Susan Irvine on the cosmetics industry's new cry
ONCE, the guiding myth of cosmetic-selling was that youth was the key. To sell a moisturiser you told women it would whip the wrinkles from their faces (no, really, fine lines reduced by 40 per cent in 30 days!) and you had to sweeten the sell with a baby faced model, fine line free.

This approach is dim-witted. We know the 19-year-old in the ad has no wrinkles, and we know it has nothing to do with beauty creams, and everything to do with adolescence. Lancme broke the mould when 30-year-old Isabella Rossellini was hired in 1982. Here was proof that grown-ups could look great. But not at 42 -Lancme recently let Rossellini go, to howls of outrage.

It was a puzzling move. Even as Lancme was ditching Ros- sellini, Revlon was signing up 37-year-old Melanie Griffith - an actress from the school of hard knocks, a phoenix who had been down there, drunk, and risen from the ashes, beautiful - to front their Age Defying Makeup. The ad line reads: Don't Lie About Your Age - Defy It! "The days of shaving five to 10 years off one's age are over. Revlon believes that there is no shame in being 40, 50, 60 or more," proclaims Kathy Dwyer, Revlon executive vice-president.

Revlon make much of Griffith's "confidence" and "self-assurance"; but her general grittiness is also a factor. "The fact that she has had a chequered life and admitted to substance abuse only works in the cream's favour," thinks Maryann Barone of marketing company The Chelsea Partnership. "The message is, not only do you not have to be young to look good, you don't have to have been Miss Perfect either." In America, Revlon is even more ballsy in a campaign featuring older model Rosie Vela with the goading caption "Go on! Ask her age!"

Mature models such as Griffith, Lauren Hutton and Dayle Haddon, in her mid-forties, who fronts the Lauder ad campaign for the Resilience range, are significant; they reflect the marketing culture trend for reality over fantasy. "People don't want the smokescreen and the hyperbole any more," says Barone. "Though they still want aspirations."

They also reflect demographics. While the bulk of the cosmetics-buying population was under 30, wrinkle creams were sold with the idea "You don't have to wait until you're 30 to prevent wrinkles." Now that Europe and America have an ageing population and the growth market is among women who are 35-plus, ads tell us "You may be 40 but you don't have to look it."

And looks are no longer what it is all about. Revlon, for example, refers to its older models as "spokesmodels". They are not models but role models, personalities who have been through the mill and lived a bit. Women, the argument goes, take these survivors to their hearts in a way they never could the blankness of a fresh-faced 20-year-old. They can identify with them beyond the outer package. Older "real" women give back to anti-ageing products what they desperately need: credibility.

Clinique, seminal in breaking the youth-fixation, has never used a "face" to promote its products. Instead, it has developed the most sophisticated take on the anti-ageism trend with its "Beauty isn't about looking young, it's about looking good" campaign. Most cosmetic companies tell us to use their products so that we don't look our age, throwing in an older face as a feel-good factor for the over-30s. Clinique tells us to grow up and get a life. What's bad-looking about looking 50?

"I think it's magnificent. Clinique and the others are to be lauded," says Bernice Weston, 56. In the late Sixties, Weston started Weightwatchers. Now she is launching Age Power, a pressure group aiming to raise the profile of older people in our youth-fixated society. "Most marketing and advertising executives are yuppies," she says. "They are not just uninterested in older people - who represent 70 per cent of disposable income - they actively dislike them. This has got to change."

Weston has got the point. Older women have cash, and money talks. The more they flex their credit cards in the direction of the new anti-ageist ad campaigns, the more glamorous it will be to be grown-up.