Academic journal article Generations

How Older People Think about Images of Aging in Advertising and the Media

Academic journal article Generations

How Older People Think about Images of Aging in Advertising and the Media

Article excerpt

Age may not be central in defining who older people think they are.

How people see others their age in advertising and the media depends upon how they think about their own aging and how they think about old age in general.


Old age is a moving target. During the first two months of 2000, the National Council on the Aging (NCOA) conducted a national survey on public and personal perceptions of aging in the United States. The Louis Harris polling organization collected the data. NCOA was able to compare its findings with those of a nearly identical survey conducted in 1974, a generation earlier. The researchers found that during that twenty-five-year period, the proportion of older Americans who identified health, income, loneliness, and crime as very serious personal problems substantially declined. As in 1974-, in 2000 younger respondents perceived the old-age problems as more serious than did older respondents themselves. The surveys clearly document the erosion of chronological age as a central indicator ofthe experience of aging (Whitelaw, 2000). That is, age is not very central in defining who older people think they are. Younger people tend to have a more defined idea about what old age is like than older people do.What a challenge it must be, then, for marketers who want to target the "mature market:'

The category of "old age" maintained a conceptual unity until lifecourse theory emerged in the 1960s, emphasizing that old age was part of a lifelong developmental process. During the 1980s and 1990s, life-course theory became much more sophisticated. This perspective addressed temporal variations across the life course, and the fact that the individual's life course is embedded in relationships with others. In addition, life-course theory now emphasizes that lives are influenced by the historical times and places that they experienced over their lifetimes. "Old" is no longer a unified concept.

A major discovery of the i98os in American social gerontology was the great diversity of people of retirement age. Categories such as "the elderly" were rendered meaningless. Whereas people of a wide range of ages had been grouped together as "old" for analytic purposes, researchers began to disagregate this single large category into smaller categories like "young-old" and "old-old" and the process accelerated and expanded. But while many scholars have warned against using averages to describe the older population, few have actually analyzed the nature, extent, and patterns of its heterogeneity (Dannefer, 1988). Demographers have consistently called attention to the diversity of older Americans during the past two decades, showing the wide spread of income, assets, education, employment, and health status (Treas and Longino, 1997). Casalanti (1996) points to variations among older people that would help account for their diversity For example, older women and men differ on a wide variety of economic and health measures, as do African Americans and European Americans. So the reality of aging, or at least its implications, may differ considerably depending upon one's gender and background.

Body image is particularly difficult to get right in marketing to any part of the older population. Social gerontologists have only recently begun to focus on the concept of the body, but there is indeed a concern among older people about their changed physical appearance-their "lived" bodies (Katz, 1999). Friedan (1993) argues that consumer culture promotes this concern and then exploits it. According to Morris (1998), consumer culture is preoccupied with perfect bodies, their images spread through glamorized representations in advertising and the increasing dominance of the visual image in Western culture. Thus, consumer society creates negative language about and images of later life, by implication if not directly, by valuing and emphasizing youthful body image. Indeed, some writers (e. …

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