Marketing's menopause: It's time to disrupt ageing

When any life stage is a marketing opportunity, the silence surrounding the menopause, exacerbated by the dearth of older women in advertising, urgently needs challenging.

Bridget Angear: joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
Bridget Angear: joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

"If you can’t talk openly about something that is an integral part of who you are, it is not possible to be and do all that you want." Taboos matter because, as Bridget Angear, joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, says, they can have a negative impact on more than just female ambition.

"If you don’t feel able to discuss something that might be worrying you, you could put your health at risk," she explains. "The menopause appears to be one of the last female taboos to be tackled by anyone – let alone marketers and advertisers."

The silence surrounding the menopause and the apparent invisibility of older women in many parts of the media is not just a problem for adland, but an issue for wider society too: the menopause renders women invisible.

As Emilie Pine writes in Notes to Self: Essays: "If getting my period was ‘becoming a woman’, I fear that the end of my period is the end of being a woman. As I think about bleeding, and not bleeding, I realise that the cultural silence around female blood is part of a much wider problem – a total shitstorm – of how women’s bodies are imagined, aestheticised and policed to be a certain way. Any variations from the approved script render you invisible and silent."

The price of silence

Every woman’s experience of the menopause is different, yet their experience of how the media depicts the menopause is universal: this fundamental transformation in women’s lives is almost entirely overlooked.

In the media sector, where too many women exit the industry before they hit their fifties, the pressure to "fight the signs of ageing" means that women can adopt a code of silence around the impact of the menopause on their working life.

So when life stage forms the lynchpin of much marketing, why is the menopause so often shrouded in a cloak of silence?

Cindy Gallop, founder of MakeLoveNotPorn, says that the menopause is one of the most taboo and least talked-about topics in society generally, and in advertising and the ad industry specifi cally, yet it effects everybody.

She explains: "Lack of understanding of what menopause is and what it means impacts husbands, husbands as fathers, children, male colleagues, male employers, male bosses, male employees. Also, there is no ‘one-size-fits all’ menopause – it’s a different experience for every woman. It needs to be understood and, importantly, addressed and leveraged by our industry in a way that would dramatically improve workplaces, working processes and creative output – and taken far more seriously than the ‘male midlife crisis’, towards which our industry dedicates so much sympathy, understanding and acceptance."

However, Vicki Maguire, chief creative officer at Grey London, is not holding her breath for advertising to get its collective might behind the menopause.

She says: "It’s taken until 2017 for a Bodyform ad to show blood when talking about periods. So I’m expecting anything age-related to just creep into our social feeds along with funeral insurance and big knickers.

"Menopause – you don’t say it out loud, you silently mouth the word Les Dawson-style. My current hate is that woman on that German shampoo ad who whispers the words ‘Over forty’. I don’t usually diss a sister, but fuck you."

Disrupting ageing

Music PR turned entrepreneur Meg Mathews is calling time on this culture of silence and urges the creative industries to follow suit.

Mathews, who founded megsmenopause.com, says that what frustrates her most is that it’s the job of the media to break down taboos, but there are very few organisations or brands attempting to do that.

"Even brand campaigns that are targeted at older women for products such as anti-ageing creams usually feature younger models," she says. "That just reinforces the idea that my generation of women is invisible. We aren’t. We’re still incredibly valuable members of society and deserve to be treated as such."

Tackling the silence surrounding the menopause is doubly challenging in the media sector, where older women in leadership positions could still be described as an endangered species.

Stevie Spring, non-executive director of The Co-operative Group and the incoming chair of Mind, believes that it is within our gift to lift the conspiracy of silence that surrounds the menopause. "Ageism is the next taboo," she says. Spring believes that the menopause comes with a stigma, which if not correctly addressed can lapse into lazy stereotypes.

"You do not disappear off the face of the earth because you go through the menopause," she adds.

A commercial opportunity

Nor do you stop buying products after the menopause arrives. According to the Women’s Worth study by UM London and Karen Fraser, director of advertising think tank Credos, the lack of older women in advertising could be having a negative commercial impact on brands.

Almost half (46%) of women who are going through or have been through the menopause believe that women are not represented fairly or authentically by advertising, while 44% feel patronised by advertising, and almost a quarter (24%) are simply indifferent to it.

This disconnect between the lack of representation of older women in advertising and the propensity for older women to spend more – on everything from skincare to cars – after going through the menopause is a clearly missed commercial opportunity.

Sophia Durrani, managing partner, strategy, at UM London, says: "Undoubtedly, older women have been neglected by brands, despite holding a significant proportion of the nation’s purse strings. For many categories, subsets of this group represent high-value audiences that brands would be prudent to target."

With an ageing population, outdated segmentations are getting in the way of brands connecting with their consumers. Fraser says that, with luck, a woman over 45 years old has exactly half a life to live, and those over 45 contain as many sub-types as those aged 45 and under.

She says these differences need to be reflected in creative work: "I believe in beautiful advertisements that resonate with people. Surely all of us who want to do our best and most effective work do likewise. We must stop thinking of any woman over 45 as part of an undifferentiated group, whether that be in an ad, on a brief or in a media plan." 

Moving beyond traditional age segmentations should also prompt adland to consider its own ageism track record. When so many careers have ground to a halt before their fifties, the industry is in need of a reset.

Tree Elven, the founder of ADDS, an online community where people can discuss and vote on how they feel about advertising, believes the reason there is so much awkwardness surrounding the menopause is because it reminds us of our own mortality: "Why not reframe the menopause in a more positive, natural light as a new beginning – which is how it’s regarded in some non-western cultures. It brings amazing freedoms and is an incredible reset programme for the second half of life."

However, older women in the advertising industry and those who have already been squeezed out would be forgiven for believing this reset is long overdue.

Writing in Campaign, Madeline Morris, a senior creative director and copywriter who lifted the lid on being made redundant in her fifties, claimed that fewer than 5% of the ad industry is more than 50 years old. "I dread to think what percentage is female and over 50," she added.

So a thread runs between the apparent inability of the creative industries to reflect the experience of older women in advertising and the lack of older women in adland.

"Progress seems glacial when you are in it," Spring concedes, but adds that the more examples you have of 50-, 60- and 70-year-old women in their prime at the top of the industry the better. "For any role-model group to really have an impact you need to have more than a handful; you need breadth," she adds. 

Change is on the way

But many in the industry believe this creative reset is coming with brands such as Maltesers and Pfizer shining the spotlight on women going through the menopause in their taboo-breaking campaigns.

Angear adds: "I believe #MeToo created a watershed moment that gives me confidence that things are changing for the better. Women found their collective voice and spoke out about sexual harassment, and I think this confidence will spill over into all areas of life, provoking conversations around all forms of discrimination including ageism and, ultimately, the menopause."

In breaking free from lazy stereotypes, brands have the opportunity to achieve business-defining moments that have a broader cultural significance beyond just adland. Witness how Bodyform and AMV BBDO broke the silence around periods with its "Blood normal" campaign, or the way in which Sport England and FCB Inferno’s love letter to sporty women, "This Girl Can", redefined sports participation marketing – creative work that literally depicts women’s experiences as they really are.

By bringing truth to the table, the creative industries have the opportunity to disrupt the conventional narrative that ageing is something of which women should be ashamed. That starts with heeding the example of Mathews, who urges women in the creative industries to "be the change you want to see".

Mathews describes her experience of the menopause as "literally falling apart: anxiety, night sweats, foggy brain, weight gain. You name it, I had it." But out of that experience came something positive. Matthews turned it into an online platform to provide support to other women going through the same experience.

She says: "We need to normalise it, as every woman in the world will go through the menopause. It’s natural, it’s totally normal and yet we’re being made to feel as if it’s not. Let’s break the taboo." Invisible no more.

The menopause is a marketing opportunity

Almost a quarter (24%) of women going through the menopause spend more money on exercise and fitness; 16% spend more on beauty and make-up; 29% spend more on skincare; 29% spend more on health supplements; and 22% spend more on travel.

Older women are confident, yet brands themselves lack confidence in connecting with them. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of women aged over 50 had a very clear sense of their own identity; 52% say their age is an important part of their identity while 61% say their family and traditions are very important; 62% say health and well-being; 53% say relationships; 45% say their appearance; and almost half (49%) say it is their health and fitness levels.

More than three-quarters (76%) of women aged over 50 feel either very confident or somewhat confident inside their own skin.

Advertising’s problem marketing to older women

Among women who have been or are going through the menopause, 31% believe that advertising contributes towards creating and maintaining negative stereotypes of older women. Yet 48% of women believe that women working in the public eye are promoting positive impressions of older women in society.

Of women who are going through or have been through the menopause, 46% believe that women are not represented authentically by advertising, while 44% feel patronised and almost a quarter (24%) are simply indifferent to it.

Among the same group, 59% of older women believe there are negative stereotypes surrounding the way women are generally perceived in society.

Source: Women’s Worth study, by UM London and Karen Fraser. Nationally representative sample of 1,000 consumers.