The Presentation of Elderly People
In Prime Time Television Commercials

University of South Florida School of Mass Communications Masters Thesis

by Meredith Tupper


Background of the Problem
“Where’s the beef?” “Clap on! Clap off!” “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”

Few phenomena penetrate the American social psyche quicker than television commercials. Ever since Wendy’s Hamburgers’ own Clara Peller complained about the competition’s skimpy sandwiches, older people have established a memorable presence in American television commercials. However, one need look no further than the father of cultivation theory, George Gerbner, to confirm that a memorable presence in television may not always be an accurate one. Gerbner (1993) discusses the powerful impact that television makes on our culture: Mass media are the most ubiquitous wholesalers of social roles in industrial societies. Mass media, particularly television, form the common mainstream of contemporary culture. They present a steady, repetitive, and compelling system of images and messages. For the first time in human history, most of the stories are told to most of the children not by their parents, their school, or their church but by a group of distant corporations that have something to sell. This unprecedented condition has a profound effect on the way we are socialized into our roles, including age as a social role … The world of aging (and nearly everything else) is constructed to the specifications of marketing strategies (p. 207).

The world of aging portrayed in the mass media has not traditionally been an enjoyable or positive one. Dail (1988) states that elderly populations suffer from negative stereotyping more than any other identifiable social group. She argues that preconceived notions about cognition, physical ability, health, sociability, personality, and work capability perpetuate these negative stereotypes. Indeed, in American culture, increasing age seems to portend decreasing value as a human being. Mass media scholar Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) offers some insight into this devaluation. Old people today are generally not appreciated as experienced “elders” or possessors of special wisdom; they are simply seen as sometimes remaining competent enough to be included in the unitary role category of “active citizen.” Old people are respected to the extent that they can behave like young people, that is, to the extent that they remain capable of working, enjoying sex, exercising and taking care of themselves (p. 153).

How did the American culture develop such blatant disregard and disrespect for the elderly? Gerontologists Butler, Lewis and Sunderland (1990) suggest the following causes:

A number of factors have had a negative influence on U.S. attitudes toward old age:

  1. A history of mass immigration, still ongoing, mostly consisting of the young leaving the elderly behind in Europe and Asia.

  2. A nation founded on principles of individualism, independence, and autonomy.

  3. The development of technologies that demand rapid change and specialized skills.

  4. A general devaluation of tradition.

  5. Increased mobility of the population within a large continental space.

  6. Medical advances that have relegated most deaths to later life, producing a tendency to associate death with old age.

All these have made it difficult to embrace old age itself as a valued and contributory phase of life (p. 30).

A medium like television, known for its emphasis on youth and beauty, fast motion and quick edits, condensed time and simplistic portrayals, is bound to exacerbate a potentially negative or even non-existent image of the elderly on television. According to the U.S. Bureau of Census (1990), the number of elderly Americans has grown measurably since 1970; in 1988, 12.7% of the U.S. population was 65 years old or older, up from 9.8% in 1970. Yet even as the wave of graying baby boomers swells, recent studies (Swayne and Greco, 1987; Dail, 1988; Vasil and Wass, 1993; Bailey, Harrell and Anderson, 1993) show that purveyors of mass media continue to misrepresent or underrepresent elders. Both Moore and Cadeau (1985) and Swayne and Greco (1987) examined the portrayals of elderly in television commercials, and both found underrepresentation of elderly persons and significant underrepresentation of elderly women in proportion to elderly men. Advertisers ignore older consumers or perpetuate negative stereotypes, thereby alienating a large market segment with powerful economic clout. According to Ken Dychtwald, author of Age Wave: The Challenges and Opportunities of an Aging America (1988), ignoring the elderly market is an expensive mistake. “Although they represent only 25 percent of the total U.S. population, Americans over 50 now have a combined annual personal income of over $800 billion and control 70 percent of the total net worth of U.S. households — nearly $7 trillion of wealth” (p. 268).

Yet for all this power, Dychtwald points out that, “Madison Avenue has constructed a smoke screen of myths about the older consumer that have kept most businesses away from this potentially powerful market. We have been led to believe that all older people are poor and cannot afford to purchase new products or services, even if they want to.”

Further, he states, “And we have been told over and over that older men and women are fanatically loyal to their brands and too set in their ways for advertisers to bother marketing to them” (p. 270). Clearly, to capture this market, both advertising strategy and portrayals of the elderly consumer will have to change. Beyond the realm of economics, however, lies a deeper concern: the social effect that such advertising stereotypes have on television viewers. Mass media effects theories provide ample cause for concern that repeated exposure to commercials which carry a negative subtext may lead to the overall devaluation of the elderly. By representing elders as feeble, absent-minded, stubborn, and helpless, or by simply not representing elders at all, the subtle effects may accumulate and add to the estranged social conditions many older Americans face today. Swayne and Greco state, “Television advertising, because of its ability to influence and shape attitudes, can play a major role in the socialization of the elderly and in influencing younger audiences’ view of older persons. By featuring active elderly spokespersons, commercial messages should, over time, provide positive role models and cues to the elderly and also help to reduce the negative stereotypes of the aged” (p. 47).

Statement of the Problem
Studies on portrayals of elderly in the mass media abound in academia. Some report a negative stereotype of the elderly (Aronoff, 1974; Northcott, 1975; Harris and Feinberg, 1977; Gerbner, Gross, Signorielli and Morgan, 1980; Bishop and Krause, 1984). Others report no specific negative images but a consistent underrepresentation of elderly in proportion to total population, and underrepresentation of elderly women in proportion to elderly men (Cassata, Anderson and Skill, 1980; Elliot, 1984; Swayne and Greco, 1987). Moore and Cadeau (1985) also examined the issue of race by measuring frequency of appearance of visible minorities, and found significant underrepresentation. To this end, Butler, Lewis and Sunderland (1990) point out some interesting statistics cited here for purposes of comparison. “Florida has the highest population of elderly, with 17.7% of its population comprised of older (60+) residents”(p. 15). “Elderly women outnumber elderly men three to two. In 1986, for every 100 women aged 65-69, there were only 83 men in that same age group. The ratio continues to widen with age, with only 40 men per 100 women in the 85-plus category” (p. 11). “Although they comprise more than 12% of the total population, African-Americans make up only 8% of the older age group” (p. 12). The authors go on to explain that African-Americans suffer a higher mortality rate during the beginning and middle of the life span, leaving fewer of them to include in the 65-plus population. “The Hispanic population totaled 19.4 million, accounting for 8.1% of the total population, by March 1988. By the year 2000 their numbers will reach 30 million, or 15% of the total population. Currently, 5% of the Hispanic population is 65 years or older” (p. 21). While Moore and Cadeau (1985) examined the image of the elderly in television commercials including the element of race, their study was limited to Canadian broadcast television. Swayne and Greco’s 1987 study is the most recent one conducted in the U.S., but the authors did not code for racial or cultural differences.

This study will update previously published research regarding the image and representation of elderly in television commercials, and will examine the following research questions:

  1. What is the percentage of elderly people in prime time television commercials compared to the percentage of elderly in the U.S. population?

  2. What is the ratio of elderly females to elderly males in prime time television commercials as compared to previously cited ratios of elderly females to elderly males in the U.S. population?

  3. What is the percentage of elderly African-Americans presented in prime time television commercials?

  4. What is the percentage of elderly Hispanics presented in prime time television commercials?

  5. What is the percentage of visible non-Anglo minorities (such as Asians, American Indians, or Middle Easterners) presented in prime time television commercials?

  6. What types of negative, unflattering or stereotypical images of elderly people (feeble, absent-minded, slow, stubborn, etc.) appear in prime time television commercials?

In the complex American society, the dissolution of the nuclear family leaves the elderly alone, abandoned and sometimes abused. As federal funding for Medicare and Social Security benefits is slashed to new lows, many older Americans have nowhere to turn for help, and society offers very few alternatives. Americans are not taught to respect, revere and care for the aged in our society; in fact, we are taught that age is something to ridicule, avoid and ignore whenever possible. Television advertising certainly plays a part in this learning process; Vasil and Wass note, “Negative stereotyping of the elderly circumscribes their potential by placing emphasis on the unproductive and unsuccessful older person and may become a self-fulfilling prophecy limiting capacities and experiences of aged persons. Negative stereotyping and ageism not only affect the elderly but also create negative expectations, fear, and dread of aging in the young” (p. 71).

The images of elderly people on culturally-focused networks such as Telemundo, Univision, and BET (Black Entertainment Television) warrant further investigation regarding cultural differences in the portrayals and percentages. Due to language barriers and difficulties in drawing an appropriate sample, however, only ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox networks will be monitored during prime time weekday programming.