Combating Ageism in Media and Marketing

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By The Ageism Taskforce at the International Longevity Center -- USA

The world is experiencing an unprecedented increase in average life expectancy and population aging, described as a revolution in longevity. In the twentieth century, the industrialized world gained some 30 additional years of life, greater than had been attained during the preceding 5,000 years of human history and transforming what was once the experience of the few to the destiny of many.

In primitive societies, old age was frequently valued. 1 Older persons often provided knowledge, experience and institutional memory that was of adaptive, and even survival value to their societies. However, as the number and percentage of older persons, especially the frail and demented increased, the perception grew that they were burdens to their families and society.

The status of older persons and our attitudes toward them are not only rooted in historic and economic circumstances, they also derive from deeply held human concerns and fears about the vulnerability inherent in the later years of life. Such feelings can translate into contempt and neglect.

A transformative generation
Baby boomers, the largest generation in U.S. history, have now reached age 60. They will probably be a transforming generation in part because of their numbers, with one out of five Americans projected to be over 65 in 2025, and in part because of their unique position in society. Baby boomers are more educated than the generations that preceded them and have a history of social activism and a sense of entitlement. Hopefully, they will utilize their numerical and educational advantages to promote an agenda for action, characterized by decisive efforts to transform the culture and experience of aging in America, to enrich the everyday lives of all who would grow old, and strengthen the social context in which people grow old.

Media and marketing
“It is clear that the media’s obsession with youth often comes at the expense of older
Americans. In the quest to target youth, media and marketing have ignored the purchasing power and preferences of millions of baby boomers and seniors across the country.”

-- Senator John Breaux, chairman, 2002 Special Senate Committee Hearing on Aging

The opinions younger people have of older people and the relationships they share, as well as the views older people have of themselves, 2 are directly affected by how older people are depicted on television, in the news media, in film, and in advertising. Each plays a role in perpetuating ageism, with Madison Avenue venerating youth and denying aging as a natural part of the life process, and media managers increasingly seeking to satisfy the tastes of young people, whom they consider to be the most important part of the public.

Older adults are rapidly becoming the largest market segment in society and will possess the most purchasing power of any demographic in human history, but advertising in contrast to other industries, such as travel and insurance, has been slow to respond to the new demographic realities brought upon by population aging.

There are a couple of reasons why the advertising industry has been slow to respond to the growing older market. First, the writers and art directors who create the majority of advertisements tend to be relatively young. Workplace ageism is a dominant trend in youth-oriented industries such as advertising, where workers over 40 are considered “old.” According to a 1995 survey by American Demographics, the average corporate ad rep was 31, and the average ad agency account executive was 28. 3 (Ten years later, Leo Bogart corroborated that this is still true). 4

Given this disparity between agency demographics and those of the marketplace, there is an inevitable disconnect between what people in advertising think older people want and the reality.

Second, there is a long-held belief in the advertising industry that brand loyalty must begin at an early age, that consumers over 30 are too set in their ways to switch brands and preferences and are less susceptible to advertisements.

According to a recent AARP survey with Roper ASW, the relationship between brand loyalty and age is largely overstated. The survey found that an individual’s consumer experience, not her age, dictates brand choice. 5

The world is changing too rapidly to assume brand loyalty because some years ago many of the products did not even exist. Consider that leading advertising categories today -- laptop computers, credit cards, brokerage services, cruise vacations, luxury SUVs, Internet service providers and prescription drugs -- barely existed during the decades when the conventional wisdom was created. All of them are more likely to be initially purchased by somewhat older consumers.

Film and television
Notwithstanding the falloff of young television viewers because of the ascendancy of video games, the Internet and cable stations, and the fact that the 50-plus age group is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, television programming in the United States continues to focus heavily on people between the ages of 18 and 49.

Distorted depiction of older persons
Television and films tend to portray older women and men as one-dimensional. In his study Aging with Television: Images on Television Drama and Conceptions of Social Reality, George Gerbner notes that “we did not find watching television to be associated with any positive images of older people. Heavy viewers believe that the elderly are unhealthy, in worse shape financially, not active sexually, closed-minded, not good at getting things done, and so on.” 6 Written in 1980, this observation still has relevance today. For example, few soap operas have characters representing grandparents, aunts, older doctors, lawyers, or neighbors, for the world of soap operas is composed of young adults. At best older persons are portrayed as being sweet, childlike, peaceful, comical, absentminded or befuddled. At worst they are repulsive, feeble, irrational or out of touch with reality.

Older professionals in film and TV
In 2005, the number of people age 65 and older had risen to 12.7 percent of the population. This cohort is represented in less than 2 percent of programs on primetime television. 7 In contrast to the distribution of age groups in the American population, the curve of people seen on television bulges in the middle years and under-represents both young and old people. In 2003, the Screen Actors Guild reported that only 27 percent of all women’s roles on prime-time television went to women over age 40, and they were typically cast as victims: betrayed, abandoned and abused. SAG also reported that more than twice as many roles are available for actors under the age of 40 than for actors older than 40. 8

Television advertising
A brief perusal of several recent television commercials clearly illustrates the ageist bias that permeates advertising and mass media:

  • A soft drink commercial features an older man and his grandson. The man’s hand is shaking so much from the ravages of age that his grandson is able to exploit his condition and shake up a bottled beverage.
  • An office supply company commercial features an older woman and her family. The confused woman errantly takes a photograph of her family with a stapler.
  • An ad for bottled water features an older man in a nursing home. After drinking the vitamin-infused beverage, the man gains the strength to flirt with his nurse.
  • An ad that first ran during the Super Bowl features an older couple. Fighting over a bag of chips, they push each other to the floor and hit each other with their canes. The woman loses the battle and winds up holding her husband’s dentures.

A recent example of comparative advertising rates on the WB Network, known for exclusively catering to a young audience, versus CBS, once known for attracting the oldest viewers of the major networks, demonstrates how little advertisers value the older market. 9 Several years ago, the WB’s hit show was Dawson’s Creek, which appealed to teens and people in their twenties. Four million people watched the show, and the network charged about $100,000 per 30-second ad. During the same time slot, CBS ran its popular program 60 Minutes that brought in some 15 million viewers. However, CBS could charge only a few thousand dollars more than the WB for their ads despite reaching nearly four times the viewers.

The impact of advertising on society
As a major component of the mass media that influence mainstream culture, advertising often mirrors contemporary life in both its best and worst aspects.

People over 50 make up the largest share of television audiences, spending 30 to 40 percent more time watching than the rest of the population. 10 That a fast-growing number of older persons will be exposed to ageism across a variety of media should be cause for concern in both a business sense and in a wider societal one.

Portraying customers in a demeaning way may backfire, in that diminishing the self-esteem of older people may eventually lead them to make fewer purchases. 11 Some marketing researchers concur that when older people see nothing directed at them, they gradually lose their sense of themselves as consumers, which dampens their consumer spending. 12

Many Americans start developing stereotypes about older people during childhood, reinforce them throughout adulthood, and enter old age with attitudes toward their own age group as unfavorable as younger people’s attitudes. Such internalization and self-stereotyping of aging leads to a number of detrimental changes, including a decline in memory performance, self-efficacy, will to live, and a heightened cardiovascular response to stress. Conversely, older individuals’ positive stereotypes of aging can have a beneficial effect on these outcomes. Older people with positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than did those with negative images of growing older. 13

The tide is turning
There are currently 76 million aging baby boomers who are likely to transform the culture and experience of aging in America as they have changed other facets of life, and experts are developing new insights into how to reach the mature market. Products targeting baby boomers are set to become the next big ad category in the coming years. 14 Workshops, websites and how-to books abound on reaching the mature market. In the new marketing environment, successful marketers will need to understand older consumers’ needs and aspirations and include more realistic images of older persons across all media. The sheer numbers and wealth of the next generation of older persons demand no less.

As veteran marketing and advertising expert John Zweig notes, the new marketing environment offers the opportunity to support “values of meaning and contribution that are appropriate for older people to embrace as their material lives wind down. This should not be a fact that we ignore or deny, as it is one of the real opportunities of aging that we can become less concerned with the superficial and more focused on core values.” 15



  1. K. Pillemer and D. Finkelhor, "The prevalence of elder abuse: a random survey," The Gerontologist 28 (1988), 51-7.
  2. B.R. Levy, M.D. Slade, S.R. Kunkel, and S.V. Kasl, “Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83, 2 (2002) 261–70.
  3. J. Surowiecki, “Ageism in advertising,” The New Yorker, April 1, 2002, 40.
  4. See L. Bogart, Over the Edge: How the Pursuit of Youth by Marketers and the Media Has Changed American Culture (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publishing, 2005) for a comprehensive discussion on the historic changes in mass media and its impact on American culture.
  5. H. Chura, “Ripe old,” Advertising Age, May 5, 2002, 16.
  6. G. Gerbner, L. Gross, N. Signorelli, and M. Morgan, “Aging with television: images on television drama and conceptions of social reality,” Journal of Communication 30 (1980), 37–41.
  7. “Watching more TV increases seniors’ negative views of aging,” Senior Journal, June 8, 2005 ( 28/TVimage.htm, accessed January 2006).
  8. Telephone communication with Los Angeles SAG representative, January 2006.
  9. Surowiecki.
  10. “Over 60 and overlooked,” The Economist,” August 10, 2002, U.S. edition.
  11. J. Chevron, “Brand, brand on the wall; what ads can tell buyers about themselves,” Advertising Age, November 26, 2001, 22.
  12. R.A. Lee, “The youth bias in advertising,” American Demographics, January 1997.
  13. Levy et al.
  14. L. Dobrow, “Boomers, electronics hold promise of prime growth,” Advertising Age, March 21, 2005, S4.
  15. J. Zweig, personal communication.


The Anti-ageism Taskforce of the International Longevity Center-USA (ILC-USA) is a multidisciplinary team that is working to develop a body of knowledge about the many aspects of ageism in American society. The taskforce is led by Dr. Robert N. Butler, the president and CEO of the ILC-USA, who first coined the term "ageism" in 1968 when he was chairman of the Washington D.C. Advisory Committee on Aging.

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