Stock photography and video often get a bad rap. (Think of how many times you’ve seen absurdly excited employees gathered around a conference room table.) Yet, as a prime source of imagery and video footage for the marketing and advertising industry, these photos exert a great deal of influence on societal opinions and norms.
Yet, older adults in particular are often represented in a stereotypical fashion. And the lack of diversity in many of these photos usually doesn’t match the actual aging demographic. At the same time, Campaign US reports that 52% of marketing professionals worldwide claim it’s often challenging to accurately represent older adults in their branding images.
Last December, Shutterstock – a leading global creative platform – teamed up with the American Society on Aging to address the larger root issue of rampant ageism in much of the media we consume. The two groups worked together on the “Keep Age in Focus” grant to solicit more age-inclusive content for its portfolio.
“We just really talked about the images that we wanted to see in the world where we felt there were gaps and what we thought was missing,” said Leanne Clark-Shirley, PhD, a gerontologist and vice president of programs and thought leadership at ASA. “Then we sort of backed into, ‘OK, how would we instruct someone to create images along those lines?’”
While many of the submissions still clung to the traditional “aging-as-decline narrative,” Clark-Shirley said, many creators expanded their view of the aging population through their submissions.
“They submitted some really amazing pieces showing high fashion models that are diverse older women. There were some illustrations, lots of families, lots of portraits and photographs of families just being normal—regular people doing everyday things. To me that signals there’s definitely work to do here, but people are interested in doing that work.”
The call for submissions was only the first step in a larger effort to change the visual narrative about aging, she said. The collaboration between the two organizations has since produced a set of guidelines available to Shutterstock creators that attempt to better explain the need for a change in content creation.
“We most often see images of older white people, and they commonly portray frailty, dependence, and isolation: a woman looking forlornly out a window, or disembodied hands clutching a cane,” the document reads. “While these experiences are part of capturing age diversity, it’s time to expand how advanced age is represented – and to dismantle ageism in the process – by creating and using images that more widely depict the experience of growing older.”
The document includes suggestions on how to cast and work with older models, as well as how to portray different scenarios, including day-to-day life in diverse families (running a household, traveling abroad, engaging in activism, etc.), different income levels, and all types of dress.
The guidelines also include a number of specific recommendations for content creation, including:
- Redefine beauty. Challenge the equation of youth, thinness, whiteness and lighter skin with beauty.
- Represent all gender identities and sexual orientations. Older people sometimes come out later in life, and too many are forced back into the closet as they age. Embrace older, cisgender, trans and nonbinary models, and represent the entire LGBTQIA+ spectrum.
- Embrace how bodies change over time. Hire older models who have hair of all colors, wrinkles, and smooth skin. Celebrate the full range of body sizes and shapes.
- Honor diverse families, too. Include grandparents raising grandchildren, multigenerational and bi/tri-racial families, blended families and chosen families.
“This is all about embracing the diversity in aging,” she said. “We need as many hands on decks to tackle ageism and to move the conversations forward in general … This is really the first step.”
From here, Clark-Shirley said, the next steps include working directly with marketing firms and advertising agencies across the country, discussing the realities of aging and how they could use their platforms to push back against ageist images.
“I see a tremendous role in demonstrating why companies need to care about this,” she said. “Why should you care about telling age-inclusive stories? It’s because you’re missing a big demographic, a big market share right now—and we can do better.”
While Clark-Shirley recognizes an issue as big as ageism won’t be solved overnight, she views this partnership as a positive step toward the goal.
“I think this project and the projects that come next are a way of saying, ‘OK, we know what the problem is. We understand the root causes. Let’s start taking some action, and let’s start pushing for change.’ … I’m really optimistic.”