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A few weeks ago, Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL) released an Instagram campaign featuring actor Neena Gupta. The promotion for Brooke Bond Red Label tea shows Gupta, a sexagenarian, wielding a mike and karaoking with abandon.

The film’s pithy and weighty message is against ageism where Gupta says senior citizens are expected to display “age-appropriate" behaviour and not hip hop. But the feisty actor says: “Seekhne ki koi umar nahi hoti (learning something new should not be determined by age)". To the tagline #LetsUnstereotypeIndia with conversations over a cup of Red Label, she adds: “Yahi to umar hai saare labels hatane ki (it’s time to get rid of age-related labels)".

The campaign, though small, plays an important role in addressing ageism in advertising and marketing, which stereotypes senior citizens.

The elder cohort is viewed in a certain way by “societies that believe the young to be the productive set and the old to be a burden", wrote brand expert Harish Bijoor in a recent article in The New Indian Express. He said ageism exists everywhere in our midst and asked if India must fight it “as a prejudice principle altogether".

Of course, advertising and communication is a very small beginning. Given the nature of the business it is in, Columbia Pacific Communities, a senior living community operator, obviously builds its communications and events, such as comedy gigs and flash mobs, around positive ageing.

Its senior vice-president, marketing, Piali Dasgupta, zealous about blending the elders in the mainstream, says ageism reflects in all media—advertising, films and print. (“How many elderly models have you seen on fashion magazine covers in India?" she wonders.)

To be fair, Indian advertising has created some memorable campaigns around the elderly as protagonists. Ads such as SBI Life Insurance’s “Heere ko kya pata tumhari umar" or the Vodafone Supernet 4G ads featuring veteran Bharatanatyam dancers Shanta and Vannadil Pudiyaveettil Dhananjayan come to mind.

But brand expert and managing partner at Alchemist Brand Consulting Samit Sinha agrees that ageism is hard-coded in our culture and we unconsciously accept the notion of age-appropriate behaviour.

There have been some attempts in marketing in India that challenged this premise. The fact that even at 78, Amitabh Bachchan is still considered a relevant brand endorser across multiple and diverse categories might be used as an argument against the existence of ageism in India, he adds.

“But these are exceptions and I would say that, by and large, India tends to ignore its senior citizens and even when advertisements feature them, they are more likely to reinforce the typecasting rather than fight it," he says.

Clearly, seniors have been under-represented even though the buying power rests with them. The entire focus has been on millennials and, more lately, on Gen Z.

To be sure, the average Indian is much younger when compared to the global mean age. In fact, roughly 80% of India’s population is younger than 45 years, points out Sinha, adding: “This is what prompts marketers to focus on the young and disregard the elderly."

But in absolute terms, there are more than 270 million people in India above the age of 45, of which approximately 70 million are over 65 years of age. “That’s a very sizeable market by any standards," Sinha says. Dasgupta adds that seniors may only be 8% of the population, but it’s the fastest growing demography.

And there’s a gap in communicating with them even though they are an important consumer cohort from a brand’s point of view. “Brands like to address topics like LGBTQ community, which may be seen as ‘woke’. Seniors are not a ‘woke’ subject," she adds.

Like racism and sexism, ageism is the next prejudicial frontier that needs to be addressed globally, and India is definitely behind the rest of the world in this aspect, says Sinha.

So, Neena Gupta’s Red Label ad is a welcome step towards redressing it.

As marketers in India realize the spending power of this very large and still active demographic segment, one expects to see many more such efforts in the near future when it is normalized to the extent of becoming unremarkable.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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