Turning gray doesn’t happen overnight – so shouldn’t your marketing

by Peter Boyce

A Canadian news story recently made international headlines – not because of what was being covered but because of the news anchor – and in this case it was the dismissal of CTV (one of Canada’s major national television networks) National News host Lisa LaFlamme.

Award-winning and highly respected as a journalist, LaFlamme took to social media to explain how she had been “blindsided” by the move (‘a business decision’) that ended a 35+-year career with the network.

Much of what is driving the news, beyond the end of LaFlamme’s tenure at CTV itself, is the implication that she was dismissed for ageist reasons – the 58-year-old had allowed her hair to turn gray during the Covid pandemic. This has set off a firestorm of support for LaFlamme both in Canada and in the United States. Everyone from politicians and journalists to celebrities and academics have weighed in on the issue. A Change.org petition was started to re-instate LaFlamme.

Of course, it didn’t take long for media and brands to get involved – and not just in Canada. While not calling out LaFlamme by name, shortly after the news of her dismissal went public, Sports Illustrated tweeted its support of women “aging confidently on their own terms” calling attention to its May 2022 issue featuring @mayemusk.

Dove, as part of a #keepthegrey campaign, took to social media to express its support of women aging on their own terms and making a $100,000 donation to women’s advocacy organization Catalyst. More directly expressing its support of LaFlamme, Wendy’s Canada took to Twitter, turning the mascot in its profile pic’s hair gray and proclaiming “Because a ⭐️ is a ⭐️ regardless of hair colour.”

While these moves have enjoyed their share of praise (and 40,000+ likes), many have viewed them as opportunistic as this response to the Wendy’s Canada post/profile pic change suggests:

“I can’t believe people are falling for this blatant marketing stunt. Maybe I wouldn’t question your sincerity so much if you had actually “aged” Wendy so she doesn’t look like a 16-year-old girl who coloured her hair. It’s not about hair colour, it’s about ageism.

Of course, this is just the latest example of brands trying to associate themselves with larger social issues/movements. One of the most notorious examples was Pepsi’s 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner joining a protest and helping defuse tensions by handing a police officer a Pepsi, which many saw as trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement.

Media outlets continue to weigh in on the pros and cons of brands getting involved with this new “gray movement” associated with Lisa LaFlamme’s departure. Are these brand actions admirable or opportunistic? Which side you fall on largely depends on whether brands have been seen as walking the walk when it comes to celebrating aging or if they are just jumping on the age train now.

And that really is the big question for brands to consider.

Let’s be clear, at Age of Majority we have a vested interest in encouraging companies and organizations to see the value of recognizing the marketing opportunity with adults 55+ and engaging them in appropriate, authentic and effective ways. With a massive and growing aging population and with many within this audience having more time and disposable income on their hands, it simply makes good business sense. Not to mention, this audience continues to be largely ignored and is looking for attention from brands.

But that attention needs to be genuine and well-intentioned.

Without commenting on the merits of brands promoting “gray” in well-timed efforts against the LaFlamme dismissal, marketers need to consider its implications when they have paid little attention in the past to older consumers.

Imagine the explaining McDonald’s would need to do if it turned its Golden Arches gray overnight to celebrate its “senior” clientele or if Google launched “Google Gray” with a new logo and browser for people 55+ or if Nike re-invented itself with as silver swoosh and line of athletic shoes for aging feet. These might be extreme examples, however they would likely all draw attention and the question – “why now?”

The need to better understand and engage older adults will only grow with demographic and social change, changes to what aging looks like (today’s 55+ audience is nothing like the one of 20 or 30 years ago and will only continue to evolve) and the desire amongst the older audience for brands to engage with them to address their evolving needs and desires.

It may be time to take a closer look at “gray” now because older consumers will easily see through opportunistic attempts to appeal to in the moment social outrage vs. investments in getting to know who they really are, how they feel and what they want.

We encourage you to explore the range of free research reports on adults 55+ available on this site, or contact us at info@ageofmajority.com if you want to take a closer look.

“Turning” gray takes time, even if it happens to our hair more quickly than what we might expect.

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