Reebok's new brand ambassador in China isn't a taut young athlete, a muscular sports star or a dewy-cheeked model. It's Wang Deshun, an 80-year-old grandfather who became an instant star after baring his super-ripped torso on the runway at Beijing Fashion Week in 2015.
Reebok's official WeChat called Mr. Wang "the coolest grandpa" and noted that he had always reached for new experiences in life, such as learning English at age 44, starting fitness at 50 and showing off his abdominal muscles on a fashion runway at age 79. In a news release, the brand said his "example has helped reshape China's views on aging and shown you're never too old to pursue your goals."
What's more, Mr. Wang is not the first octogenarian to front a major sports brand's campaign. Last year Nike centered an ad that ran during the Olympics on 86-year-old nun Sister Madonna Buder, who competes in Ironman races.
These are just two examples from a string of recent ads from all over the world in which the seniors have taken the spotlight. Meanwhile, the way brands target this age group is also changing. Despite the fact that advertisers have been well aware of gray spending power for years, suddenly, the stereotypes are being challenged. Older people are being portrayed not only as fit and active, but positively cool.
Take the new campaign from U.K. insurance company Sun Life by Mother London, in which over-50s insist they still "have a life" as they defy stereotypes and have some fun. One man leaves a boring cruise via a zip wire into a cocktail bar, while a sunbathing beauty turns heads before removing her big hat to reveal she's a "woman of 62."
According to Hermeti and Ana Balarin, the husband-and-wife team who are co-executive creative directors at Mother, Sun Life's research found that older people were "perplexed, annoyed and amused" by how little most brands and media "get" them.
"When we started working on the brief, we did some internet searches on over-50s and were amazed by the stereotyping," added Mr. Balarin. "Everyone looked exaggeratedly old, had immaculate gray hair, was wearing pastel colors. Then we thought about celebrities who were over 50 and it just didn't fit with that at all. It just doesn't even cross your mind to put them in that bracket."
Back in the U.S., a current print and online campaign for "invisible" hearing aid brand Phonak Lyric features middle-aged couples in intimate moments with bold, witty headlines like: "My midlife crisis is obvious. My hearing aid is not."
According to Terri Meyer, co-CEO and founder at creative agency Terri & Sandy, the campaign reflects that "60 is the new 40."
"This demographic is at the top of their game, and we want to acknowledge who they are and how they are challenging themselves, and what it means to age," Ms. Meyer said. "This group has challenged every stereotype of aging and do not see themselves as old, or relate to that type of advertising. They are keeping up with technology and they want to be spoken to and see themselves in an aspirational way."
A recent U.K. charity campaign for Royal Voluntary Services, by London agency Quiet Storm, created taglines around the initials O.A.P (Old Age Pensioner, an epithet often used to describe seniors in the U.K.), changing it to stand for descriptions such as "Outgoing And Playful," "Our Amazing People" and "Outdoorsy And Practical."
Trevor Robinson, founder and executive creative director at Quiet Storm, believes part of the problem for advertising has been "the segregation between different age groups and generations, which is particularly common in some parts of the western world ... The issue this poses for the advertising world is how can young or middle-aged creatives know how to communicate with the older generation if they have so little social interaction with them? The simple answer is it makes it very hard."
It's not just about talking to this age group, however, other brands are casting seniors in ads that target a wide range of ages. A recent spot from Argentina's government promoting tourism saw an older couple turn daredevil -- they fish, windsurf, dirt bike, and more, all while screaming at their excitement with bleeped-out expletives such as "F^#%.....it's good to be alive!!!"
Meanwhile, a film from Italy by Merck showed a 79-year-old appear atop a 10-meter diving platform and complete a spectacular and thrilling dive, in front of an audience of incredulous younger folk. We learn that he began diving at the age of 57, so the ad makes the point that it's never too late to start looking after yourself and learning something new.
"Using an older person in an ad can be an inspiration for any age," said Mother's Ms. Balarin, adding that the trend reflects "wider representation from all groups by our industry, leading to more interesting casting." She said briefs coming in from clients are less age-specific than ever.
Poland Spring's new campaign by FCB New York features Edna, an 88-year-old ambulance driver from Maine still helping patients into ambulances in her 80s -- as well as doing 20 military-style pushups per day.
"We were looking for everyday, local people who do extraordinary things in the service of their communities," explained FCB New York business lead Laura Dunn. "Edna is one of the many examples of unique, positive, and passionate people who reside in the Poland Spring region. As we looked for these stories, age was never a limiting factor."
Like any trend, however, there's a risk of it becoming overdone. Indeed, after "femvertising," could we be in danger of "oldvertising?" "It's true that using seniors in ads has become something of a currency -- showing how modern you are," agreed Mr. Balarin.
Indeed, he warns that the industry should be wary of what he calls "double stereotyping" -- patronizing older people further by "portraying them like teenagers." He adds that what connects people is not necessarily their age, but their interests and passions, so it's not necessarily right to target them as a homogenous group.
FCB New York Executive Creative Director Stu Mair, who worked on the Poland Spring campaign, makes a similar point: "People don't pay attention to age as much as we think they do. They'll always appreciate powerful human stories that challenge conventions and keep us grounded in something more meaningful."
Contributing: Angela Doland