Ask a “real” woman what she thinks about advertising targeted to the women 50 plus and you will surely be amazed at how much deep-seeded frustration you unleash, as women in this age group are barraged by ads for adult diapers, medic alert bracelets, drugs and life alert alarms.

According to a new national study titled “Aging Redefined II: A Frank Perspective on Marketing to Women as They Age,” a real disconnect exists between advertisers' perceptions of women's lives after 50 and what their lives actually look like. The study's author states that women over the age of 50 want advertising that appreciates the wisdom that comes with age. Images portrayed in communications should reflect radiant, confident, diverse and active women celebrating life with friends and families.

Is this observation a blip on the screen for a marketer, or is it the start of a downward shift for advertisers who pay little attention to societal shifts?

We need look no further than the huge success that Dove is experiencing with its Campaign for Real Beauty. Started in the United Kingdom, this campaign helped Dove sales increase by 700 percent during the first half of 2004. The campaign has used multiple “real women” but started with older women asking the question: What do you think? Wrinkled or Wonderful? Gray or Gorgeous? Flawed or Flawless? Oversized or Outstanding?

An article at AdAge.com questioned whether these recent “real women” campaigns could mark a shift in how women are portrayed in media and advertising. After all, the images in the media are often blasted as being unattainable and the cause of low self-esteem and even eating disorders among young girls.

Dr. Justine J. Reel, assistant professor in the University of Utah's Department of Exercise and Sport Science, supports the idea that media images can affect a woman's body image. She says research suggests that body image is a variable state — one that can be swayed by media images and messages.

The problem is “media images clearly represent adolescents and people in their 20s, and unless women in their 40s look incredible, they neglect to get any air time.” As a result of these unrealistic images, older adults come to believe that aging is unacceptable, she says.

However, Glamour magazine publisher William Wackermann sees a trend going on in society and the marketplace of self-acceptance and being comfortable in your own skin. And Linda Wells, editor of Allure, claims that women have changed in the way they view themselves.

“In a recent study of 1,000 women, the words they used most often to describe their looks were ‘natural and real.’ Those words were used far more than ‘beautiful and pretty’ and even higher than ‘sexy and glamorous.’ That's a shift.”

When markets and mindsets shift, so must our marketing, otherwise, the tools we use become ineffective. With so many marketing opportunities we must remain focused on who our audience is and learn everything we can about them to ensure we get an effective return on our investment.

The Dove campaign has been so successful that others, such as the youth-obsessed Nike are using their own real women advertising. However, one could argue that Nike misses the mark with their Big Butts, Thunder Thighs and Shoulders that aren't Dainty campaigns. A group that has been on target with the real-women approach is Curves. Real women have curves, don't they? And, we all know how successful Curves has been with their advertising. So, what is driving this new surge in real-women marketing?

“The study shows that when you're in your 20s, 30s — and even 40s — it's common for women to put their lives under a microscope and feel like they're not living up to their full potential in terms of work, home and family,” said Carrie McCament, co-founder, Frank About Women. “By the time she reaches her 50s, she's really hit her stride. She is happy; she is confident; and she is financially astute.

The message is straightforward and simple. Real people spend real money. In the Frank About Women study, women stated that rather than depicting seniors as sick, half-dead and drooling, advertisers should show an appreciation for the wisdom of age and come to the realization that older people have money to spend. According to the study, women aged 50 to 59 spent an average of $1,275 more per month on new products than women aged 20 to 49. So how could you adjust your advertising to address this market?

In the Frank About Women's study, women stated the following:

What they see in advertisements today

  • They think all seniors are invalids or half-wits

  • They forget we are young people in old bodies

  • We're sick, half-dead and drooling

  • They think we're senility waiting to happen

What they want to see

  • A woman of radiance

  • An appreciation for the wisdom of age

  • Older people with money to spend

  • Adventure, glamour

Why you should care

Average amount spent in the last 30 days on new products * (never tried before) by:

Women Ages 20-49 $2,730
Women Ages 50-59 $4,005
Women Ages 60-69 $3,226

*These purchases could include large items such as furniture, travel, electronics, etc.


Colin Milner is chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging. An award-winning writer, Milner has authored more than 100 articles on aging-related issues. He can be reached at colinmilner@icaa.cc.