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Roger Hiemstra

Maureen Goodman

Mary Ann Middlemiss

Richard Vosko

Syracuse University


Nancy Ziegler

Elmira College


This article describes an examination of recent television ads, primarily in respect to the treatment of older persons. The purpose was to analyze the ads to determine if older people and images of aging are portrayed in negative or stereotypical ways.


A total of 136 commercials were selected for content analyses. The sample of older persons and people of other age groups were viewed and coded by a minimum of two judges. The most significant finding was the absence of the elderly in television commercials. Only 11 of 358 human characters were judged to be 60 or older, only 41 were 50 or older. Of the 130 human characters judged to be central figures, only 6 were thought to be 60 or older.


This article provides several implications for educators. They center around the notion that the educator must become assertive in helping both the older person and the Madison Avenue executive take steps to portray the older person more positively and realistically.


Educational Gerontology, 9: 111-122, 1983

Copyright © by Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, A Taylor and Francis Journal.

Reprinted by Permission of the Journalís editor

Stylistically, the article has been converted to APA, 5th Edition.






Most people agree that television is a powerful medium in promoting communication, providing information, and influencing attitudes (Wass, Fillmer, & Ward, 1981). The importance of the medium is dramatically illustrated at election times when candidates spend millions to reach the 96% of American households with television sets.


This power, the money spent on advertising--5.5 billion dollars by the 100 largest advertisers in 1979 (Davis, 1980), and the large number of potential viewers can also be a source of trouble for


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other people, for example, the elderly. Several authors and researchers have shown that the elderly generally are portrayed negatively in television commercials. In addition, while there has been considerable research on the impact of television on younger viewers, the effect of the medium on adult and elderly viewers has not received much study (Kubey, 1977).


The elderly, in fact, also watch a considerable amount of television (Bodec,. 1980; Kubey, 1977). Most programs shown on the three major networks, however, are aimed at youth or young adults. Yet, older viewers also use a huge number of products and spend a considerable amount of money each year: "The survey [of 45 to 34 year olds] found that more than 50 percent of all discretionary spending--any income left over after fixed expenses are paid--is in the hands of this age group." (Bell, 1982, p. 12) Thus, a tempting target for advertisers appears to exist.


However, many companies and advertising agencies still do not believe in marketing for older people (Allan, 1981; Davis, 1980; Waters, 1982). In fact, in television ads one seldom sees people over age 30 (Davis, 1980); rarer, still, is a woman over 60 (Allan, 1981; Davis, 1980). Unless a special television program is being aired (for example, a sporting event), the homemaker in her thirties appears to be the major target for television ads.


There also appear to be differences in opinion about the possibility of negatively affecting society with advertising. For example, the Gray Panthers' media watch group believes that there is considerable derogatory advertising regarding older people and aging stereotypes on television. However, in 1976 the National Advertising Review Board looked at a variety of television ads and concluded they were not derogatory (Davis, 1980).


Networks, too, appear to ignore older people in casting actors for many programs.


People over 65... are grossly underrepresented on television. Correspondingly, heavy-viewing Annenberg respondents believe that the elderly are a vanishing breed, that they make up a smaller proportion of the population today than they were two decades ago. In fact, they form the nation's most rapidly expanding age group. (Waters, 1982, p. 137)


For a specific research example, Aronoff (1974) studied 2,741 characters in prime time over a two-year period and found that less than 5% were older people. When older characters were shown, they often were portrayed as either victims or villains. A later study by Harris and Feinberg (1977) showed that out of 312 characters


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observed and rated, only 8.3% were 60 or older; 25% of these were shown to be in poor health. A more recent study (Cassata, Anderson, & Skill, 1980) suggested improvements in terms of representation. In 365 characters observed in daytime serial dramas, 15.9% were believed to be 55 or older, with most of them presented as healthy. Thus, it is uncertain whether the portrayal of older persons on television is beginning to move toward a closer representation of societal reality.


Attitudes toward the Elderly


Societal attitudes toward the elderly have been studied in a variety of settings in addition to television. For example, Smith (1976) completed a content analysis of the elderly as portrayed in prescription drug ads. The elderly were negatively portrayed in a majority of the ads. Such negative portrayals were suggested as reinforcing existing stereotypes of the elderly.


Peterson and Karnes (1976) completed a content analysis of adolescent literature of the twentieth century. Older characters were representative in relation to demographic percentages, but were found to be underdeveloped and often peripheral to the main theme or story. In addition, no differences were found between the ways older characters were portrayed in books published early in the century and the most recently published books. Peterson and Eden (1977) reported similar findings when exploring the effects of adolescent literature on the attitudes of teenagers.


Davies (1977) examined attitudes toward the elderly as portrayed in jokebooks. A very negative attitude toward the aging of women was found. A similar study involved an examination of the texts of 127 poems (Sohngen & Smith, 1978). Strongly negative attitudes about physical, emotional, and social losses were observed. Such materials can be hypothesized to reinforce negative stereotypes that persist in the media.


Unfortunately, the elderly frequently are negatively portrayed when television is the setting (Wass, Fillmer, & Ward, 1981). For example, in television commercials, older people often are depicted as old-fashioned, are instructed by younger characters to make some changes, and seldom are seen in companionship or interpersonal roles (Francher, 1973). Aging persons often are shown as having medical problems (Harris & Feinberg, 1977), as being less healthy today than they were in earlier years (Waters, 1982), or as needing certain age retarding products (Francher, 1973). As Gage (1980) put it, "To watch and read advertising you would think older


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people have entirely different needs than everyone else." (p. 4)


This product association stereotype goes beyond medical or age-reducing products. Harris & Feinberg (1977) investigated 80 commercials with 198 characters and found the following in assessing types of products: (1) clothing--no characters over 40; (2) appliances--only one character over 60; (3) personal care & cosmetics--only one person over 40; (4) automobiles--none over 60; and (5) food--only 3 people over 60. Thus, it appears that advertisers limit the use of older characters because they are generally believed to be "poor copy."


This situation is even more striking when older women are considered. Francher (1973) found them usually portrayed in less than attractive roles. Harris and Feinberg (1977) suggest that older women usually are shown to have declined considerably on various characteristics. Serock (1979), in a study of television commercials aired during children's programs, demonstrated that elderly women usually are severely underrepresented and, when shown, usually are associated with domestic roles.


Other viewpoints do exist, however, regarding values assigned to television advertising. For example, Schreiber and Boyd (1980) found in their study that the elderly generally had high regard for television ads and felt that older characters were positively portrayed. Obviously, additional research is required, not only to better understand the effects of television advertising, but also to provide some guidance to advertisers and networks.


The Future and Television Advertising


There is evidence that the very nature of advertising is changing (Newsweek, 1977). Many companies are now beginning to gear some of their products toward older customers (Allan, 1981). Fuller cut jeans, clothing for mature figures, caffeine-free coffee, and shampoos for the older person are some of the examples often cited. The elderly person also is being seen as a new and potentially large audience (U.S. News & World Report, 1980). The facts are: older adults spend more on medicines (Doolittle, 1977); older adults spend more on home maintenance and home repair (Davis, 1980); and older adults spend more on vacations, restaurant meals, home food purchases, new cars, insurance, and home appliances (Allan, 1981).


Perhaps the biggest recognition by advertisers is that the elderly cannot be treated as a homogeneous group. Older people also are less gullible than younger people and less prone to social pressure


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from peers (Newsweek, 1977). Thus, the growing buying power of the elderly and the declines in numbers of younger adults may result in advertiser's thinking less of age and more of likes and dislikes of people (Gage, 1980). This article reports on some research aimed at better understanding the current view of the advertisers.




Are advertisers and advertising agencies portraying older persons in more positive ways? The jury is still out. Some researchers and the television industry itself believe that the elderly are being portrayed more positively. Indeed, some companies do cater to the older consumer. Thus, the purpose of this research was to analyze current images of aging in television advertising.


The sample of people of all age groups were viewed in television commercials aired during the summer of 1981. Half-hour time slots for all three major networks were randomly selected to include weekdays, weekends, and evenings. A total of 136 commercials were selected within these various categories. The television commercials covered a wide range of products and advertisers.


The commercials were content analyzed to provide information on a variety of characteristics. A minimum of two judges viewed each commercial until unanimous agreement was reached regarding the codes to be assigned to each category. For example, age was determined by two or more judges viewing each character and independently assessing what each believed the age of that character to be. Ten-year decades (twenties, thirties, etc.) were used. If the judges disagreed on the assigned age category, a third judge was used with all three viewing the ad again until a unanimous decision was reached on the category code to be assigned. The data collected from this sample included demographic information on all characters shown, their perceived portrayal in terms of appearance and behaviors, and the types of roles portrayed by characters. The age group of 50 and older was used for designating a character as an older person. Specific remarks regarding people 60 and older also are included in this article because much of the literature cited above refers to people in the sixties or beyond.


The data were analyzed to address six areas of interest identified in the review of related research: (1) the extent to which older persons (50 years of age or older) are represented in television commercials, (2) the extent of the portrayal of older women, (3) the realism of the portrayal of older people, (4) how families are


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portrayed in relationship to older people being present, (5) the nature of the product when older persons are present, and (6) the overall tone of commercials relative to any glorification of youth.




Of the 136 commercials analyzed, only 32 had one or more characters 50 years of age or older. Only 11 commercials included one or more people believed to be in their sixties or older. Overall, as shown in Table 1, there were 41 characters thought to be


TABLE 1 Demographic and Portrayal Characteristics



All characters

(N = 358a)

Central figures

(N = 130)

Older characters

(N = 41)


No.†††† %

No.†††† %

No.†††† %






176†††† 49.2

066†††† 50.8

014†††† 34.1


182†††† 50.8

064†††† 49.2

027†††† 65.9






123†††† 34.4

029†††† 22.3

000†††† 00.0


059†††† 16.5

016†††† 12.3

000†††† 00.0


086†††† 24.0

041†††† 31.5

000†††† 00.0


049†††† 13.7

021†††† 16.2

000†††† 00.0


030†††† 08.4

017†††† 13.1

030†††† 73.2


010†††† 02.8

005†††† 03.8

010†††† 24.4


001†††† 00.3

001†††† 00.8

001†††† 02.4

Primary portrayal





033†††† 09.2

019†††† 14.6

002†††† 04.9


016†††† 04.5

008†††† 06.2

000†††† 00.0


019†††† 05.3

003†††† 02.3

000†††† 00.0


082†††† 22.9

058†††† 44.6

014†††† 34.1


022†††† 06.1

021†††† 16.2

005†††† 12.2


014†††† 03.9

005†††† 03.8

000†††† 00.0


002†††† 00.1

002†††† 01.5

002†††† 04.9

Background person

154†††† 43.0

000†††† 00.0

010†††† 24.4


016†††† 04.5

014†††† 10.8

008†††† 19.5


Note. Totals do not equal 100% because of rounding. Age 50 and older was used for display and comparative purposes.

aTen cartoon characters were excluded from analysis.


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at least age 50, comprising less than 12% of the total. Those 60 and older made up only 3.1% of the total. Thus, in relationship to our first area of interest, the elderly are noticeably under≠represented when compared to the 15.7% of the United States population that is 60 or older (Bureau of the Census, 1982). Madison Avenue executives did not project a much more realistic image in selecting people to serve as central figures, with only 4.6% of the central figures observed in this research appearing to be 60 or older. Therefore, many viewers, especially impressionable children, view primarily youth-oriented television commercials.


The second area of interest pertained to the portrayal of women in commercials, especially older women. As also can be seen in Table 1, some 66% of the characters 50 years of age and older were males. A further examination of the data revealed that less than 1% of all characters shown were females over the age of 59. This represents a very unrealistic portrayal, as the Bureau of Census (1982) reports that more than 9% of the U.S. population are women 60 and older and such women outnumber their male counterparts by nearly six million individuals.


A third area of interest in this research called for an examination of how realistically older people are portrayed in commercials. As can be seen in Table 2, advertisers and advertising agencies have some problems in portraying older persons as old. Few bald or balding people and fewer still with wrinkled skin were observed. It was believed by the research team that the majority of older people are portrayed as "young-old," with a noticeable absence of very old looking people. In addition, an unrealistic portrayal according to race was noted, with only one black person 50 or older observed. No people over 60 were black, whereas the 1982 census information reveals that 7% of all individuals in the United States who are 60 and older are black.


The fourth area of interest pertained to how older people are depicted in terms of family relationships. Older people were portrayed primarily as nondescript adults with no observable family ties (see Table 2). As the majority of older people are tied to a family in some direct way, it was surprising that more grandparent or parent roles were not written into the commercial scripts. It would appear very difficult for many viewers to obtain notions about extended families through television ads.


The fifth interest area concerned the nature of advertised products involving older people. Older people are most likely to be observed in commercials dealing with health products, food products, consumer services, and household products. They are


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Table 2 Portrayal Characteristics of Older Persons



Number (N = 41a)














Hair color



Gray or white






Bald or balding






Skin condition



Clear or good





















Formal-business attire






Family relationships












Other relative










††††††††††† aFor two individuals it was impossible to determine the racial designation.


least likely to be shown in ads related to toys, games, or recreation (surprising when the leisure time available to many older people is considered), appliances, automobiles or automobile parts, personal products, and liquid foods. It also was noted that the age of central characters increases when health-related products are advertised.


The sixth area of interest pertained to the overall tone of commercials in relation to youth and being young. It was believed by the research team that another way of examining advertising attitudes toward the elderly was to determine if a glorification of youth exists. In this study, the most frequently portrayed central character was a healthy, often sexy or macho-looking person in his or her early thirties or in the teen years. As a matter of fact, some 66%


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of all central characters were assessed to be under 40. Although the vast majority of commercials (77.2%) were evaluated as neutral in terms of the overall message, 14.7% were believed to glorify youth in some manner. Less than 7% were actually believed to denigrate older people or aging in some fashion, but only a small fraction (.7%) actually provided an overt positive view of being old.


In addition to the type of information described above, a variety of other observations can be made. One feeling that persisted for research team members was that television commercials do not really acknowledge the existence of the older person. This commission rather than omission does not account for the millions of older individuals in the United States who are healthy, who use the whole range of available products, and who are motivated to have a long and satisfying life.


This increasing number of healthy and active people in the 50 and older age range also indicates the considerable purchasing power toward which advertisers could turn their attention. The few suggestions in the literature that manufacturers and companies are beginning to cater to older consumers were not observable in the commercials selected for analysis in this study. Recent qualitative observations by the team suggest that perhaps more older people, especially older women, and more minorities are being used in commercials. Future research will have to verify that notion. Obviously, products that are designed, for example, to cover or remove age spots or to remove the gray from hair may be difficult to sell while simultaneously providing a positive view of being older. At the same time, products that are only for arthritis sufferers may have a limited set of parameters within which the tone for an ad can be set. Therefore, there are numerous implications for educational professionals and others that may help make a difference in the approach to creating future television commercials.




Education professionals have the ability, perhaps even the responsibility, to increase the consciousness of individuals and hence their self-esteem and power. Such an ability has been used in the past and can be used in the future with older people. The increasing older population has the potential for a powerful role in society. Thus, there is considerable merit in (1) altering the emphasis on youth and staying young, two values which are constantly reinforced by television commercials, and (2) providing older people


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with a source of social validation. Younger people, too, will benefit by viewing more accurate pictures of growing and being older.


Therefore, two important roles are suggested for professional educators. The first is to serve as change agents in providing opportunities for both youth and older people to adjust to life changes. For example, it has been shown by this research and by several other researchers that age is not portrayed accurately in television commercials relative to such factors as the numbers of older persons used as characters. Thus, educators need to take positive steps to help both young and older people understand such inaccuracies. A better informed population is more able to respond to change and changes that come naturally with age. Therefore, educational programs that counter the values ,permeated through all forms of the media would be a positive step.


Another role is that of social intervention. It may be a very appropriate role for educators to assert themselves in facilitating advertisers and advertising agencies to realistically examine the part they play in forming cultural values and beliefs. Why does the advertising industry believe that it is not producing offensive or inaccurate commercials as it reports from its own study efforts? Perhaps it does not understand that the way people are portrayed affects attitudes toward aging and older people. Another answer may be that older people are not yet perceived to be good copy that will sell products. Thus, it is suggested that educators have a responsibility in helping both consumers and producers take positive steps to correct intentional misleading and negative perceptions that may exist. The media watch efforts of the Gray Panthers is a step in the direction of assertiveness that other edu≠cators may follow.


Like most research, this study also raised more questions than it answered. How do people view ads with particular cultural or subcultural biases? Does the presence of an older person in a commercial produce a positive or a negative effect on the viewer in terms of a desire to purchase the product? Do advertising agencies or networks display differing attitudes about the portrayal of elderly in ads? Are there regional differences in the impact on attitudes if older people are portrayed in certain ways?


Helping people to live full lives and to develop positive attitudes about their own aging is a large, continuous, and important task. It is hoped that the research reported here and the future research that will answer questions like those listed above will make some contributions to that task. Educators, perhaps more than any other


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professional, have a responsibility to counteract negative attitudes that exist about the aging process because most such attitudes are learned. The struggle may not be easy but it must be made.




Allan, C. B. (1981, March). Measuring mature markets. American Demographics, 13-17.

Aronoff, C. (1974). Old age in prime time. Journal of Communication, 24, 86-87.

Bell, C. Models in gray. (1982, November 21). Parade Magazine, 12-13.

Bodec, B. (1980, December). Retirement-Market with a future. Marketing & Media Decision, 7, 4-76+.

Bureau of the Census. (1982, March). 1980 Census of Population and Housing (Supplemental report: Provisional estimates of social, economic, and housing characteristics: PHC80-S1-1). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Cassata, M. B., Anderson, P. A., & Skill, T. D. (1980). The older adult in daytime serial drama. Journal of Communication, 30, 48-49.

Davies, L. J. (1977). Attitudes toward old age and aging as shown by humor. The Gerontologist, 17, 220-225.

Davis, R. H. (1980). Television and the aging audience. Los Angeles: Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center, University of Southern California.

Doolittle, J. C. (1977, November). Predictors of media use among retired older adults. Paper presented at the conference of the Gerontological Society, San Francisco.

Francher, J. S. (1973). It's the Pepsi generation--Accelerated aging and the television commercial. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 4, 245-255.

Gage, T. J. (1980, August 25). Ads targeted at mature in need of creative hoist. Advertising Age, 4-5.

Harris, A. J., & Feinberg, J. F. (1977). Television and aging: Is what you see what you get? The Gerontologist, 17, 464-468.

Kubey, R. W. (1977, November). Television and the elderly: A critical review. Paper presented at the conference of the Gerontological Society, San Francisco.

Newsweek. (1977, February 18). The graying of America. Newsweek, 63-78.

Peterson, D. A. & Eden, D. Z. (1977). Teenagers and aging: Adolescent literature as an attitude source. Educational Gerontology, 2, 311-325.

Peterson, D. A. & Karnes, E. L. (1976). Older people in adolescent literature. The Gerontologist, 16, 225-231.

Schreiber, E. S. & Boyd, D. A. (1980). How the elderly perceive television commercials. Journal of Communication, 30, 61-70.

Serock, K. E. (1979). An analysis of the portrayal of the elderly in television commercials viewed by children. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Maryland.


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Smith, M. C. (1976). Portrayal of the elderly in prescription drug advertising. The Gerontologist, 16, 329-334.

Sohngen, M. & Smith, R. J. (1978). Images of old age in poetry. The Gerontologist, 18, 181-186.

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Waters, H. F. (1982, December 6). Life according to TV. Newsweek, 136-140.


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