One of the most pressing concerns in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic was how to best communicate information to those who were at greatest risk — particularly, the elderly. Unfortunately, many attempts were riddled with stereotyped depictions of older people as frail, lonely, and incompetent. In doing so, messages from advertisers, public health officials, and policymakers may have failed to resonate with large swaths of their targeted audience. Given a rapidly aging population, effective messaging to older people holds national importance for public health as well as marketing of goods and services.
Arguably, the greatest challenge is market segmentation. Older people make up an incredibly diverse demographic that varies in terms of physical and cognitive ability, economic power, and social connection. Aging is also changing over historical time. Several studies have shown that the incidence of dementia appears to be decreasing over time; some research suggests this is due to higher educational attainment and improvements in cardiovascular health. Today’s older generations are less lonely and happier than their younger counterparts. As a result, market segmentation based on chronological age is becoming increasingly difficult, if not futile.
A more telling predictor of behavior and a better approach to age segmentation may be time left in life rather than time since birth. Healthy versus sick offers more meaningful insight than whether someone is in their 70s or their 80s.
In addition to physical health, subjective age influences decisions and preferences. Our time horizons — whether we see our futures as vast or constrained — shape our goals. When time horizons are expansive and nebulous, people focus on goals that prepare them for lengthy, uncertain futures. They prioritize novelty and exploration. By contrast, when time horizons are perceived as limited, people place more weight on emotionally meaningful goals. As time grows increasingly limited, it becomes more valuable, leading people to want to fill it with activities and people that “count.” Focusing on goals that will be realized in the here-and-now as opposed to ones that pay off in the future are more relevant when time horizons are limited.
These findings hold important implications for communicating effectively with older populations. Communication with older adults needs to take into account the different ways that motivations change when time horizons grow shorter. We recommend three actions public officials, advertisers, and policymakers can take to better reach older populations:
Focus on emotionally meaningful material.
Because goals direct cognitive processing, perceived future time not only shapes plans, it influences what people see, hear, and remember. Take social preferences: When asked to choose between spending time with a newer social partner or a close loved one, older people preferred the loved one, whereas younger people preferred the new friend. Yet, when older people were asked beforehand to imagine that a new medical advancement would greatly extend their lives, or when younger people were first asked to imagine an impending move across country, age had no bearing on who people preferred to spend their time with.
Advertisements that focus on emotionally meaningful rewards will be more appealing to older adults and better remembered. One study found that older people preferred an advertisement for a camera with the slogan “Capture those special moments” over an identical ad with the slogan “Capture the unexplored world.” Along these lines, recent research compared different financial incentives aimed at encouraging older people to walk more. Making incentives emotionally meaningful made a difference: Older — but not younger — people increased their step counts to earn money for charities.
Prioritize the positive.
Shifting time horizons also change the type of information people pay attention to and process. Older people, compared to their younger counterparts, pay attention to and remember more positive than negative information.That is, whereas younger peoples’ attentions are captured by negative information, older people focus on positive information. This developmental shift from a negativity bias in youth to a positivity bias with age is termed the positivity effect. Researchers have shown that older people prefer faces with positive expressions compared to angry or sad ones (whereas younger adults show no preference between these types of faces), place more weight on positive (relative to negative) information in decisions, and positively revise their autobiographical memories.
Framing emotional content in positive, rather than negative, ways will capture the attention of older adults. It’s clearly not enough (nor always wise or ethical) to just remove or avoid the negative. Instead, reframing negative consequences in terms of benefits is likely to motivate older adults more. For example, older adults who were informed about the benefits of walking were more likely to increase step counts over a month-long period compared to those who were instead informed about the risks of not walking.
Identify with the elderly — and ditch the stereotypes.
Most older people refer to “older people” in the third person. This doesn’t mean that they see themselves as youthful hipsters, but rather that they report feeling subjectively younger than they actually are. Seventy-year-olds report feeling as much as 15 to 20% younger than their chronological age. Shifting subjective views likely reflect a distancing from the negative stereotypes that surround aging.
A study of more than 1,000 online images posted on sites with at least one million followers found widespread evidence of age stereotypes. For instance, about seven in 10 images depicted older adults as isolated. Even though substantial numbers of older people dye their hair, advertisements overwhelmingly feature grey-haired consumers. There is good reason to believe that advertisements will be more effective when older people are portrayed as they see themselves, rather than how younger generations see them.
As societies age, it’s increasingly important to engage in best practices for communicating important information to older populations. Most existing strategies are based on stereotypes and outdated assumptions, which may discourage the very populations they are meant to reach. Whereas much of psychology and marketing has relied on time since birth as the best way to measure age, perceived time left in life is often a better yardstick. Our time horizons shift throughout our lives, as do our values, priorities, and goals. Unless policymakers and marketers modify their messaging to be more emotionally meaningful and positive, and depict older adults as they see themselves, they risk further alienating a growing segment of our population. Only then will important messages be heard by the audiences for which they were intended.
About the authors: Hal Hershfield, Ph.D. is the UCLA Anderson Board of Advisors Endowed Term Chair in Management and professor of marketing, behavioral decision making, and psychology at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management; Laura Carstensen, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology and the founder and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Fairleigh S. Dickinson Jr. Professor in Public Policy at Stanford University.