk to Seniors (As If They're People)

Stephanie Bane, Planning Director
November 12, 2018

My mother was funny. She had a dry sense of humor and a deadpan delivery that people who knew her found hilarious, and people who didn’t missed completely, often accepting at face value something she intended to be sarcastic. The older she got, the more people thought her humor was unintentional. Something about her presentation — plump, grey-haired, hard-of-hearing — made people assume she wasn’t that bright, and she couldn’t possibly be making a joke. My mother never bothered to point out that she was joking to anyone other than her teenage daughters. If someone didn’t get her, she just moved on.

When communicating with seniors, the advertising industry is guilty of making the same assumption: that they’re humorless. That there’s limited emotional and intellectual ground we can cover when talking to someone over sixty, as though the only option is to offer them assurance of some kind. Assurance that they’re still active, still attractive, or that their needs (bladder leak underwear that is surprisingly pretty!) will be met.

Healthcare and health insurance advertising are chief offenders. Forty percent of all of healthcare ads for seniors show older women in cute sportswear power-walking through a park. Twenty percent show older couples strolling on a beach, and an additional five percent show older couples on a beach with their grandkids.

Okay, I made those statistics up. But the clichés are real. And even when we manage to avoid cliché, advertising to seniors is often bland and condescending, exactly like your doctor — the one you want to like but just… can’t.

The following (real) statistics have been trotted out so many times that I hesitate to do it here, but according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are over forty-seven million people age sixty-five or older living in the U.S. According to the Pew Research Center, almost nineteen percent of them, roughly nine million people, report working full or part time. They’re likely to work in demanding fields, and while Pew didn’t report on this, I’ll make up another stat: ninety percent of those still working joke around with their co-workers.

Baby Boomers, a cohort that includes many seniors (ages 54-72), represent forty-two percent of consumer spending in the U.S. They control seventy percent of all disposable income. They spend liberally in categories like travel and automobiles, and their spending in the healthcare and wellness industries is expected to increase exponentially. Our collective ad industry bias against older people will cost our clients real money.

Less commonly quoted, but just as important, are statistics around Boomer attitudes toward marketing. According to research conducted by Mintel, only thirty-four percent feel brands understand people their age. Nearly seventy percent enjoy humor in advertising, a number on par with the rest of the population. And they index higher than gen pop when it comes to wanting advertising to be entertaining or sentimental. They’re the perfect audience, ready and willing for us to make them laugh and cry.

According to research by ACE Metrix, if we want to connect with Boomers, the only thing off the table is sophomoric humor featuring much younger people. That shouldn’t need to be said, and the fact that it does illustrates how badly we’ve been missing the mark.

As Luke Sullivan says in "Hey Whipple, Squeeze This", bad advertising works, but we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to humanity, not to make it. We owe it to older women in particular, because they were subjected to such unbearably coy advertising in their formative years. Somebody has to make it up to them for "That not-so-fresh feeling" from Massengill, and all those women in white pants from Tampax.

So, as marketers, let’s cover a little more emotional and intellectual ground when we’re talking to seniors. Let’s stop talking to them like they aren’t that bright. Because if they think we don’t get them, they’ll just move on.

Stephanie Bane Headshot
About the author
Stephanie Bane, Planning Director
Stephanie helps healthcare brands bridge the gap between sound business strategy and great creative. She previously led strategy for CPG brands like Nestlé, Heinz, Cold-EEZE, and 84 Lumber at Brunner, Smith Brothers Agency, and MARC USA.
Partners + Napier

Like what Stephanie had to say? Get smart stuff like this delivered to you monthly.

Thanks, smart stuff is on the way.