Are old women the new young women? It seems like they might be, at least in the style world. This year, Joni Mitchell starred in a campaign for Saint Laurent, and Joan Didion appeared in a Céline spread. Meanwhile, 87-year-old Baddie Winkle took over Instagram with her tie-dye outfits and “Babygirl” turtleneck.
“I think [this is] part of a cultural shift,” said Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, editor of the whip-smart beauty blog The Beheld. (Her as-yet-untitled book on beauty comes out in spring 2016.) The shift started, she argues, with the Baby Boomers.
From left to right: Baddie, Joni, and Joan
“[M]y mother is in her 60s and wears her hair long and unstyled in a way that's unthinkable for women my grandmother's age,” she said. “[Baby boomers] are asking, ‘Why do we have to “look old” just because we're getting older?’”
This can translate into Botox, but it also translates into fashion icons who are aspirational in a new way. Joni Mitchell and Joan Didion aren’t aspirationally, youthfully beautiful. Instead, they’re aspirationally good at “maintaining chic,” as Whitefield-Madrano put it. The message of their ads, to her mind, is: “These women [maintained chic] through their enormous gifts—maybe you can do it with a great bag!” (This is especially the message of Joni’s ad, which shows her playing guitar.)
It’s a good point that Joni, Joan, and Baddie are in no way typical. Still, we suspected that they might be part of a larger sea change—a rejection of the old formula that youth equals beauty and cool. To check our hypothesis, we did an experiment on you. Yes, you (probably).
Our experiment was a social-media experiment, so if you’ve liked Groupon’s Facebook, you probably saw at least part of it. Here’s how it worked.
First, we picked five articles from the Groupon Guide’s Style & Beauty section: one on what people wear under their yoga pants, one on how to shampoo your hair, one on makeup advice, one on sports-bra fitting, and one on anti-aging skin treatments.
Next, we posted each of these articles to Facebook twice. The twin posts were always on the same day of the week (one week apart) and at the same time (7:30 p.m.). However, they featured two different images: one of an older woman, one of a younger woman. For some articles, we posted the older woman image first; for others, we posted it second.
Here are how the two posts for the anti-aging skincare article looked, for instance:
We hoped that by looking at the clicks, likes, shares, and comments the posts received, we could draw a larger conclusion about whether older women were having a moment.
Here’s a quick overview of the results:
There’s nothing particularly nuanced here. For Groupon’s Facebook audience of 14 million, older women were not as appealing as younger ones. Combing through the stats, I thought of Whitefield-Madrano’s initial reaction to the Céline campaign: “To be honest, the fact that it was Joan Didion jumped out at me more than the fact that it was a woman over 60.”
Maybe older women weren’t having a moment at all—maybe celebrities were just famous.
According to Julie Goding, Groupon’s art director, it’s not that simple, though. Context matters. It’s important, for instance, that our experiment took place on social media, whose audience skews young. “A magazine advertisement … you get a broader [audience] because it's not tied to the computer." On Facebook, images appear as part of a feed, too; magazine ads are extra-striking because they’re isolated on the page.
Goding also noted that just because older women are appearing in ads doesn’t mean they’ll draw consumers to anything and everything. Like context, strategy matters. Content about microdermabrasion, Goding argues, works best when it features older models, since it’s an anti-aging treatment. However, content about eyelash extensions works better with a younger model.
At the end of the day, Julie agrees with the hypothesis that started this whole experiment: not everyone wants young people to sell them their clothes and makeup. "Humans connect to what they're familiar with. So when we see somebody that looks like us, we're going to connect a little bit further, a little bit quicker than someone who doesn't look like us." In other words, older women may never completely take over advertising, but erasing them from it would be a money-losing proposition.
And, at least judging by the reaction to the Joan Didion campaign, cool old ladies have appeal outside their own demographic. My 31-year-old friend has Didion’s Céline ad framed in her bedroom.
Infographic by Jess Snively, Groupon