The Presentation of Elderly People
In Prime Time Television Commercials

University of South Florida School of Mass Communications Masters Thesis

by Meredith Tupper

Literature Review

A considerable amount of research has been published on the image of the elderly in mass media. These studies include content analyses of television programming and commercials, magazine advertisements, newspaper articles, children’s magazines, books and basal readers, and even greeting cards. Of the studies involving television and magazine portrayals, samples were drawn from a variety of environments, such as prime time television programming, daytime dramas, and children’s shows, or full page magazine ads, cartoons, and ads from culturally-focused publications like Ebony. Almost every study reported that the elderly are underrepresented in mass media, and those studies which examined gender found that elderly women were consistently misrepresented in proportion to their true percentage of the U.S. population. Negative portrayals of the elderly were revealed less often than one might expect, perhaps due, in part, to the difficulty of establishing objective criteria by which to judge negative, neutral and positive representations. One recent analysis (Bell, 1992) of prime time drama title sequences featuring elderly leading roles showed an improved overall image of the elderly portrayed by these leading characters; for the first time in American television prime time serial dramas, elders appeared “powerful, affluent, healthy, active, admired and sexy” (p. 305). Similarly, Dail (1988) found that characters appearing older than 55 years of age were portrayed more favorably than those who appeared to be in early old age, near age 55 or less. Cassata, Anderson and Skill (1980) examined images of the elderly in daytime serials and also reported a positive overall image. However, the older studies in this literature review (Aronoff, 1974; Northcott, 1975; Harris and Feinberg, 1977; Gerbner, Gross, Signorielli and Morgan, 1980; Bishop and Krause, 1984) show a markedly negative portrayal. Moore and Cadeau (1985) and Swayne and Greco (1987) found significantly fewer instances of unflattering or stereotypical images on television, but still reported underrepresentation, especially with regard to elderly women. Bailey, Harrell and Anderson’s 1993 analysis of older women in print ads found that representations varied with publication, and reported an unfavorable portrayal of older women specifically in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This literature review focuses on content analyses of the elderly in a variety of mass media, emphasizing television commercial portrayals. As noted in Chapter Three, applicable methodologies are proposed for use in this study.

Television Portrayals of the Elderly in Programs
Peterson (1973) examined the portrayals of elderly people in prime time programming, looking specifically at frequency of appearance, image portrayed by use of contrasting pairs of attributes, and gender representation. The researcher concluded that the representation of the elderly is proportionate to population statistics at the time, but reported underrepresentation of older women. The image of men was considered “generally favorable,” (p. 573) whereas no specific image of women was reported. The methodology seems questionable, as the researcher failed to establish firm criteria for identifying elderly people in the first place, and used relatively vague attribute pairs such as “nice/awful” to measure image.

Aronoff (1974) examined a total of 2741 characters in prime time television programming, and reported a negative image of the elderly, as well as underrepresentation of elders overall (4.9%) and also of elderly women. Only 40% of older characters were portrayed in a positive manner, described as successful, happy and good.

Northcott (1975) studied 464 characters appearing in prime time television programming, and found a negative image of aging and the elderly overall. A majority of the older characters appeared in minor roles. Of remarks and references to aging, negative comments were made more often than positive ones. Only 1.5% of the total population appeared to be elderly.

Bishop and Krause (1981) examined 378 characters on children’s Saturday morning cartoons, finding that the elderly appeared to make up approximately 7% of the total cartoon population. No figures for the representation of older women are reported. An overall negative image is manifested mostly through comments referring to decline and deterioration in old age.

Wober and Gunter’s 1982 project was intended to solicit public opinion in London regarding the image of elderly on British television programs. The authors mailed out questionnaires and viewing diaries to participants in the London ITV region, asking them to view one week’s worth of programming, complete the dairies and questionnaires, and return them. Of the 339 respondents, categories were developed regarding age, gender, race, and socio-economic class. Results indicated that British viewers did not see misrepresentation nor negative imaging of the elderly in programming. The researchers did notice, however, that viewers felt the image of elderly in fictional programs (comedies and action/ adventure shows) was less respectful than that seen in news, documentaries and game shows. Overall, the authors stated that conclusions published by Gerbner and Aronoff in the U.S. were not supported in Britain.

Conducted in part due to methodological flaws in Cassata, Anderson and Skill’s 1980 study, Elliot’s 1984 work examined a population almost twice that of the previous study. From a sample of 723 characters, the author found that elderly characters constituted only 8% of the total population. Evidence was presented to show underrepresentation of elderly women in proportion to elderly men, and an overall neutral image of the elderly was described. The author also set forth more specific criteria for identifying elderly characters, and surveyed programming for a longer period of time than Cassata, et al.

Dail (1988) examined 193 older adult characters in 12 family-oriented prime time television programs, categorizing cognitive, physical and health status, social interaction and emotional behavior. The author did not present figures for the representation of the elderly in proportion to the total population, nor did she present figures on the representation of elderly women in proportion to elderly men. The author did, however, note the responses by other characters to verbalizations made by elderly characters. The emerging overall portrayal was seen as a positive one, which the author attributed to recent marketing research acknowledging the economic strength of the older American population.

Bell’s 1992 content analysis of the opening credit sequences for five prime time television dramas featuring elderly central characters revealed an improving picture of the elderly on television. The author examined the title sequences (the opening montage of shots which accompany the credits in American television drama) of Murder, She Wrote, The Golden Girls, Matlock, Jake and the Fatman, and In the Heat of the Night, during the 1989 season. The author brings to light an interesting fact heretofore unmentioned: A. C. Neilsen (the media research company responsible for gathering TV ratings data for marketing use) does not collect specific data for viewing habits of audiences 65 years old and up, despite the fact that adults over 55 watch more television than any other audience segment. The author supports the assertion that elderly women are still underrepresented in television programming.

Television Portrayals of the Elderly in Commercials
Francher (1973) examined popular television commercials and the messages contained or implied in the subtext. From a total sample of 100 commercials, the author reported that only 2% of the commercials showed any elderly characters at all. The author addressed the fact that age is indeed accelerated in these advertising campaigns, implying that once a person has reached a non-telegenic age, he or she might be considered elderly even before reaching a similar chronological milestone.

Gerbner, Gross, Morgan and Signorielli (1981) stated that the underrepresentation of elderly on television is no accident; it mirrors the income distribution of the U.S. economic strata. In short: “Women may do most of the buying and older Americans may have significant purchasing and investment clout, but men earn and the middle-aged groups spend most of the money in this country.” (p. 208) The average age of characters in primetime television commercials was approximately 30-35 years old. The elderly fared even worse, predictably, in weekend daytime programming, as the average age of characters in commercials then peaked at between five and ten years old, falling sharply during teen years, peaking slightly for parent-figures at 35-40 and tapering to almost none, even for grandparent-figures. Further, women appear to age faster than men in commercials, and women disappear into old age invisibility between 40-45 years of age, as opposed to men, who fade slowly to less than 5% of all characters by age 55 and over. Personality profiles showed that elderly women were both more repulsive and peaceful than younger females. Elderly men were seen as less fair, rational, and happy than those of younger age groups.

Moore and Cadeau (1985) analyzed 1733 television commercials on three Toronto TV stations over 8 weeks in 1983. This study paid special attention to the gender of the voice-over talent, stating that the off-camera, disembodied nature of the voice lends it an authority or expertise, oftentimes literally having the last word in commercials. 88% of all voice-overs were male, implying that women are not authoritative, and that even when women appear on-screen, they cannot think for themselves, in their own voices. Only 2% of all commercials featured elderly characters, and even then, elderly males outnumbered elderly females two to one. Less than 4% of all commercials featured visible minorities, and less than 1% showed elderly minorities.

Swayne and Greco’s 1987 study examined 36 hours of prime time programming from three U.S. networks for a total sample of 814 commercials. The authors coded the total number of people in each ad, the number of elderly people in each ad, the role (major, minor, or background) of the elderly people in each ad, the type of character portrayed by the elderly (advisor, information receiver, comical /humorous, or feeble/ confused), the positioning of the elderly with other age groups (appearing alone, with other elderly, with children only, or with various age groups), the setting of the commercial (home, outdoor, business or other), and the intended audience (elderly alone, caretakers, or general appeal). Of all ads monitored, only 6.9% had elderly characters at all; in proportion to the total TV commercial population, only 3.2% were elderly characters. Women appeared more frequently than men by a slight margin, about 4%. Elderly were most likely to appear in food commercials (36%), and least likely to appear in ads for security items (2%). They appeared 56% of the time in home settings, and only 8% of the time in outdoor settings. Of note, this study did not examine the issue of race, which the proposed study would examine.

Portrayals of the Elderly in Children’s and Adolescent Literature
Of all the young reader studies presented in this literature review, Peterson and Karnes’ 1976 work was the only one that found elderly characters presented in true proportion to their percentage of the population. Fifty three books were analyzed, showing the elderly in mostly minor, underdeveloped roles (only 15% were considered major, and only 4.6 pieces of information were available on each elderly character) with no reported negative slant to the portrayals. Elderly women were underrepresented.

Ansello (1977) examined 656 picture books and children’s starter books. A disproportionately high percentage (16.5%) of the characters were portrayed as elderly, despite continued underrepresentation of elderly female characters. Most were relegated to minor roles cast in an unfavorable light; the terms little, old, and ancient constituted 85% of all physical descriptions of the elderly characters.

In a survey of 100 children’s books, Barnum (1977) found only 3.3% of the characters were elderly. Older women were underrepresented. Elderly characters appeared in mostly minor roles, and the overall image of the elderly characters appeared to be underdeveloped and negative.

Robin (1977) analyzed four series of children’s basal readers for a total of 80 books. Only 5.6% of the characters were classified as elderly, and elderly women were underrepresented. However, the author did find elderly characters in major roles, and no evidence of negative stereotyping was found. Character development was judged to be poor.

Kingston and Drotter (1981) coded a series of six basal readers and found a total of 188 elderly characters in mostly positive portrayals. The roles were primarily minor ones, and elderly women were underrepresented. Some stereotypical characterization (“Granny” type characters) was noted.

Serra and Lamb (1984) reviewed four series of basal readers for a total of 1036 stories. Only 6.8% of the stories contained any elderly characters at all; however, those that did appear were portrayed in a positive light. Elderly women were underrepresented. Characters played mostly minor roles and were judged to be underdeveloped.

In their comparison study, Meadows and Fillmer (1987) examined basal readers from two generations, five series each. The 1960’s readers contained only 5.1% of elderly characters; twenty years made only one percent difference as the 1980’s contained only 6.1% of elderly characters. There was no report of underrepresentation of elderly women, nor of character development, nor of negative stereotyping.

In a review of 73 children’s books, Janelli (1988) found that the majority of elderly characters appeared in minor roles, with little character development. Depictions of the elderly were not specifically negative but showed little variety, as most were shown with gray hair, wearing glasses, and carrying canes or walking sticks. No figures were noted as to representation of elderly women, and no overall elderly population ratios were stated.

Almerico and Fillmer (1988) analyzed 2186 stories from 101 children’s magazines, and found that 5.6% of the stories contained elderly characters or references to the elderly. Older women were again noted to be underrepresented, and a majority of the elderly were found in minor roles, but the overall portrayal was a positive one.

Portrayals of the Elderly in Magazine Advertisements
Smith (1976) examined two medical journals, analyzing elderly characters in prescription drug advertisements. Arguably, all characters in drug ads would be likely to appear in a negative light, as preventing or curing the negative situation is the point of the ad. As anticipated, most characters were portrayed negatively, regardless of age; however, the elderly appeared perhaps even worse than they already did in print media at this time.

Gantz, Gartenberg and Rainbow (1980) examined seven popular magazines, ranging across a variety of subjects, for a total of 6785 advertisements. The elderly were represented in only 3.1% of the ads, and elderly women were underrepresented, with only 26% of elderly characters being female. No note was made of quality of the overall portrayal; no overt stereotyping was mentioned.

England, Kuhn and Gardner’s 1981 longitudinal study surveyed magazines published between 1960 and 1979. A total of 2200 ads were analyzed, with only 2% of all characters portrayed as elderly. The authors noted a sexist double standard, in that women appeared far less frequently than men.

Kvasnicka, Beymer and Perloff (1982) compared the portrayal of elderly characters in popular magazines to portrayals of elderly characters in magazine appealing specifically to older readers. Predictably, the magazines aimed at an elderly market segment showed a more positive image of aging, while the major popular magazines continued with misrepresentation of elderly in percentages similar to those already seen.

In Hollenshead and Ingersoll’s 1982 review of 3482 magazine ads from Good Housekeeping, Time, and JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association), the authors found that only 2.6% of all ads contained elderly characters. Elderly women were again underrepresented, except in JAMA, where their portrayal was considerably more negative than those of Time and Good Housekeeping.

Ursic, Ursic and Ursic’s 1986 comprehensive study examined thirty years of magazine ads, (1950 – 1980) for a total of 5195 ads. In 9% of these, elderly characters appeared in an overall neutral portrayal. Although the elderly appeared in percentages close to those of real life, elderly women were still underrepresented.

Bramlett-Solomon and Wilson (1989) focused on the portrayal of elderly in both general interest and black cultural interest magazines. Predictably, elderly blacks appeared more often in Ebony than in Life, and neither publication portrayed elderly characters prominently.

Bailey, Harrell and Anderson’s 1993 study was performed as a follow-up to Hollenshead and Ingersoll’s 1982 research. Using 18 issues of the same titles from 1987, the authors found that JAMA now showed fewer women (36.5%) overall, but more of the women shown were elderly (39.5%). Good Housekeeping showed 71.6% of all characters in ads as women, but only 5% of those were elderly. Similarly, Time showed 43.4% of all characters were women, but of those, only 7.1% were elderly. JAMA’s characterizations were the least flattering, but again, this is probably due to the nature of the products being advertised in a medical journal.

Newspaper Portrayals of the Elderly
Broussard, Blackmon, Blackwell, Smith and Hunt (1980) dispelled the myth that newspapers create or harbor negative images of the elderly. Most of the stories were neutral in nature, as one might expect from a source of journalism (objectivity) rather than entertainment. The authors did find positive images in stories as well. The elderly were still not shown in true proportion to their percentages in the U.S. population at that time.

Buchholz and Bynum (1982) surveyed a total of 120 issues from two newspapers, and found that only 3% of stories regarding the elderly covered topics of significance such as health, retirement, housing, crime, employment, income, public transportation and demographic shifts. The overall image of this coverage, however, remained neutral.

In an analysis covering 11 different Sunday papers for a total of 263 issues, Wass, Hawkins, Kelly, Magners and McMorrow (1985) found that the image of the elderly in journalism had changed little in the twenty years that passed. Elderly women were still underrepresented, and less than 1% of the total space was devoted to any coverage of the elderly at all.

Cartoon Portrayals of the Elderly
Smith’s 1979 content analysis of magazine cartoons yielded interesting data. Elderly characters did not appear frequently in cartoons, and when they did, they were most likely to appear in a negative light. Out of 2217 cartoons analyzed, only 4.3% of the characters were elderly, and the characters were portrayed as either extreme conservatives or as sexually dysfunctional.

Greeting Card Portrayals of the Elderly
Demos and Jache (1981) reviewed a total of 496 greeting cards from a variety of companies; all had humorous attitudes toward birthdays. As one might expect, 39% dealt with the theme of aging, and all 39% portrayed aging in a negative, albeit humorous, light.

In this literature review, elderly women were seen to be consistently underrepresented, which, in and of itself, does not appear to be a negative portrayal but rather a nonexistent one. This study will compare the percentage of elderly occurring in the U. S. population versus the percentage of elderly occurring in the prime-time television commercial population. The consideration of true percentage is a vital one when the issue at hand is representation; as George Gerbner states, “Those underrepresented in the world of television are necessarily more stereotyped and limited. Visibility is privilege in the symbolic world.”(2)