The University Record, September 6, 1994

Ads lag in portraying older adults

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Despite the tremendous increase in the number of older Americans, only 5 percent of ads sampled over the last 100 years in two of the largest national magazines portrayed older people.

And the images of older adults that have appeared tend to reinforce stereotypes about both aging in general and aging women in particular, according to a study presented at the Gerontological Society of America’s meeting in July.

“The creators of print ads often see themselves as shaping popular consciousness,” says W. Andrew Achenbaum, deputy director of the Institute of Gerontology and a professor of history.

“But the creators of the print ads we reviewed seem to be mired in a cultural lag. They’re out of date and out of touch with the changing realities of an aging America.”

For the study, Achenbaum and Uni-versity of Massachusetts graduate students Marianne Matzo and Christopher Rockett analyzed ads in issues of Ladies Home Journal and Time magazine at 20-year intervals from 1889 to 1989.

They analyzed the types of products represented, the major activities portrayed by models in the ads, and whether the models were young or old. To determine whether models were old, the researchers relied on references in the copy to age, grandparenting and retirement; the presence of extensive gray hair, wrinkled skin on the face and hands; and the use of ambulatory aids such as canes, walkers and wheelchairs.

Among the study findings:

  • Time magazine ads portrayed fewer older people of either sex in 1989 than in 1969 despite society’s greater awareness of age.

  • Ladies Home Journal ads portrayed fewer older men since 1969, but more older women.

  • In both publications for much of the century, older men were portrayed in positions of authority, power, reliability and trust. But in 1989 issues, older men were more likely to be used to peddle popcorn, margarine and smoke detectors than to represent the corporate power image they embodied earlier in the century.

  • Older women were generally portrayed as passive, marginal members of families. Instead of showing their whole body, ads tended to focus on parts of the body, usually the head, shoulders and hands.

  • Despite the diversity of today’s aging population, ads picturing older Americans lacked the texture and heterogeneity of ads depicting younger Americans.