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Not much truth in advertising

Women of all ages are the biggest consumers, yet today's commercials tend to focus on youth. Is it time for a change?

Jen Weigel

March 3, 2011

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It's the ultimate irony—women influence 73 percent of purchases, according to a recent multi-generational study by The Ad Age Group, yet rarely will you find a woman over the age of 35 as the spokesperson in your television commercial.

"Once you get to be 40 years old, it's like going over a cliff," says Linda Jack, partner of Chicago-based talent agency Grossman Jack Talent. "There's a preference for younger women when agencies cast commercials, even if those women are too young for the product."

Case in point: I am in a menopause commercial. I don't have menopause. I shot this (see it here on YouTube) before I was hired by the Tribune, and when I was at the audition, not a single person in the waiting area had experienced a hot flash. Yet there we were, several women in our 30s paired up with men in their 50s saying we'd lost that "loving feeling."

"Sexism is so pervasive in the business, and I think ageism is an adjunct to the sexism," Jack says. "This has been a problem for decades."

But some talent agents feel once you hit the mom status, the work can definitely be found.

"We need mothers of teenagers a lot and that can't be women who are too young," says Sam Samuelson, an agent with Stewart Talent in Chicago. "There are paper towel commercials, or food commercials. Those are all for women over 35. But I also think a lot of the copy is written to influence the kids, because as we know, kids influence the buyer—which is the mom."

According to a 2010 Iconoculture Consumer Outlook study, women ages 21-54 control 85 percent of household purchases. And while maturity might prevent you from getting a gig as a spokesperson, it could land you some voiceover work.

"The No. 1 thing I'm looking for is honesty and believability in someone's voice, and that usually comes from a person who's more seasoned," says Mindy Verson, managing partner of Audio Producers Group.

In fact, Verson says advertising agencies will often cast a younger face, and then dub in an older vocal for some television commercials.

"They did that for RoC, which is an anti-aging skin product," explains Verson. "They wanted a young face with a mature voice, yet it always seems a little off to me, and the voice never seems to sync up exactly."

Another study by The Ad Age Group says women control $4.3 trillion of $5.9 trillion in consumer spending.

"I'd love to see all those women who are buying the products agencies are trying to sell get representation in commercial work," says Jack. "But the only way this will change is if the ad agencies demand their writers create copy for real aged women."

"In my experience, typically you have a male creative on the younger side so they're writing or creating copy from their lens," says Samuelson. "The plot in the commercial is usually a regular guy paired up with a hot young chick. That's especially the case with beer commercials, but they're targeting men and not women."

I reached out to several women in the advertising world about this topic. Many of them were executives. None of them would go on record for this story.

"It's a culture that's been a certain way for so long, I don't know that anything will change quickly," says Jack. "But I'd love to see a shift in the tides on this. It's been a disparity for as long as I've been in the business.

jweigel@tribune.com