Is the conversation about ageing really changing?
A Guest Blog from Clare Anderson
The launch of the Dove brand in 2004 seemed to break new ground with its ‘love the skin you’re in’ message and the subsequent Campaign for Real Beauty. It created a new way of talking about appearance and ageing in a market traditionally characterised by anxiety-based communication and a narrow definition of “beauty” which made it synonymous with youthfulness. Through the brand’s trademark visual style – naturalistic, unposed, not retouched – it appeared to offer a genuine counter-discourse, one based on acceptance – of normal bodies, ageing bodies, and their imperfections (see below).
The simple strapline in this execution from their pro-age campaign – ‘too old to be in an anti-aging ad’ – strategically placed over the totally naked body of an unmistakeably older woman (yes – with grey hair!) really resonated with me, as a 50-something consumer of health and beauty products (as well as former marketer). Judging by the continuing success the brand enjoys globally, many other women felt the same.
Of course, I realise that at the end of the day those nice people at Unilever want us to buy lots and lots of products to fill out our wrinkles and hide our age spots, but it did seem that the Dove brand opened up a communicative space in which a different view of the ageing appearance might be possible, and different ideologies about ageing could be explored. More recently the Boots brand has followed Dove with the 2011 launch of its ‘Tah dah!’ campaign, similarly situated in the visual and linguistic territory of celebration rather than anxiety:
The line ‘At 28 I knew who I was, at 38 I love who I am’ speaks to real rather than idealised representations of women. I buy their anti-ageing range because of the language; these product ranges, although forcing you to buy according to your age category (only slightly embarrassing), have names like ‘Protect and Perfect’ and ‘Lift and Luminate’ – positive, friendly vocabulary which doesn’t makes me feel like I’m being judged for my wrinkles and age spots.
However, the messages of these brands take their place in a complex cultural environment which is fraught with contradictory discourses – especially, it seems to me, with regard to ageing. I came across this quote in the Sunday Times Style Magazine (October 2015) in an article about the newest ‘It boy’ of couture, Olivier Rousteing:
“there is a really BIG statement that is going to happen in fashion: who is going to look COOL and young, and who is going to look old and IRRELEVANT”
Ouch. He uses his own mixed ethnicity as a platform for breaking down race barriers in fashion but seems to be using his youth (he is 25) as a weapon against age/ageing. His words reinforce the already ingrained cultural binaries in which youth=good, age=bad. If this is how the gaze of youth evaluates age, and if the ideological divide between ‘cool and young’ and ‘old and irrelevant’ continues to have such apparent cultural currency, two of the key questions we collectively need to address remain unanswered:
‘to what extent are we really changing the conversation about ageing?’
‘how long can we afford not to?’
I started my professional life as a blue-chip marketer, and then took that experience into design and brand consultancy before re-qualifying as a teacher of business English, based in Amsterdam. I returned to my geographical and intellectual roots as an academic researcher, completing my PhD at the University of Birmingham in December 2015, to understand how people, institutions, corporations and brands use language, and for what purpose.