The Presentation of Elderly People
In Prime Time Television Commercials

University of South Florida School of Mass Communications Masters Thesis

by Meredith Tupper


This chapter will examine the results in two separate sections; first, results will by analyzed by specific category, and the second section will frame the results within the context of the research questions presented in Chapter One. A total of 278 commercials were coded by two independent coders simultaneously. In case of a split decision, a third coder viewed the spot for tie-breaking purposes only. The number of spots coded per network did vary somewhat, as Fox tends to cater to a younger audience and, as such, broadcasts ten and fifteen second spots more often than ABC or CBS. The pace of programming and production on Fox is significantly more frenetic than on the other networks, which allows them to air more commercials within the prime-time window than their competitors.


Table 1: Spots Coded Per Network
FOX 77
CBS 64
NBC 74
ABC 63

Forty two of the 278 spots (15%) contained elderly characters. Only 68 of the 829 characters fit this study’ definition of ‘elderly.’ One hundred and seventy four characters appeared as adults, and 100 were coded as young characters. Of the 42 commercials with elderly characters, 15 featured the elders alone; 21 showed elderly characters with adults and youth, and only 6 showed elders interacting directly with youth minus any adult characters.Gender
Of the 68 elderly characters, 39 were male and 29 were female. In contrast, females aged 65-74 outnumbered males in the same age group four to three in the 1990 U. S. Census (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1990).

Role prominence
A total of 135 elderly characters were coded. Of these, 49 (36% of total) appeared in major roles; 42 (31% of total) appeared in minor or ‘single dialog line’ roles, and 44 (33% appeared in background or non-speaking roles.

The setting of a commercial lends much power to its subtext, including messages about the health, intelligence and income level of the characters. Although commercials typically feature a wide variety of settings, it is possible to categorize this information in such a way as to determine potential patterns of stereotypical or negative portrayals. For example, if elderly characters are seen only in hospitals and doctors’ offices, this implies that all old people in TV commercials suffer poor health. If elderly appear only in nursing homes, or sitting in living room rocking chairs, this implies that all old people in TV commercials are feeble and unable to care for themselves.

Unfortunately, old people are not conspicuous in their absence. If crowd shots of a fast food restaurant reveal no elders, the viewer assumes that old people do not eat at fast food restaurants. If car commercials show only young people driving new cars, the viewer assumes that old people do not buy or drive new cars.

Locale coding was broken into five categories: home setting; recreational or social setting such as a party, picnic, sports event or outdoor activity; professional/corporate setting in which the elder appears as an authority (executive, doctor) or as a customer (diner, shopper). Such a category implies that the elder enjoys a position of power or economic clout. The health care category includes hospitals, doctors’ offices, nursing homes or any other setting (such as the interior of an ambulance) that implies the elder suffers poor health. The final category covers any spots shot in an empty studio or blank set, or those of indeterminate location.


Table 2: Spots Coded by Locale
Home setting 15 spots 36%
Recreational/social 6 spots 14%
Prof/corp/retail 17 spots 40%
Health care setting 2 spots 5%
Other/indeterminate 2 spots 5%

Ethnic elderly
The total population of the 42 commercials featuring elderly characters came to 299 characters. Of these, 252 (84%) fell into the Anglo or Caucasian/non-visible minority category. 31 (11%) were coded as African-American or black characters; only 7 (2%) appeared to be of Hispanic origin. Nine (3%) characters rounded out the visible minority category. Of the 68 elderly characters, one was coded as African-American, one was coded as being of Hispanic origin, and two fell into the other visible minority category.Product
The product categories were intended to examine certain stereotypes. The major purchase category included any ‘big ticket’ items or any purchase over $300 of goods, services or investments, or purchases with long term ramifications. This included buying decisions such as long distance telephone carriers, on-line computer services, and insurance purchases. Seventy four of the 278 commercials, or 26.6% of the total, were devoted to major purchase products and services. Only food ads were seen more frequently (29.1%). Advertisers included PrimeStar satellite TV service, RCA and Magnavox, Universal Studios theme park, Microsoft, AT&T long distance service, and Cadillac cars. This would indicate that major purchase advertisers do not shy away from elderly consumers, and in fact, actively pursue and portray them in their ad campaigns. The household goods category yielded a total of 63 ads, or 22.7% of all ads coded. Advertisers in this category included Walmart, Sears, Alpo dog food and fams pet foods. The Sears ad featured an older man helping a younger woman (father-daughter) paint the exterior of a house, while the Walmart ad featured an elderly clerk standing near fishing gear. Hygiene and health ads were separated from beauty products to examine two different concepts: the correlation between age and health; and the correlation between age and beauty. Thirty six of the 278 coded ads qualified in the health and hygiene category, which amounts to 12.9% of the total. Advertisers included Ensure nutritional supplement, Extra Strength Tylenol pain reliever, Efidac 24 hour cold medicine, and Advil Cold and Sinus formula decongestant. Surprisingly, the ads for such typically ‘old age’ products such as Preparation H did not feature elderly characters. No ads appeared for ambulatory aids such as lift chairs or adjustable beds; nor did ads appear for products such as Ben-Gay or Therapeutic Mineral Ice pain reliever. This would suggest the notion that while the elderly may not need assistance in getting around, they are not physically active, either. In summary, it appears that the predominant health concerns facing elderly consumers are malnutrition, headaches and colds. Only 24 of the 278 commercials fell into the beauty/appearance-enhancing category, just 8.6% of the total. Calvin Klein CKOne fragrance and Vidal Sassoon Styling System were the only two advertisers. Vidal Sassoon himself counted as the lone elder is his commercials, whereas Calvin Klein showed an older woman in a fleeting montage of people who presumably might wear his fragrance.

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?

According to the 1990 U. S. Census, 12.6% of the U.S. population was aged 65 years or older. In the television commercial population examined, 8.14% of the characters met the definition of elderly as outlined in Chapter 1.

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?

According to the 1990 U.S. Census, for ages 65 and up, the ratio of males to females is 67.3 males for every 100 females, and for ages 85 and up, the ratio dwindles to 46 males for every 100 females. In the study population, the ratio of elderly males to females was 133:100.

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

In the sample population, only 0.12% of the total population appeared to fit the definition of elderly African-American as outlined in Chapter 1. Interestingly, the U.S. Census states that almost 1% (0.995%) of the African-American U.S. population was aged 65 or older in 1990;

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

Within the sample population, the percentage of characters who fit the elderly Hispanic criteria was only 0.12%. In contrast, the U.S. Census states that 8.99% of the country’s population in 1990 belonged with the Hispanic culture group.

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

Other visible minorities constituted 0.24% of the total TV character population. The 1990 U.S. Census counted five major cultural group populations: Asian/Pacific Islander, Black or African-American, Hispanic, Native American, and White or Anglo. Subtracting the 2.92% of Americans who claim Asian/Pacific Islander descent, and the 0.79% of Americans who claim Native American descent, and the total of non-Anglo visible minorities (other than Hispanic and African-American) adds up to a total of 3.71% of the U.S. population. If 12% of these individuals are age 65 and older, then the resulting negligible percentage again points to poor representation of ethnic elderly on prime time television.

6. Do any negative, unflattering or stereotypical images of elderly people appear in prime time television commercials?

No clear cut, definitive negative stereotypes of elderly people emerged from this study; in fact, elderly characters did not appear in the anticipated commercial categories. For example, elderly characters did not appear in roles for products such as arthritis medication, denture care products, or skin wrinkle creams, nor did they appear in sick, weak, fragile, or absent-minded roles.