Ageism in Marketing and Media

Seven of a nine-part series of articles on ageism.

Marketing and media are notoriously ageist. Through their practices, they convince society to worship and glamorize all that is supple and young. Wrinkles are frowned upon (even though frowning helps create them). Everything from magical creams, Botox and facelifts are employed to keep them at bay.

So pervasive has ageism been in marketing and media that a hearing was held in 2002 before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. In Chairman Senator John Breaux’s opening statement, he commented on how media and marketing ignore the purchasing power and preferences of millions of older Americans in their quest to target youth.

He stated, “Just as it is wrong to stereotype and discriminate against people because of their race or their religion or their gender, so too, is it wrong to stereotype and discriminate against people simply because they are older.”

Emmy award-winning actress, Doris Roberts from Everybody Loves Raymond testified at the hearing as well. She spoke to the discrimination in Hollywood, and how most actresses her age were begging for money or bit parts in television or movies. She voiced her dismay that society considers people her age discardable and portrays them as dependent, helpless, unproductive and demanding rather than deserving.

The now late Dr. Robert Butler, M.D., President and CEO of the International Longevity Center in New York also addressed the committee. He focused on ways that society can effectively deal with ageism.

Educating the public was the first step, followed by the continued support of national agencies that work to reduce frailty, dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Dr. Butler emphasized that people must improve their lifestyles in this country. Not only would this help the physical diseases of old age, but the cognitive ones as well. We have made the opportunities to do so a priority at the Fergus Falls Senior Center. In fact, the exercise programs and equipment we offer are the number one reason most people join today.

He also mentioned an economic approach where people would work longer, and thereby remain productive, responsible, valued members of society. To do so will require changes in attitude that cause discrimination against older adults in the workplace. Retirement norms will also need to be challenged.

“Most difficult of all, our nation must alter our deep-seated fear, our shunned responsibility, and harmful avoidance and denial of age,” Butler said. “Our conscience should be burdened by our obligations to those who have gone before us. Strict legislation and enforcement against age discrimination and elder abuse are essential but insufficient. We must change how we think, feel and behave about late life. We must help people deal with their fears of aging, dependency and death. We must have a sense of the life course as a whole. Our family life, our educational system and our media must help transform our sensibility, and moral values held by each of us must drive this transformation of the culture and experience of aging in America, and beyond. We are in the midst of a wonderful new world of longevity. It is in our power to make it a celebration.”

Richard Ambrosius, appointed by President Reagan in 1980 as the youngest member of the National Advisory Committee to the 1981 White House Conference on Aging, mentor and colleague of mine with over 35 years of marketing experience states, “The aging services organizations have contributed to the problem by using images of frail, tragic-looking folk to key emotions for fundraising campaigns, using aging and disabled interchangeably in too many cases. We become less alike as we age, not more alike. As our nation has become older and healthier, we can easily work well into our 80s and 90s in many areas.”

No one put it more poignantly than General McArthur who once wrote, “Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind. Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. People grow old by deserting their ideals. Years wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Worry, doubt, self-distrust, fear and despair, these are the long, long years that bow the head and turn the growing spirit back to dust. You are as young as your faith and as old as your doubt, as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear.”

Marketing and media must awaken from their slumber where youth, or at least the appearance of it, is to be maintained at all costs. Their influence on society is great as they reach into our lives through every television show, movie, or advertisement we see. They could do much to lead the charge to turn the negative stereotype of aging on its head. Plus, they stand to tap into the tremendous spending power of the generation that is now turning 65 by 10,000 people every day.

See 2019 Ageism Series Bibliography for sources quoted.

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