The Presentation of Elderly People
In Prime Time Television Commercials

University of South Florida School of Mass Communications Masters Thesis

by Meredith Tupper


It appears that the image of elderly people in prime time television commercials is less negative than previously thought. Advertisers may have taken the cue from published research and made an obvious effort to avoid perpetuating the sick, weak old person stereotype. However, the effect of this has been to reduce the overall opportunities for visibility of elderly characters.

For instance, Madison Avenue won’t break the stereotype by routinely showing older characters in positive situations, but it will make certain that older characters do not appear in negative, stereotyped situations, either. As illustrated in the data from this and other studies, elders are still significantly underrepresented in proportion to their true occurrence within the U.S. population.


Do advertisers have an obligation to represent ethnic Americans in true proportions? After all, the main purpose of advertising is to sell products, not to foster cultural diversity and social harmony. Indeed, every advertiser in America has a right to free speech as defined and protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. However, the federal government requires licensure or supervision of newspapers, magazines, radio and television broadcasters, cable companies, and most predominant forms of mass media. Even the Internet is coming under government scrutiny. This would imply that the government recognizes the power and effect of mass media, at least to some degree. In order to receive an official broadcast frequency, applicants must promise and prove that they perform some kind of service to the community in their programming. Along with the rights of handling a mass media outlet come the responsibilities, and while broadcasters have to answer for perpetuating negative stereotypes, gratuitous violence, graphic sexual situations, and sociopathic behavior in prime time programming, advertisers might be made to answer for promoting the same values in commercial content. Outlining such rights and responsibilities is the work of Constitutional scholars, however, and is not the purpose of this study. The main purpose of the study was to examine and follow elderly underrepresentation trends identified in previous mass media research, adding to the existing body of knowledge on the topic. Further research might include a cross cultural mass media effects study, to determine if deeply held cultural beliefs can be positively or negatively affected by mass media exposure. Producers and programmers may want to examine context and content in light of such results, which may change the existing low profile that the elderly currently face.