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News Flash: Advertising Portrayals of Elders Are Cardboard, Caricatured, or Clueless
But You Already Knew That, Right?
Would it shock you to know that older people barely show up in advertising? Or that when they do, the images of elders presented in advertisements are not terribly flattering?
Not if you have eyes, it shouldn’t.
A study that AARP conducted in 2019 found that only 15% of advertising images online included people over the age of 50, a group that, by the way, accounts for 46% of the adult population. Older people also are more often treated negatively.
Apparently, the advertising industry also thinks we all look alike. If the online images are representative, then three-fourths of us have gray hair and 73% of us have wrinkled skin or age spots. Also, apparently only 5% of us have contact with any form of technology, including cell phones.
Here’s what else the AARP study found:
Adults over 50 are usually presented as dependent and disconnected. “Seven in ten images of adults over 50 show them removed from the rest of the world – alone, with a partner, or with a medical professional.”
Although people 50 and older comprise one third of the American work force, images of elders in a work setting are rare. The majority of the images of people 50 and older are either at home or outdoors.
Adults over 50 are most often shown as dependent and seated, with others taking care of them.
Negative portrayals of elders are more common (28%) than negative portrayals of young adults (4%).
What Do You Think?
Who are your favorite/least favorite elders portrayed by media? Here are a few of my own to get you started.
Favorite: Frasier’s dad
Least favorite: Clara “Where’s the Beef” Peller
Now why do you suppose that is? Well, here’s a clue: 81% of employees at U.S. advertising and public relations companies are younger than 55. In Britain the average age of advertising employees is under 34. Ad agency employees have described their industry as a “Peter Pan,” where few people stay long enough to be thrown a retirement party. In short, most ad agency employees are young, don’t know anyone old aside from their parents and grandparents, and can’t imagine being old themselves. They create messages based on the world they know – and older adults just aren’t in it.
So the brunt of advertising is targeted to the young, just as it was when we were young back in the day. To Ken Dychtwald and Robert Morison, that’s rather ironic. “Focusing on the historically ‘sought-after youth market’ is a costly mistake,” they write in What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age, because the younger cohorts “are predominantly cash-strapped, time-constrained and only marginally loyal to products and services,” while we of the Baby Boom generation “now have considerable wealth, time and interests to satisfy.”
Advertising, in other words, is consumed by ageism. Even the math of disposable income cannot shake it from its rock-solid belief that only young lives matter. As far as it’s concerned, we elders might as well sit quietly on our ice floes and float out to sea.
But this is dangerous, as the AARP notes, because “visual portrayals and stock photography build and reinforce stereotypes.” This inaccurate portrayal “may exacerbate ageism in the workplace by rarely showing adults age 50-plus at work or with technology.”
If you feel sometimes as if you are swimming upstream against the current, you are not imagining it. Ageism is the water all around us. We need to acknowledge it, and we especially need to take care that we don’t swallow the water ourselves by taking these poisonous ageist attitudes to heart. Not if we want to enjoy fully all the days still ahead of us.
You can read the full AARP study here.
You can read an excerpt from What Retirees Want by Ken Dychtwald and Robert Morison, on advertising portrayals of elders, here.