Marketers May Use "Graywashing" to Attract Senior Consumers

Related topics: Health & Wellness, Senior Life

Think twice before you buy products and services touted as "anti-aging," "age-defying," or "for seniors."

Baby boomers and their parents—until recently viewed as virtually non-existent by many marketers—are fast becoming coveted customers. People age 50 and above have over 2 trillion dollars in their wallets—and many have few qualms about spending that money to maintain an active lifestyle. Indeed, this burgeoning demographic spent 79 billion dollars in 2009 on products and services that claim to slow the aging process. Howver, according to Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA), "Most of those products and services don't deliver what they claim to."

Says Milner, "Companies increasingly are recognizing the spending power of older adults, and targeting them in advertising. Some are doing this responsibly, as part of an overall approach that acknowledges aging as a normal process that happens to everyone. Others are simply jumping on the bandwagon, positioning their products as appropriate for an older demographic when, in fact, they aren't…or coming up with products that allegedly 'combat' aging, as though there's something about getting older that needs fixing. Either way, the consumer loses."

You may have heard of the term "greenwashing," used when a company or product deceptively presents themselves as environmentally beneficial. Now, Milner has coined the word "graywashing" to refer to "the act of misleading consumers regarding any purported age-associated benefits of a product or service."

Similar to greenwashing, graywashing gives older consumers a false sense of security by positioning a product or service as uniquely beneficial to them, Milner explains. He says, "Consider a health club that wants to attract more members. The club sets up a 'senior discount' that allows older adults to use the club during off-peak hours at a reduced rate." This might lead older adults to think that the club offers programs that target the needs of seniors. However, the club's services and offerings might remain the same—geared to a younger population.

To help consumers avoid being graywashed, Milner offers the following tips:

  • Understand that no pill or procedure will stop you from aging, no matter what anyone claims to the contrary.
  • Expensive anti-wrinkle creams might make you feel better about the way you look, but beneficial lifestyle changes such as getting more rest and eating a balanced diet can make you feel better—and look better, as well.
  • Before enrolling in a fitness center, ask for a tour. Do you see people like yourself engaged in activities that interest you? If not, look for a club or group geared to your interest, not your age.
  • Does a product claim—whether it's for energy, brain boosting, weight loss, getting rid of "age spots," or some other purpose—sound too good to be true? If so, it probably is. Why throw away your money?

Graywashing can also perpetuate ageist stereotypes and self-stereotyping. Milner continues, "Products that claim to make you look 20 years younger instantly, for example, are a waste of money—and they're promoted on the assumption that there's something wrong with the way you look now. The companies that market them treat older adults as though they’re damaged goods, reinforcing the erroneous belief that aging equals illness and decline."

Older adults themselves are not the only ones at risk of being graywashed. "Young people may buy greeting cards for their parents or grandparents that they think are appropriate, when in fact those cards use humor that demeans or trivializes an older person and reinforces negative stereotypes," Milner says.

Active Aging Week logo

The International Council on Active Aging is the professional association that leads, connects and defines the active-aging industry. ICAA supports professionals who develop wellness facilities, programs and services for adults over 50. The ICAA sponsors Active Aging Week, celebrated this year on September 25 – October 1. This year's theme is "Expand Your Experience." Visit the ICAA website to find information about selecting an age-friendly fitness facility and to learn about the ICAA’s Changing the Way We Age® Campaign, which aims to change perceptions of aging and overturn ageist stereotypes.

"Anti-aging" is a bad goal! Healthy aging is a good one. Give your brain a workout with this issue's puzzle, which contains 18 words promoting healthy aging!