Visual Perception Changes in the Aging Eye: The Elderly May Not See What You Want Them to See
Mader, Deanna D., Mader, Fred H., Academy of Marketing Studies Journal
A current major marketing mistake is an ineffective effort to market to the elderly (Flanagan, 1994). Even though the increasing size and economic power of the elderly population have been noted in published research (e.g. Day, Davis, Dove, & French, 1987/1988; Henderson, 1998; Long, 1998), marketing errors of commission and omission have occurred. Older adults have been negatively stereotyped (Sherman, 1987; Moore, 1988) and underrepresented in advertising (Milliman & Erffmeyer, 1989/1990), poorly segmented, and sometimes - ignored (Long, 1998; Moore, 1988). These mistakes are due, in part, to the fact that many marketers have looked at subjective rather than objective information regarding the elderly and, at times, have viewed elderly consumers as old young consumers. In reality, there are many differences between young and old consumers, some of which include differences in physical mobility (Rosendahl, 1992), cognitive processing abilities (Stephens, 1991), and sensory abilities (Long, 1998).
A key sensory ability that changes as a result of aging is the ability to perceive visual stimuli. Visual perception in the older consumer should be a critical area of concern for marketers who target the elderly, because visual perception is often at the root of information processing and resulting consumer behavior. Psychologists, commercial color consultants, and advertisers, for example, use a variety of color hues to elicit emotions and consumer behavioral responses (Lee & Barnes, 1989). Without a doubt, the implications of visual changes in an aging population are numerous for segmentation and targeting (Braus, 1995).
Since humans are highly visually oriented creatures, a better understanding of visual perception in the aging eye will benefit marketers in at least three ways. First, a more thorough knowledge of visual perception in older adults will enhance the general understanding of the later stages of information processing since exposure to stimuli, at least in part, determines what occurs in the later stages. Second, it will play a major role in the development of creative and media strategies, both of which are important to marketers (Lamons, 1992). A quote by Ross (1983) regarding such media decisions is even more pertinent today: "The currently increasing use of a multiplicity of media requires that each individual medium be refined for more effective targeted marketing. Equally important, if not more so, is the significance of media's interrelationship and interdependence as a means of achieving a synergistic effect." Finally, from a consumer standpoint, marketers will be able to address the specific visual needs of the older age group rather than merely treat them as older young people. In an article by Goerne (1992) on direct mail, Schultz was quoted as saying, "We still don't do a very good job of understanding our customer." An understanding of the changes in visual perception that occur with aging will enable marketers to target older consumers more effectively.
All this is not to say that the aging population and its impact on marketing have gone unnoticed. Certainly, numerous articles and chapters with a focus on or a mention of older consumers have been published over the last 15 years. These include discussions of the size of the older segment (Greco, 1984; Longino, 1994; Loudon & Della Bitta, 1988), segments within the older market (Day, Davis, Dove, & French, 1987/1988; French & Fox, 1985; Hitschler, 1993; Lumpkin, 1985; Visvabharathy & Rink, 1985), characteristics/dimensions of older consumers (Lazer, 1985, 1986), marketing mix related issues (Greco, 1987; Peterson, 1992; Schewe, 1988; Stephens, 1991), and information processing (John & Cole, 1986). The information presented by these and other authors has enriched our knowledge of the older segment, thereby enhancing our abilities to study the consumer behaviors of this older segment and to target them more effectively. However, in the various literature reviews and presentations of original research, the critical area of visual perception has been largely overlooked.
The purpose of this article is to advance the application of visual perception theories in marketing strategies targeting the elderly consumer. The literature in marketing, psychology, physiology, ophthalmology, and gerontology has been reviewed extensively in order to provide a solid foundation for understanding how the elderly, or aging, eye differs perceptually from the young eye. From this foundation, marketers will be better able to develop and implement marketing strategies which target the elderly consumer.
CHANGES IN THE PUPIL AND THE LENS
At least two normal yet critical changes occur in the aging eye that affect visual functioning. The first is that the diameter of the pupil diminishes (Botwinick, 1973). The second is that the crystalline lens changes (Leopold, 1965). That is, the lens becomes less transparent due to an accumulation of inert tissue at the center of the lens. In addition, the lens yellows and increases in thickness with aging (Long, 1998; Weale, 1963).
Impact on Color and Contrast
Quantitatively, these changes result in a reduction in the amount of light which reaches the retina (Latham, Whitaker, & Wild, 1994). In fact, a 60 year-old's retina can receive approximately only 30% of the light that reaches a 20year-old's retina (Long, 1998). Qualitatively, the yellowing of the lens results in a change in the spectral quality of the light perceived by the viewer (Pollack & Atkeson, 1978). According to Said and Weale (1959), the yellowing causes a further reduction in the perception of the blue part of the spectrum. These conclusions are compatible with those of Gilbert (1957) who found that in persons 60-years old and older there was a loss of sensitivity over the entire spectrum and notably a differential loss at the blue end of the spectrum.
Since less visual stimulation occurs in the older eye, modifications in visual stimuli used in marketing to older consumers are warranted. For example, the choice of color used in packaging and advertisements placed in magazines and newspaper inserts should incorporate the fact that an older person has more difficulty than a younger person in seeing the blue part of the spectrum. A green figure on a blue background (as seen on an actual package) may present an interesting contrast to a younger person, but may cause confusion or present no contrast to an older consumer. In addition, low contrast colors are difficult for the older eye to distinguish. For example, white lettering on a pale blended yellow-green background (as seen in a magazine ad) will not yield the desired impact.
The color choices should also be modified for the older targeted consumer by those organizations using printed materials in direct selling. Nothing, including the business card, should be taken for granted. Turquoise blue copy on a gray background (as seen in an actual support print piece) and red letters on a black background (as seen on a business card) should be avoided. If little or no contrast is perceived, then the exposure will be distorted or perhaps will not occur at all.
Colors and contrasts should be examined in other areas as well. When targeting the elderly, flyers, menus, on-premises signage, web pages, pre-admitting forms, stationery, bags, carry-out boxes, specialty advertising pieces, and computer generated charts and graphs, to name a few, should be designed with the elderly eye in mind. A green or black logo on blue/gray stationery, or orange and red headlines on a blue/green senior center pamphlet are ineffective.
One might say that the above examples would be fine for a younger target market. And to the greater extent, that would be true. However, all of the above examples, and others observed by the authors, were for products and services specifically targeted to the elderly.
Impact on Type Size
Color and contrast are not the only concerns when marketing to older consumers. The visual perception changes that occur as a result of aging dictate that type size should also be considered (Anonymous, 1986). Specifically, type size should be between 12 and 14 points if possible (Zitter, 1990). Here again, what should happen and what does happen are often two different things. On numerous observed packages and in a variety of ads targeting older adults, type size was quite small--less than 9 points.
At the extreme, ignoring these age differences in visual perception could present an actual danger. Consider, for example, the small-type white copy used to communicate directions, warnings, and uses observed on a clear bottle that contained a green poisonous cleaning fluid. To the elderly, the words are nearly invisible.
Technological advances in the printing industry and desktop publishing make the above recommendations for customization not only possible, but also cost effective. Hill (1986) noted the customization of catalogs as a way of reducing cost and unlocking lists which previously could not be mailed. These benefits will become even more apparent when targeting older consumers as they grow in number and as the viable consumer upper age category becomes even older. Impact on Peripheral Vision
From both quantitative and qualitative perspectives, changes in the eye also affect peripheral vision. In two experiments comparing the peripheral vision of young and old adults (Cerella, 1985), it was found that peripheral vision is constricted in elderly adults. In experiment 1, the author found that the breakdown of extrafoveal perception (peripheral vision) of target letters occurred at a greater rate in older than in young adults. In experiment 2, the outer elements in a multicharacter display were seen with greater difficulty or not at all by the older adults. The results of these experiments have strong practical implications with regard to older consumers' perceptions of visual information. Specifically, age decrements in information processing ascribed to decreased attention capacity with age, may in fact be due largely to the age decrements in the underlying perceptual processes. This conclusion is supported by a review of research measuring older adult consumers' cognitive competence (Sorce, 1995).
Since peripheral vision is reduced in the elderly, key pieces of information should not extend into the margins of visual presentations targeted to older persons. This is applicable for some forms of on-premises signage, point-of-purchase displays, transit, and outdoor advertising when close-in visual information incorporates most of the visual field. This finding is important as well with flyers, brochures, and full page, two page, and fold out ads in magazines and newspapers. The consumer may spend extended time with print media in order to digest the important information, however, s/he also may not.
Still further evidence of the effect of optical changes in the aging eye has been found in the study of visual intermittent stimulation, the most widely explored area of which has been critical flicker-fusion frequency (CFF). A flickering light is perceived when a series of equally spaced flashes of light strike the retina, and as the flash frequency increases, the perceived contrast is reduced. In fact, at a sufficiently high rate of repetition, the light appears to be constant rather than flickering. CFF, then, is the point at which flicker disappears for an individual. As a result of this phenomenon, CFF has been classically used as a measure of how persons perceive sequentially presented visual stimuli, or the temporal resolving power of the visual system (Ginsburg, 1970; Landis, 1953, 1954).
CFF studies that have compared the visual perception of young and old adults have been consistent in finding that CFF declines with age (Coppinger, 1955; Misiak, 1947, 1951, 1961; Simonson, Enzert & Blankenstein, 1941; Weale, 1963, 1965; Wilson, 1963). These studies present clear evidence that older persons do not perceive visual stimuli the same as young persons. But why does this decline occur? Combining the results of five studies, Weale (1963) estimated that between the ages of 20 and 60 years senile miosis, or excessive smallness or contraction of the pupil, is able to account for about 70% of this decline and lenticular yellowing for another 10%. Thus, he concluded that physical factors can account for the major part of the senile variation in flicker fusion. But what accounts for the remaining 20%? Neural changes offer an interesting explanation, as well as an additional challenge for marketers.
Neural changes in the aging eye have been indicated by studies testing the theory of stimulus persistence which deals with an initial visual stimulus blurring into a second. This theory is based on data involving age differences in the ability to process visual stimuli separated in time (Axelrod, 1963; Axelrod & Eisdorfer, 1962; Axelrod, Thompson & Cohen, 1968; Birren, Casperson & Botwinick, 1950; Eisdorfer & Axelrod, 1964). Axelrod (1963) proposed that as age increases, the ability to terminate the effects of one stimulus before receiving another is weakened. Thus the effects of the first stimulus carry over to the second. In Axelrod's words, "Deficits in tasks which demand discrimination among successively presented stimuli suggest an increased refractoriness of the receptive or neural elements involved in the transmission of impulses or, at least, an ability to follow the stimulation rate. The residual effects of a stimulus (S1) appear to persist, so that a second stimulus (S2) following S1 by a fraction of a second, arrives before the processes initiated by S1 are over, and 'smearing' occurs." (p.136)
When the theory was first proposed, it was primarily applied post hoc to previous studies and claimed support from their results. In the past two decades, however, the theory has gained direct support from research. Some of these studies will be discussed in the following paragraphs to illustrate the neural changes that occur in the aging eye.
When light hits the retina, even briefly, the excitation of the receptors does not stop immediately upon termination of the stimulus. Under some special conditions and with sufficient exposure to the light stimulus, the excitation, and thus visual perception, may persist for several minutes. This phenomenon is known as visual aftereffects.
Eisdorfer and Axelrod (1964) supported their theory of stimulus persistence by comparing visual and tactile figural aftereffects in young and old adults. They found that visual aftereffects endured as long or longer in the elderly when sufficiently long stimulus exposure durations were used. It was believed that the normal functioning of these damping neurons at a young age would decrease stimulus persistence, whereas the opposite would hold true in old age.
Other Temporal Resolution Studies
Kline and Orme-Rogers (1978) tested stimulus persistence by sequentially presenting word-halves to 12 young (ages 18 to 20) and 12 old (ages 59 to 78) males and females. Stimulus duration and interstimulus interval (ISI) were systematically varied. An interaction was found between age, sex, and stimulus duration. Recognition scores were significantly higher for the older group, thus supporting the stimulus persistence theory.
The stimulus persistence theory was supported as well by Kline, Ikeda, and Schieber (1982). In this study, old and young observers were exposed to pairs of brief green and red flashes in order to produce reports of yellow. The green and red stimuli were separated by six levels of interstimulus intervals and presented at two luminance levels. Consistent with the hypothesis, reports of yellow (color integration) occurred significantly more often among old observers than young observers at longer interstimulus breaks.
Since it is apparent that neural changes occur which cause stimulus persistence, then stimuli presented in rapid succession in a medium such as television should be more difficult for an older consumer to perceive and process accurately. Is it any wonder that older consumers grumble about television given the phenomenon of stimulus persistence? Whereas the stimuli in packaging and print advertising are stationary, the stimuli in television presentations, such as broadcast advertising and video trailers, may be constantly in motion and therefore perceived as blurred. This phenomenon is not related solely to television, however. It applies also to any messages-in-motion such as electronic boards, neon signs, and web pages. That is not to say that these media should be avoided when targeting the elderly. Rather, it indicates that care should be taken in decisions of tempo and special effects. Slower, constant tempos without fast-paced cuts or multiple split screens, for instance, would be more accurately perceived and processed by the elderly.
Although Schewe (1991) stated in his guidelines for communicating with the elderly that marketers should give preference to print media, some of his other guidelines could also enhance the effectiveness of television advertisements, infomercials, videos, web pages, and other electronic forms of communication. His recommendations to keep the message simple, make the message concrete, supply memory aids, and make good use of context, used along with the recommendations cited here, could clarify an otherwise confusing medium.
In a related study, Stephens (1982) found that elderly adults recalled less than either middleaged or young adults after viewing time-compressed television advertisements. In fact, the elderly participants always did worse on recall with or without time compression. The author concluded that the elderly suffer in their ability to process information when they cannot control the pace and when the rate of information flow is faster than normal. It is suggested here, that the poorer performance by the elderly persons were the result of both perceptual differences and cognitive inferiority to the younger groups.
Keane (1984-1985) stated that advertising targeting the elderly should avoid sterotypic thinking. He added, "Is not the underlying challenge to design new products and their advertising positioning on the basis of how the aging marketplace is evolving and will likely be rather than on the seemingly safe harbor of what worked in the outdated past?" (RC-11) It would appear from the vision research that an extension of this thought is in order. That is, marketers cannot continue to assume that an older person's vision differs from a younger person's only with regard to visual acuity, nor that an older person, through use of corrective lenses, sees things as a younger person sees them. It is clear, optical and neural changes that occur as a result of aging affect the way in which various stimuli are perceived by older persons.
Additional research is needed to further explore the theories of visual perception and their applications when targeting the elderly. The size and steady growth of the older age segments in the population will continue to provide numerous opportunities for marketing. However, marketers must realize that the elderly are not just older young people. A better understanding of the visual perception changes that occur with aging will help decision-makers arrive at that realization.
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Deanna D. Mader, Marshall University
Fred H. Mader, Marshall University…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Visual Perception Changes in the Aging Eye: The Elderly May Not See What You Want Them to See. Contributors: Mader, Deanna D. - Author, Mader, Fred H. - Author. Journal title: Academy of Marketing Studies Journal. Volume: 3. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 1999. Page number: 86+. © 2008 The DreamCatchers Group, LLC. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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