Is the Ad Industry Ageing Well?

Lori Meakin, Co-founder at Joint weighs in on age diversity in advertising

Wise Up! from System1 and ITV is a playbook for advertisers aiming to make commercially effective work, that celebrates and entertains older generations. It’s the most comprehensive study to date on the state of age representation in UK advertising. System1 analysed 2021’s top 1,000 ads by media spend in the UK, coding work from 422 brands based on age and gender, and tested more than 50 of the ads with our Test Your Ad platform to see how the general public and older audiences feel about the creative. Just 23% of these ads featured characters 55 years or older, showcasing a need for better age representation.

We recently sat down with Lori Meakin, Co-founder at Joint, a London-based creative agency founded in 2012, to discuss the issues and insights around age representation in advertising. Meakin began her career in the advertising industry as a planner at Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters and has a long track record of supporting household names like Volkswagen, HSBC, M&S and Amazon. Her work has earned her awards from prestigious organisations such as the IPA, Marketing Society and Marketing Week.

What’s your take on ageism in advertising?

Lori Meakin –

This most powerful group in terms of spending – older people – is being woefully underrepresented in advertising. Historically, if you’re not young, white, straight, middle class and beautiful, you’ve been either invisible or been a caricature for most of the time that adland has existed. Older people haven’t traditionally had respect, power, main character roles or even a sense of agency in ads.

The other issue is that the industry lumps older people into one big pot as if they’re all the same. But the age gap between a 55-year-old and an 85-year-old is the same as the gap between someone who is 10 years old and someone who is 40. There are stark differences that we need to recognize.

Is there hope that more brands are moving in the right direction?

Lori Meakin –

I find it fascinating that an increasing number of brands are creating work that is targeted at mid-life women. I love that rebranding of this segment of the population. It’s not middle-aged, it’s mid-life. And of course, if you look at life expectancy, a woman approaching her fifties has just about as many years ahead of her as she does behind her.

These mid-life years are a time when women are feeling more powerful and are more powerful in terms of the influence, spending power and control they have over their lives. Yet women have typically disappeared and felt less seen in advertising as they age. A study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that men got seven times as many speaking roles as women. Creating roles that not only feature women but give them a voice are crucial, and it’s the responsibility of advertisers and agencies to dispel the outdated misconceptions that we see too often on television.

What’s your advice for creating effective ads that feature older characters?

Lori Meakin –

Great storytelling is key. Your creative needs to be an emotionally engaging story that everyone can project into, which also happens to offer representation for marginalised groups. It’s essential to remember the insight from System1’s first Feeling Seen report, that just shoving diversity into an ad doesn’t make a bad ad good.

We always ask, “What’s the story that will connect with everybody, and how do we tell that in a way that authentically represents people who don’t normally get represented?” For instance, a story about loneliness offers a universal, human insight that everyone can relate to. Featuring an older character can then highlight their specific experience of feeling lonely and celebrate how friendship can address it.

Casting and having the right people behind the camera are also important. We need directors and crews who can understand and respect the script and get great nuanced performances out of the actors. This ensures we don’t fall foul of the stereotypes that we’re trying to subvert.

At Joint, we recognize the importance of understanding and connecting emotionally with people of all ages. We always try to represent our target audience with respect and authenticity. Focus groups, ethnographic research and collaborating with experts are all great ways to gain insights from specific groups to ensure they are accurately portrayed.


Learn more about engaging and entertaining older audiences via System1 and ITV’s age diversity report.

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