Representations of Ageing in the Media
This chapter reviews research on representations of older people and ageing in print
and TV media, focusing on advertising. Findings from content analytic studies are
summarised and a case is then made for the necessity for more context sensitive
research. Media discourses are related to assumptions and aspirations regarding the
lifespan and lifestyles at older age: ‘positive’ portrayals reveal limited depictions of
ageing. Representations in advertising provide a rich resource for cultural
gerontologists, but these need to be understood as highly context specific cultural
constructs that offer versions of the ‘reality’ of older age for very specific purposes.
Key words for index:
media, television, print media, advertising, stereotypes of ageing, representation,
content analysis, grey market, active ageing, successful ageing, consumerism, humour
Interest in the nature and the possible effects of media portrayals of older adults has
been growing in recent years within communication and media studies, as well as in
social and cultural gerontology. Inappropriate and inaccurate negative representations
are seen to affect negative stereotypic attitudes and expectations about older people
among younger and older consumers alike (Gerbner 1998, Mares and Cantor 1992),
potentially lowering older people’s self-esteem (Harwood 1997). Positive and more
diverse images are regarded as desirable, especially for older media users, in
supporting positive self identity. In the twenty-first century, the visibility of older
people and their positive portrayal in the media, including advertising, have - arguably
- increased. But media and advertising depictions about ageing and older age continue
to be somewhat limited. In particular, what might be considered ‘positive’ portrayals
can turn out to be more ambiguous in their constructions of older age than might at
This chapter will review recent research on representations of older people in print
and TV media, focusing mainly on advertising. Firstly, some findings from content
analytic studies will be summarised and evaluated for their interpretative rigour.
Secondly, some differences between advertising targeted at the ‘grey/silver market’
vis-à-vis other consumer groups will be considered. Some examples of qualitative
studies on advertising and media imagery will then be given. Lastly we will consider
salient discourses of ageing in the (advertising) media, and how these relate to cultural
Content analytic research on older people in the media
There is a steadily growing body of work, especially in the US but also globally,
about how older people are portrayed on prime-time television (for example Harwood
and Giles 1992, Kessler, Rakoczy and Staudinger 2004, Kessler, Schwender and
Bowen 2010), films (for example Bazzini et al. 1997, Lauzen and Dozier 2005,
Robinson et al. 2007), documentaries (Robinson, Skill and Turner 2004), as well as in
theatre, dance and film (for example Barnes Lipscomb and Marshall 2010, Gullette
2004). Research on advertising has looked at print media (for example Carrigan and
Szmigin 1999, Miller et al. 1999, Robinson, Gustafson and Popovich 2008, Williams,
Ylänne and Wadleigh 2007, Williams, Wadleigh and Ylänne 2010) and television
advertising (for example Chen and Ylänne 2012, Prieler 2012, Prieler et al. 2011,
Simcock and Sudbury 2006), or both (for example Zhang et al. 2006). Research on
media and advertising portrayals of older people has typically adopted content
analysis as a method, and the chapter now summarises some of these findings.
Content analyses of media representations of older people record frequencies of
occurrence of such characters in a sample of representative data of, for example, print
or TV adverts. These are coded for categories such as gender, role prominence
(major/minor/background), setting (home/work/outdoors and so on), tone
(positive/negative/neutral) and the product advertised, among others. Generally
speaking, research from North America and Europe reports that older people
(typically defined as those over 50 years) are under-represented in the media
(including advertising) relative to their respective proportion of the population (for
example Roy and Harwood 1997, Simcock and Sudbury 2006). Under-representation
has been found to be particularly pertinent in relation to people over 65 (for example
Kessler et al. 2004). As regards advertising, Prieler, Kohlbacher and colleagues report
under-representation in Asian contexts, too, in TV adverts in Japan and South Korea.
For example, 6.1percent of TV adverts in Japan (in 2007) included people over 65,
whereas they comprised 20.2 percent of the actual population (Prieler 2012: 59). Less
prevalent under-representation was reported of older people in China (Zhan, Song and
Carver 2008). In Japanese TV adverts, older people, but especially older females,
were under-represented, echoing findings in Western contexts. In sum, evidence of
old age discrimination in the media and specifically in advertising is manifested in the
absence of senior characters in a variety of contexts.
Presence (or absence) alone does not fully describe how prominent older characters
are in the media, though. That is why the status of the roles older characters play has
been examined, too. Some contrasting findings have emerged. It has however been
suggested that where older people do appear in print or TV adverts, they tend to be
cast in roles that indicate their use in indexing specific qualities of the product (such
as reliability) or the company (such as its long history) (for example Swayne and
Greco 1987, Williams et al. 2010). These are likely to be age-marked roles and
contexts (for example Miller, Leyell and Mazachek 2004). In other words, older
adults in adverts are often chosen for specific purposes, rather than just to represent
Positivity / negativity
Beyond presence and role prominence, older characters in the media have been coded
in terms of positive or negative portrayal, with negative depictions predominating in
the past. However, in advertising more specifically, despite under-representation,
positive portrayals of older adults are reported as more salient (for example Roy and
Harwood 1997). One reason for this may be the importance of positivity in
advertising in general, since positive associations with the product need to be
enforced. However, the rationale for coding an older character as ‘positively’
portrayed is not always clear in content analytic studies.
As regards products, older people tend to appear in adverts for certain types of
products rather than others, reflecting stereotypical expectations about behaviour and
characteristics linked with older people as a social group. Older adults advertising
food, pharmaceutical products, health aids and financial / insurance products and
services have been found to be the most prevalent categories in both Western and
Eastern contexts (Williams et al. 2010, Prieler 2012).
Beyond content analysis
In content analytic studies images are broken down into components and portrayals
are divided into a set of discrete categories and trait-like dimensions. Thus we learn
that older people are portrayed positively/negatively, as healthy, or humorously and
so on, and how often this happens in a particular context. We are to assume that
frequency relates to importance or even impact on viewers/readers. While this
method has been effective in describing general trends and patterns, the contextual
complexity of the depictions is arguably lost. The result is rather a-contextual lists
about the nature of portrayals, but with little indication of the connections between the
items. We therefore have no clear understanding about older people as portrayed for
example in relation to different types of positive and negative characters in specific
To deepen our understanding of portrayals of older people in advertising we can
analyse images according to more complex stereotypical categories in order to know
what kinds of stereotypes are being used. This was done by Miller, Leyell and
Mazachek (2004), who used stereotypes classified by Hummert and colleagues (1994)
to examine portrayals on TV adverts. The most commonly depicted stereotype they
found was that of ‘adventurous’ Golden Ager, followed by the Perfect Grandparent
and the Productive Golden Ager (in Hummert and colleagues’ taxonomy, these are
positive stereotypes held by people of all ages: the ‘Perfect Grandparent’ is kind,
loving and family oriented, and the ‘Golden Ager’ lively, adventurous and alert).
Although this research helps to elaborate our understanding of these portrayals, Miller
and colleagues’ use of Hummert’s stereotypes applies a coding system that is given
‘a-priori’ from a source not originally developed in an advertising context. Research
carried out by Williams and colleagues (2010), in contrast, sought to devise a
typology that emerged from advertising materials (UK magazine adverts) themselves.
The six types were labelled as: Golden-Ager; Perfect Grandparent; ‘Legacy’/
‘Mentor’ themes; Coper; Comedic and Celebrity Endorser.
The label ‘Golden-Ager’ described older people portrayed as full of zest, often having
glamorous and luxurious lifestyles, in other words, prototypical media representations
of ‘third agers’. ‘Perfect Grandparents’ were shown with grandchildren, sometimes
depicting several generations, often in close-ups of smiling, happy families. ‘Legacy’
themes referred to older persons depicted with ‘gravitas’ and status, typically in
mentor roles with implied experience and wisdom (and these tended to be older men).
‘The Coper’, on the other hand, had a problem – such as a (minor) disability - but was
coping with it because of the product being sold, and ‘Comedic’ older people were
those depicted in humorous situations. ‘Celebrity Endorsers’ were well known older
adults in the public eye who endorsed products, typically acting as positive role
models. These categories were largely confirmed by audience research with
respondents across age groups. We cannot correlate these types of portrayals with
positive / negative images in a straightforward way, although negative depictions
mostly linked with the ‘Coper’ type, and positive depictions with all the others, with
the ‘Comedic’ category being more ambiguous. In order to evaluate the
representations and their potential effects, it is also important to consider other
contextual factors, such as the target audience of the adverts. We will now move on to
discussing one such study.
Effects of advertising targets
Williams, Ylänne, Wadleigh and Chen (2010) investigated UK magazine adverts
depicting older adults, comparing adverts in Saga Magazine (a glossy, subscription-
only high circulation magazine for the 50+ audience) with those appearing in ten
general readership magazines. The main differences were the frequency of adverts
containing (an) older model(s), their prominence as central characters and product
Predictably, Saga contained by far the most such adverts by number, although older
people featured as central (as opposed to secondary or peripheral) characters most
often in all the magazines (including Saga). ‘Golden Ager’ was the most frequent type
of portrayal in both Saga and other magazines, followed by ‘Coper’ and ‘Perfect
Grandparent’ in Saga but ‘Mentor’ and ‘Comedic’ in other magazines. Older adults
were most commonly used in adverts for help/support and medical/health products in
Saga, but for food and drink, followed by entertainment and technological products in
other publications. Adverts in Saga were less likely to feature older people in
humorous situations and more likely to feature them in home and family as opposed
to outdoor settings, as was the case in the other magazines.
These observations were linked to the products advertised and their target audiences.
Over 60 percent of all the adverts were aimed at older consumers in some way (coded
as ‘age exclusive’) and, predictably, the vast majority of these appeared in Saga. It
was mainly in general readership magazines that older protagonists featured
‘incidentally’ and not just as ‘tokens’ of age as is often the case in advertising, where
older adults index longevity or experience, for example. In these magazines, ‘age
contrastive’ adverts, which distanced the older character from the audience, also
appeared (and some of these accounted for the humorous depictions). ‘Age-targeted’
advertising is a somewhat fuzzy concept, though, as some Saga readers might not
self-identify with the imagery in adverts for help and support aids, for example, but
instead align as potential buyers of such goods for older family members. In general,
the adverts in Saga can, however, provide opportunities for in-group identification for
older readers. Media and advertising portrayals are one resource for ageing
individuals to learn what it is like to be old.
Discourses and images of ageing in the media
Third Age publications
In the UK, magazines such as Yours, Choice and Saga Magazine have, for some time,
proclaimed as their mission to counter-influence negative stereotypes of older age.
They present editorial and advertising content that fosters a positive self-image and a
healthier and more dynamic lifestyle for older persons (Bytheway 2003, Featherstone
and Hepworth 1995). Featherstone and Hepworth’s (1995) longitudinal (1972-1993)
case study of the Choice magazine (formerly Retirement Choice) is a good example of
the emergence of (post)modern notions of successful ageing, dominated by images of
middle-aged and older adults looking relatively glamorous, healthy, youthful, and
indeed to an extent ‘ageless’. However, as Featherstone and Hepworth pointed out,
the emphasis in the magazine on a lifestyle based on consumerism is out of financial
reach for many older people, and there is little engagement with the problems of later
life that are still an everyday reality for many. At the same time, the primary ‘third
age’ target audience and the aspirational function of the magazine(s) need to be taken
into account in analyses and critique of these media, since the ‘reality’ they present is
heavily mediated and also driven by advertising agendas to appeal to a specific
demographic. Such publications exemplify ‘the commercialized retirement culture’
(Katz 2013: 36) that has become widespread.
Mediated constructions of successful ageing were also examined in a more recent
study by Lumme-Sandt (2011), who examined images of ageing in a Finnish 50+
magazine (ET), focussing on their potential influence on individuals’ self-perception.
Three dominant discourses emerged in the human interest articles: freedom from
work and predetermined roles, including possibilities for new identities; activity,
which, besides physical activity, also included retaining mental agility and curiosity
into older age; and looking good/taking care of one’s appearance, which in more
recent (2006) issues also included praise for ‘graceful’ ageing, and not emulating
youth. These themes which promote activity and self-care are echoed in much third
age marketing more globally (Katz 2005, Chen and Ylänne 2012). Lumme-Sandt and
Uotila (2012) also comment on the coverage (in ET) of love and intimate relationships
at older age, which is emerging as a notable theme, albeit in a frame that is limited in
that it tends to construct the maintenance of intimate relationships (see also Marshall
2010) and successful coupledom as markers of successful ageing.
Ageing well and health issues are frequent themes in advertising for older cohorts.
Ylänne, Williams and Wadleigh (2009), in their examination of adverts with a health
and well-being focus, depicting older adults (in a cross section of UK magazines),
found an underlying assumption of decline with age as well as risk in the data.
Prominent themes in the adverts, achieved via linguistic and semiotic means, included
the maintenance of independence and quality of life; managing risks; staying healthy
and active; taking pride in appearance; and discourses of responsibility and choice.
Advertising frequently draws on associations between increasing age and health
concerns (and this partly accounts for older adults appearing in such adverts) and
these adverts emphasise the need to take control of one’s health as an ageing person.
In this respect, the discourses echo those found in anti-ageing adverts which in
addition to idealising youth and presenting old age as disease, also promise control
and even ‘cure’ for ageing and its associated physical and visible signs (Calasanti,
Sorensen and King 2012).
The body and body work (and beauty work) has acquired a central position in the
representations and discourses of ageing. Successful ageing is equated with active
ageing which is positively presented as the aspirational ideal of ageing well,
especially in media and advertising targeting the over 50s. This can be interpreted as a
type of age denial, potentially creating a binary opposition between successfully and
unsuccessfully ageing bodies. Gilleard and Higgs (2013: 166) propose, however, that
‘[i]n being minded to bother about one’s body, individuals can feel that their body
still matters’. The ‘new ageing’, Gilleard and Higgs suggest, entails not so much
clinging onto youth, but wishing to retain coherence in one’s identity, life narrative
and everyday practices by a ‘generation that has learned to privilege choice,
autonomy, self-expression and pleasure’ (ibid.). Diachronic coherence is undoubtedly
important for ageing selves, but the ideology of resisting change seems ubiquitous in
mediated representations of ageing.
Besides looking at the ideologies, discourses and images of ageing that can be
identified in adverts (and media more generally), cultural gerontologists might also
profitably investigate how and for what purposes older adults feature in specific
advertising campaigns. An example of a recent qualitative study by Yoon and Powell
(2012) focused on two campaigns by leading UK stores, Tesco (supermarket) and
Marks & Spencer (M&S; major high street retailer), featuring older celebrities.
Tesco’s ‘Dotty campaign’ (1995-2005) featured an ‘ever-challenging, difficult,
demanding, interfering, annoying, bossy and fanatical’ (Yoon and Powell 2012: 1329)
older female character played by the British actor, Prunella Scales. The campaign
helped improve the company’s fortunes in the 1990s and construct an image of a
helpful, proactive supermarket, even in the face of the most demanding customer,
embodied in ‘Dotty’. This was an example of a celebrity acting a part based on an
‘invented’ character, who had a broad audience appeal, but who nevertheless
functioned as ‘perpetuating and reinforcing the negative stereotyping of older people’
(ibid.) - especially women - and drawing on the popular negative mother-in-law
theme (which, in the UK context, comprises demanding and somewhat cantankerous
qualities) in the story-line.
M&S, on the other hand, have (since 2005) reaped the benefits of the ‘Twiggy effect’,
featuring the older female model Twiggy as a celebrity endorser in their advertising,
and providing babyboomers with a potential ‘projective identification’ (Yoon and
Powell 2012: 1330) with someone they would have recognised since her supermodel
days in the 1960s. ‘[L]ocating Twiggy within a group of younger models ... taps into
the recognition that one can aspire to look one’s best irrespective of age’, positioning
‘consumption as a process’ (1329-1330) across the lifespan. The appeal, especially to
older females, relies on Twiggy not standing out as an ‘other’. Whereas the Tesco
campaign used a traditional, negative stereotype of an older woman that consumers at
large recognised, the M&S campaign provided aspirational images of a celebrity. A
qualitative approach to data highlights different types of portrayal and the ways in
which specific campaigns use older models in ways that go beyond the
categorisations used in simple content analysis approach.
Humour contributes to the regulation of social norms and the status of social groups
relative to one another, making an examination of humorous media advertising
portrayals of older people worth-while. Williams (unpublished) investigated over 300
such UK TV adverts (from 2000s) and these revealed a variety of depictions.
‘Cheeky, fun and playful’ older characters were portrayed engaging in light hearted
teasing of others, often in intergenerational (family) contexts, and they had the upper
hand, constituting ‘superiority humour’. ‘Incongruity humour’ arose from a humorous
violation of expectations which followed the setting up - semiotically and
behaviourally - of an extreme stereotype of an older person (such as a ‘little old
lady’). Denigratory humour confirmed negative expectations about older people, such
as their ‘grumpiness’ or declining cognitive abilities. This emerged as a predominant
theme in these adverts. Lastly, mocking humour, a more extreme ridiculing, was
typically found in adverts targeting a young (especially male) audience (see also
Miller et al. 2004). These sometimes featured repulsive and disgusting imagery,
designed to shock (young) viewers and to distance themselves from the older
characters. Whilst viewers are invited to laugh with the older characters in the first
type of portrayal, the others typically evoke laughing at them. The relationship
between humour and positive/negative stereotyping can be ambiguous, however,
especially as the multimodal medium of TV adverts enables humour to be achieved
by a variety of means (such as sound, image, language). Although we can laugh at
extreme stereotypes in adverts as being out-dated and inaccurate (‘laughable’), it
seems advertisers in the twenty-first century have not altogether abandoned the use of
humorous negative, ageist, caricatures when it comes to older people (see also Low
and Dupuis-Blanchard 2013), so that these can still provide categories for interpreting
older age (especially in publications targeting younger consumers).
Despite global population ageing, older people are still under-represented in media
and advertising contexts. Furthermore, their representations are limited in terms of the
roles they occupy, the products they advertise and the stereotypes that are evoked in
the representations. Older characters often index qualities such as experience,
longevity and traditional family values. These roles are likely to have positive
connotations. But especially in adverts targeting younger audiences, older adults can
appear as targets of ridicule or as extreme caricatures that rely on negative
associations with ageing, ‘othering’ older people. Third age marketing, on the other
hand, provides aspirational images of successful ageing tied up with consumerist
lifestyles. Although the imagery of active and healthy ‘golden agers’ appears positive,
it also promotes idealistic notions of individual agency in the management of the
ageing process. Negative imagery also works to this end in highlighting age-related
risks as problems for which solutions are provided. Variation in ageing successfully
or in lifestyles is not promoted in advertising.
Fifty plus marketing and its representations of older adults has to be interpreted in a
socio-historical context, taking into account cohort effects. These, together with
general aims of advertising and older adults’ reported self perception of lower
subjective and cognitive age than chronological age (and advertisers’ assumption of
this), go some way in accounting for the under-representation, especially of people
over 65, in advertising. So although representations of older people in advertising and
media more generally can provide a rich resource for cultural gerontology, the images
therein are highly context specific cultural constructs that offer versions of older age
for very specific purposes.
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