Older Americans and tech: It’s time to cast off outdated beliefs

Communicators often exclude older Americans from campaigns, missing out on America’s largest age demographic, notes AARP’s Martha Boudreau.

Ignore older Americans at your own peril, says AARP marcomms chief Martha Boudreau.
Ignore older Americans at your own peril, says AARP marcomms chief Martha Boudreau.

People have traditionally viewed technology as a young person’s game. But COVID-19 helped to debunk that view, driving adoption of technology among all generations. 

Adults in their 60s and 70s today, as the first digital workforce, were at the forefront of technology adoption when the internet and laptops were publicly introduced. Despite this history, communicators still often exclude older Americans from campaigns, missing out on engaging America’s largest age demographic.

With so much focus on “digital natives,” marketing and PR practitioners are overlooking the technology adoption trend. AARP’s study of technology use found 72% of adults in their 50s shopped online using a mobile device recently, up from 55% a year earlier. By 2030, those 50-plus will spend more than $84 billion on technology.  

Technology is a vital part of daily life to those 50 and older for online shopping and financial transactions, video streaming, digital gaming, photography, social media engagements, VR and more. Yet advertising usually fails to target this audience and when it does, imagery and messaging often fall flat. 

Consider the entertainment industry, which relies on technology to deliver content. Older adults are active consumers of Netflix, Paramount+, Hulu and other services that they consume on their smart TVs, tablets and other devices. When discussing a study on pandemic media habits, Peter Katsingris, SVP of audience insights at Nielsen said, “Streaming is no longer a young person’s game,” and the pandemic was media’s “greatest period of upheaval in modern history.”

As consumers absorb increasing amounts of content, PR and advertising messaging must be even more relatable to all generations to break through. The 120 million Americans who are 50-plus possess massive spending power, making up 56 cents for every dollar spent. Despite this realization, they are still typically treated as a “nice to have” target market.

Images targeting people 50 and older also don’t connect with the reality of this age group. A recent AARP study found 86% of women 50-plus feel underrepresented in media, and advertising and 66% said ads reinforced outdated stereotypes. AARP also found that only 15% of digital images depict adults 50-plus and older adults are seven times more likely to be portrayed negatively in online ads.

The good news is that a majority of older adults would consider switching to a brand that better represents people their age, creating a big opportunity for marketing and PR professionals. It's time to cast off outdated beliefs that hinder creativity and launch campaigns that reflect how older adults are living today.

Brands have a great opportunity to lead by reaching older adults with messages that show who they really are: a diverse demographic living life to the fullest. It won’t “age” your brand to target the fastest-growing consumer segment. Instead, it will allow you to tap an entirely new and burgeoning market.

Martha Boudreau is chief communications and marketing officer at AARP.

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