Images of Aging

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The mass media's neglect of older peopleand the often distorted presentation of elders as uniformly robust "golden years" retirees on the golf courseis generally regarded as regrettable, but financially understandable. Economic interests in news, entertainment, and advertising are used to rationalize the marketplace bias against anything more than an incidental inclusion of older age groups. This bottom-line approach is driven by the quest for dollars that slip through youthful fingers. Young families are considered to be more easily swayed by brand appeals than affluent but tight-fisted seniors, who are supposedly set in their consumerist ways. Yet, those who have taken a harder look have seen the ageism pervading the media as a tangled skein of stereotypes dyed by unfounded assumptions that are threaded with financial and political conflicts of interest. The devaluing of older people in the media is reinforced by the acrid image of geezers, a disparaging term that has become commonplace in major-media descriptions of elders.

Geezer bashing

The provocative phrase, greedy geezers, was embossed on generational politics by a dramatically illustrated cover of the New Republic (see Figure 1). It showed a fearsome old man leading a charge of elders evidently bent, as the accompanying article would claim, on draining the nation's economy through massive entitlement spending for their own comfort. Since then, the term geezer has been increasingly applied to older adults, despite the word's obvious use by proponents of one side of a political controversy who want to diminish sympathy for the beneficiaries of public policies they would like to reverse. Principal examples in the year 2000 included crass references to "geezers" and the "old farts in Washington" by conservative syndicated newspaper columnist Michelle Malkin and an acerbic description of "increasingly fat, rested and healthy. . .geezers" by The New Republic 's "TRB" columnist Andrew Sullivan. These negative political associations are reinforced by the frequently invoked image of elders as an unstoppable forceSan Francisco Chronicle Washington correspondent Carolyn Lockhead described them as "probably the most powerful voting bloc in America."

There is no mistaking that the stream of images depicting generational greed, profligate political potency, and economic impotency among older adults have political consequences. For example, public-policy analysts Merril Silverstein, Fay Lomax Cook, and colleagues compared public opinion data from 1990 to 1997, "a period characterized by the intensification of generational politics." Their study found much good news for advocates of existing social policies, such as that 74 percent of all Americans still supported Social Security and Medicare "as an earned right." However, the researchers also discerned that "the public has grown more apprehensive about the value of government programs serving the elderly." The report showed, in part, that "perceptions of the elderly as well-off increased over the period. Where 33 percent of the public agreed in 1990 that people over sixty were well-off, this increased to 39 percent in 1997. Interestingly, about the same proportion of the population saw children as well-off in 1990, but by 1997 only 19 percent saw children as well-off. . .This dramatic twenty-point shift suggests that a considerable number of people have come to view the elderly as having a material advantage over children in society." Silverstein and his colleagues noted that most of the increase in this viewpoint came from elders themselves, 53 percent of whom believed that those sixty or older were well-off in 1997.

The image of idle, affluent elders has been reinforced by the limited presentations of older people in advertising. Marc Freedman, in his book, Prime Time, describes "a classic illustration" of idealized retirement that appeared "ironically, in the middle of Peter G. Peterson's May 1996 Atlantic Monthly cover story, 'Will America Grow Up Before it Grows Old?"' According to Freedman, the article lambasts the older population as a bunch of shiftless freeloaders. Among its pages was a glossy full-page ad for the insurance company ITT/Hartford depicting a smartly dressed, youthful-looking older couple dancing on the deck of a boat, kicking up their heels, and laughing like joyous teenagers. Accompanying the idyllic scene was the message: "One day you'll get to act like a kid again, but for now, let's discuss your allowance." Freedman did note a hopeful trend in financial industry advertising toward depictions of social engagement by older people. For example, he cites a 1999 American Express ad showing a trio of elders helping to build a house for Habitats for Humanity. Yet in the year 2000 the relatively few images of elders in advertising continued to show people who are well-heeled and self-absorbed.

Invisible elders

Media images of older people today alternate sharply between the figure of the geezer, who is to be feared and satirized, and of the sweet and vulnerable, if ineffectual, senior citizen. Older women, in particular, are cast in diminished roles or dismissed entirely, not only in the United States but worldwide. The attitude that elders constitute a group not needing to be seen or heard was addressed at the United Nations in New York City during a conference held on 1315 October 1999, titled "The Impact of Globalization on the Images of Older Women." In one presentation, veteran BBC news anchor Nigel Kay reported that his network's recently completed second annual survey of older people in its news and entertainment programming found that even though 20 percent of the British population are sixty or older, only 7 percent of the BBC onscreen population were of that age. "Even more distressing," Kay emphasized, "on television older men significantly outnumber older women by about 70 percent to 30 percent," in spite of the women's holding a 57 percent majority among the country's older citizens.

Kay explained that the network began conducting the yearly television census in cooperation with Age Concern, England's principal nongovernmental organization (NGO) involved with issues in aging, as part of the broadcaster's process of developing policies concerning its treatment of elders.

At one session of the U.N. conference, O. Burtch Drake, president and CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, spoke of women's media image with sharp irony. "Older women are not being portrayed at all; there is no imagery to worry about." Political scientist Hamideh Sedghhi commented that "images of older women differ globally. Perceptions of the aged range from positive traits such as sweet, pleasant, giving, and caring, to negative characteristics like slow, feeble, cranky, and repetitive." She went on to surmise, "Antiaging pursuits and gender stereotyping are economically profitable," especially in the marketing of cosmetics and plastic surgery. Sedgahhi added that often "businesses replace older employees with younger ones in an effort to give the failing organization a more youthful image."

The general absence of older women in the media was underscored at the conference by results of a survey of public broadcasters in six northern European countries (the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Germany). Bernadette van Dijck, who heads the Gender Portrayal Department of the Netherlands Broadcasting Organization in Utrecht, said the 19971998 study revealed that both women and men aged sixty-five or older represented merely 2 percent of the television populations in those nations, and older women "were mainly invisible."

Furthermore, a 1999 British study titled Older Generations in Print surveyed 3,686 articles appearing in 1,096 local, regional, and national news outlets. Its authors state that "older people these days often lead full and active lives, but this rarely is acknowledged in the media." The investigators claim that despite their documenting good coverage of the primary social and political issues regarding Britain's aging demographics, "when it comes to the actual portrayal of older people there is a problem with the identification of old age with vulnerability, epitomized in the predominance of the frail-victim story." The authors continue: "We are not bidding for what is often called a 'positive image' of ageing [sic], since this would suggest something like PR for older people, and that would be just another kind of distortion. We are suggesting that news values need to be more imaginative and diverse."

"Old warhorses" in U.S. newsrooms

In the United States, the attitude of the news media's most highly placed executives toward older audiences was documented by Nancy Hicks Maynard. Maynard came to disturbing conclusions after conducting interviews during more than two years with two hundred of the most influential executives in the media, under a grant from the Freedom Forum, which is sponsored by the Gannett Foundation. Her study was summarized in a series of columns in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Maynard bemoans the dwindling audiences for news and lays the blame squarely on a "generation gap" in newsrooms. She writes that in the last two decades of the twentieth century both the audience and newsroom staffs aged beyond the point where they respect the more lucrative and modern interests in the news industry. "The gray-haired set has captured the news business," she writes. "This generational domination is far more complete than gender or even racial gaps, and it may be a factor in young adults' news consumption patterns and the shrinking audience for traditional news." The negative impression of older audiences, as viewed by Maynard's informants, is reflected in one solution for increasing younger audiences. According to Maynard, many journalists "preparing the news shy away from today's tools and rules" of high-tech interactivity. She writes that "Journalists with these sensibilities don't connect with the young, and neither does their coverage. Some news executives are beginning to understand this. As they do, in the finite world of print, they unceremoniously ax the old warhorses to make way for something new. In 1999, the New York Times fired from its op-ed page both humorist Russell Baker and former executive editor Abe Rosenthal. They were replaced by clever baby boomers. . . ."

Old warhorses, dead wood, and related images suggesting that older people place a drag on productivity and momentum toward future growth are routinely expressed in policies of the entertainment and advertising industriesoften in ways that directly affect how, or whether, more mature themes or images are represented on movie or television screens. For example, in October 2000, a group of twenty-eight highly successful Hollywood screenwriters (who were later joined by many other screenwriters) filed a federal class-action suit against the major networks, studios, and talent agencies claiming they participated in a "systematic" pattern of age discrimination. The Los Angeles Times reported (24 October 2000) that the lawsuit, which was later dismissed by the court, cited a 1998 study commissioned by the Writers Guild of America "showing the decreased rate of writers forty and older on broadcast-network sitcoms and dramas. According to the report, for instance, nearly 75 percent of writers within the guild age thirty or younger were employed in 1997, versus 46 percent of those in their 40s and 32 percent of those in their 50s."

The ageism affecting older screenwriters and actors runs so deep in the media's impressions about its economic interests that a television network's bottom line is most heavily damaged if it is identified as attracting an "old audience," a phrase used by the New York Times in referring to CBS. In his "Television" column, Times writer Bill Carter reminded readers that CBS was "once the butt of jokes by all its rivals for having a core audience of viewers who signed on to see Jack Benny and haven't quit yet." Later that month, the Wall Street Journal (24 October) reported in a front-page story that NBC had lost ground in competition for "the coveted 18 to 49 age group." The article stressed, "In the past three years, the median age of NBC's audience has risen to forty-five from forty-one, a bad omen for advertising revenues."

Advertising rates trump ratings

What neither the New York Times nor the Wall Street Journal article explained is that attracting older viewers loses moneyeven if the older audience for a show is significantly larger than that of a competing show drawing younger viewers. For example, Lawrence K. Grossman, former president of both NBC News and PBS, wrote "Newscasts tend to attract older audiences, a serious deficiency in an industry dedicated to the single-minded pursuit of the young adults advertisers prize most. TV time buyers pay $23.54 per thousand viewers to reach 18 to 35 year olds and only $9.57 per thousand for those over the age of 35, according to industry sources." (Grossman).

Grossman's article also contradicts Maynard's assertion that the interests of older new consumers are already fulfilled in current programming. According to Grossman, "to lower their audience's age level and raise profitability, TV news producers, national and local alike, keep lightening the content of their newscasts, filling them with titillating tabloid items about crime, celebrities, and gossip, while playing down serious reporting about government, international affairs, and major public issues, whose appeal is thought to be confined mainly to older viewers." Grossman goes on to admit, "When I ran NBC News. . .I was as guilty of the age myopia as anyone."

The connection between advertising and what audiences see of older people, if they see them at all, was examined by Anna Nolan Rahman and Elyse Salend when they conducted media research during the early and mid-1990s. In an article for the American Society on Aging newspaper, Aging Today (January-February 1995, page 11), they explained that highly successful programs featuring older actors, such as CBS's "Murder She Wrote" with Angela Lansbury, earned lower advertising revenue per minute than its more youth-attracting rival, "Lois and Clark," even though "Murder She Wrote" was rated number sixteen among all television shows in the May 1995 "sweeps" (twice-yearly periods when ratings are used to adjust ad rates), and "Lois and Clark," a romantic Superman adventure series, landed in the ninety-eighth spot. The same demographic bias, according to Rahman and Salend, causes "most of the major-market stations in the syndication arena" to turn down opportunities to replay even highly successful programs appealing to mature viewers.

Rahman and Salend traced "a key reason" for the television industry's dogged pursuit of younger audiences to a development in the early 1950s. They explained that "when ABC was launched, the fledgling network, concentrated mostly in urban areas, had difficulty attracting older viewers, who were tuned to CBS and NBC. ABC was popular, however, among 18-to-34 year olds. Desperate for a sales hook, ABC decided to turn what was then considered a negative into a positive. Rahman and Salend quote Arnold Becker, who worked at ABC in its early years and was later vice president of Entertainment Research at CBS, as saying that ABC linked the young-adult market with adults 35 to 49 and "started singing the praises of the 18-to-49-year-old group." Becker told them that the ABC pitch used such phrases as, "Get them to buy when they're young, you'll get them for life." Or, "The young will try new things," and the refrain, "The old are set in their ways." Becker added that these age-based statements are "baloney . . . they're not true."

Advertisers' misconceptions

Maynard echoes another common misconceptions about older consumers: "While older people have the most money and spend a lot of it, mass media advertising influences them the least." This assertion is coming under increasing fire from others in advertising and marketing. Maynard goes on, "A number of high-end or specialty magazines cater to their tastes. The young women who control the family purse are the biggest target for the mass media, so advertisers pay a premium to get their attention." This convention of the advertising industry was criticized by Richard A. Lee. According to his 1995 study, "Advertising industry denial of changes in family structure that make per capita spending more important than household spending is a major contributor to ageism in advertising."

Lee describes the advertising industry's adherence to household spending "as a fixation on life as it was with the Cleavers," where mom buys all of the food and kids' clothes and dad buys the family car. He suggests that they would be better served by focusing on per capita spending, which the field's own data shows is more lucrative. He dismisses the "Leave it to Beaver" model of marketing to households as the primary consumer unit, calling this approach "a useful myth." He explains, "If the industry starts shifting toward per capita spending as the measure of consumer potential, [it] will be obligated to shift away from media advertising where economies of scale are based on the presence of household buying units."

Lee's research, conducted in cooperation with the Association of Advertising Agencies International, included 206 employees at thirty-eight advertising agencies in distinct markets across the United States. The study found that those surveyed generally ignore older audiences, even though one of their most commonly available sources of economic and demographic data, the Official Guide to Household Spending shows that "per capita consumer spending peaks in the 55 to 64 age range, and 65 to 74 year olds outspend 35 to 44 year olds." Lee found, however, that 80 percent of ad agency staff who completed the survey overestimated the number of consumers over age fifty; "75 percent underestimated the discretionary spending power" of older consumers, and 85 percent fell short in guessing the personal net worth of aging Americans.

According to Lee, advertising-agency professionals erroneously visualize mature audiences as "A lot of poor people with little consumer potential." Moreover, 54 percent of respondents agreed with false statements that "seniors buy price" or are mainly cost conscious, and "seniors don't switch brands."

Careful not to point blame at young ad executives, Lee criticizes industry leaders for unfounded notions revealed in statements such as: "We need to hire some young punks with attitude," and "the only thing that sells in America are youth, sex, and protection against aging."

Increasingly, the view that older consumers are under-appreciated is gaining support in the advertising and marketing industries. An article by the American Advertising Federation titled "Senior Spending" notes that, "while Generation Y is appealing to marketers, focusing on the senior population, an oft-forgotten group, also can be highly profitable." This article cites findings of a 1999 survey of six hundred people aged five and older conducted by Research 100 of Princeton, N.J. This proprietary study found that seniors are "neither frugal nor set in their ways" and spend "more time considering new brands and products than other age groups." Further, according to the article, Zona Research, Inc. "reports that seniors fifty-five and older spent three times as much on Internet purchases during the 1998 holiday season than the average holiday shopper." The article concludes that "To capitalize on this senior market, advertisers need to shed their misconceptions and age biases. . . .This exploding market can be of great benefit to advertisers, if only they take the initiative and target them." Brad Edmondson, former editor of American Demographics, emphasizes that ". . .The boomers are not the only market in America.. . .In particular, our data also show that generations older than the baby boom are gaining consumer power, so that robust spending on some products may be emerging among householders in their 70s and 80s."

Hopeful signs

There are, however, hopeful signs for a more representative presentation of older people in the U.S. media. For example, Lawrence K. Grossman describes the emergence of the age beat in journalism in many parts of the United States. Unlike other single-focus assignments in newsrooms, he writes, the agebeat is "not a special interest beat, or what in current media jargon is called a 'niche' beat, but one of the most important general interest beats of the coming century."

The age beat began to emerge in earnest in the United States in the early 1990s. In 1993, a half-dozen reporters among those covering the American Society on Aging (ASA) Annual Meeting in Chicago met to form the Journalists Exchange on Aging (JEoA), a group that has since then produced the Age Beat newsletter and has developed and cosponsored educational programs for journalists with a range of organizations, including the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Communication, the Freedom Forum, the AARP Andrus Foundation, and the International Longevity Center. Based at ASA in San Francisco, it has provided networking opportunities for journalists and an informal information exchange for background and sources on the complexities of covering issues in aging. By summer 2001, the group listed almost seven hundred media journalists who follow the concerns of the aging population enough to want to receive the group's information.

Results from the Third National Survey of Journalists on Aging, cited in Aging Today (March-April 2001), showed that the 149 respondents are "seasoned and sensitized" to issues of growing older. The typical reporter covering aging is a woman (61 percent of respondents) who has been a professional journalist for 22.4 years and has produced stories on aging during the past 8.5 years for at least part of her editorial work. The study, conducted by JEoA, found that 95.5 percent of participants had "experienced aspects of issues in aging" themselves or through their families. More strikingly, 98.4 percent of those who have been touched personally by facets of aging agreed that their experience had affected their "journalistic perspective." This affirmed that their personal experience informed their perspective, rather than compromised their objectivity. Of 115 respondents to the question, "Do you feel most other reporting you see/hear on issues (such as Social Security and Medicaid) is accurate and balanced," 40 percent said no.

These respondents represented a growing corps of veterans of the age beat that has developed at such news organizations as Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Orange County Register, The Oregonian, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Arizona Republic, Consumer Reports, Consumer Digest, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Oklahoman, and numerous dailies in Florida.

In Life in an Older American Grossman observed, "It can only be hoped that with more journalism training, education and experience, coverage of generational issues will become more practiced and therefore more intelligent and sophisticated. As older people lead younger lifestyles, society will have little choice but to adopt patterns of relationships that reflect not generational battles but integrated living among generations. Generational separation and segregation should give way to community models in which vigorous older people serve as valuable resources for the young. . ."

Paul Kleyman


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