It’s been a while since I’ve written about ageism. In my whitepaper entitled, “Say It, Don’t Gray It,” I wrote about the need for advertisers and marketers to start reviewing and retooling the language of the senior living industry to be more sensitive to the attitudes of their next generation of clientele—a generation that sees themselves as vital and relevant, as opposed to outdated and unconnected.
Well, I recently discovered a style guide co-authored by the International Longevity Center and Aging Services of California entitled, “Media Takes: On Aging”. We both come to the same basic conclusion, i.e. the language and imagery used to represent older adults in various media (I focused primarily on advertising) is out of touch with the reality of aging, perpetuating untrue or half-true stereotypes and is—frankly—demeaning.
I refer to the practice as “graying” an issue, product, service, or group. As I define it, “Graying” is the act of applying an outdated, stereotypical concept to an older individual or group that is in direct conflict with their self-image. An example I chose was an ad or webpage for a retirement community which prominently displays a photo of sedentary residents playing a muted round of bingo.
Do active older adults have anything against sitting around playing bingo? While I’m sure there are some to whom this appeals, the main consensus is a resounding “yes!” Is there anything wrong with bingo? No, but the image is so stereotypical and dated that it feels like it was shot in the wrong century.
“Media Takes: On Aging” is rich with examples of “graying,” not only in advertising or as it pertains to the senior living industry, but also in television, film and other popular media. Here are a few “graying” examples and statistics from the style guide that I found particularly interesting and insightful:
Television and Film-
- Twice as many older people portrayed on TV are men, while in reality older women outnumber older men; and television portrays women as “seniors” at a younger age than men, who are more often portrayed as productive professionals.
- When older guests are booked for late night shows, they are often asked to make silly cameo appearances, rather than sit down and talk. In fairness, this point is also a statement about the “dumbing-down” (the late Jack Paar’s words, not mine) of late-night TV as much as it is about ageism.
- Less than two percent of prime-time television characters are age 65 and older, although this group comprises 12.7 percent of the population.
- Although Americans who are age 40 and older comprise 42 percent of the American population, more than twice as many roles are cast with actors who are under the age of 40 as actors who are age 40 and older.
- 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 mistakenly takes a photograph of her family with a stapler.
The irony, which isn’t lost on the International Longevity Center and Aging Services of California, is that the media started gearing content to the youth audience in the 1950s and 1960s, as at the time they were the demographic with the most time and money to spare. Nowadays these same people have more time and money on their hands than ever before, yet advertisers seem to have missed this fact entirely, continuing to focus primarily on the youth demographic.
Defining and delineating which terms are acceptable and which are “graying” can be difficult. Some older adults prefer terms like “senior” and “elderly.” No one would argue that they aren’t aging, but, as “Media Takes: On Aging” points on the title page, don’t use aging as a noun—whatever you do.
Semantic preferences vary wildly among people from different locales, social standings and background experiences. This is because language is intrinsically tied to identity, and why the best way to determine what you should call someone remains the simplest way—just ask them. If you can’t ask them because you’re addressing them through a media channel, simply ask yourself, “what kind of phrasing would underscore my integrity and value as a human being?”