Back In My Day: The Media: Out of touch and simply out of time

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Before I blast Hall & Oates on Spotify, I often get the same Postmates ad because I’m too lazy to get Spotify Premium. I never truly paid attention to the ad until I finally decided to cave into consumerism and see why it kept popping up. 

The premise was simple, a subliminal messaging plot about getting pad thai, hidden underneath a stereotypical medication commercial (you know, the one where older people run around and do random activities while a piano plays softly in the background). After I decided that maybe pad thai was the move for dinner, I found my inner gerontologist stirred up by the portrayal of older adults in that 30 second commercial.

These ads, either the ones that have no immediate impact on your life or those which creep you out because of how relevant they are, are a facet of social media and the digital age that persists today. 

Take a quick step back, maybe a few years or so. Think about Mr. Six, the so-called mascot of Six Flags, dancing and encouraging members of a boring, mundane neighborhood to hop onto his bus for an exciting trip to the theme park. The dance moves are ecstatic, fluid and, most importantly, catchy. 

But what caught the attention of many viewers was not necessarily the dance moves but the dancer himself, Mr. Six. He’s not a sprightly, young man but rather is portrayed as a bald “old guy” with large-rimmed glasses. He represented an endless youth, where biological age could not and would not restrict the enjoyment and energy that comes with a trip to Six Flags. 

Certainly there are several implications with using an older adult as the tool to bring children to an amusement park, but the use of older adults in that context has since become a thing of the past. 

Since then, the portrayal of older adults has been consistently restricted to pharmaceutical and retirement commercials. The new wave of advertisements featuring older adults seems to exaggerate in either an extremely positive or negative light — both of which have their own respective repercussions. 

While these eye-catching exaggerations certainly garner attention and revenue, the common consumer may take these stereotypical portrayals to heart and generate new implicit attitudes based off of them. 

An eye-catching advert about the importance of young people going to the polls and consequently “knock the vote,” was the “Dear Young People” advertisement from NAIL Communications, aired in 2018 prior to the November midterm elections. The video, which has ascertained almost 900,000 views on Youtube alone, caught the attention of many consumers due to its incredibly provocative and negative portrayal of the “Baby Boomer” generation. 

The one minute advert challenges younger voters — only 46% of which voted in the last election — to show up at the polls through the portrayal of selfish older adults who seem to abide solely by their own agenda.

One provocative stereotype employed by the voting commercial involved the issue of school shootings, where an older woman explained that she had not “been in a school for 50 years,” distancing herself from the atrocities of lackluster gun control. The “generation of doers, not whiners” has made their case against the youth.

“But Lois,” you, the inquisitive reader asks. “Isn’t the point of the commercial simply to shock and awe people into voting? Older adults are already voting so it makes sense that this commercial targets younger demographics.”

It is true that older adults have been shown to consistently participate in civic engagement programs like voting, but that does not necessarily mean that all older adults pursue the conservative, right-winged mindset nor does it mean that older adults have no sympathy for younger generations. 

Many older adults have families and grandchildren who would be impacted by gun violence in schools; moreover, to say or think that older adults don’t care about deaths due to school shooters is outrageous. The flames of intergenerational warfare are stoked with every slide and line in this video, with the gap widening for those with already negative attitudes on the older out-group. 

The negative stereotypes have simply been a product of blindness to ageist attitudes in society. Attributing aging to fragility and weakness has exploded over social media through jokes and memes that play into excluding the social out-group, which, for the case of many young or adolescent individuals, was older adults. 

In lieu of recent political turmoil and disagreement, the intergenerational gap between older and younger audiences has grown to unprecedented levels. Companies and shows have taken advantage of these misunderstandings as an opportunity to gain profit by separating the two groups from one another via ageism and ageist stereotypes. 

On the flipside, Nike’s “Unlimited Youth” campaign featured Triathlon Hall of Famer Sister Madonna Buder, who was 86 years old when the commercial was filmed in 2016. For many, this lighthearted commercial provided hope for activity paired with longevity. Sister Buder’s 45 Ironman challenges are a testament to her physical endurance and strength, but Nike connects it with her age, creating unintended consequences. 

While Sister Buder is supported by her fellow contestants in the commercial, her endeavours are idealistic and display an example of what “successful aging” looks like. This unrealistic portrayal of older adults going above and beyond can hurt older adults currently not in that physical shape or incapable of transforming into that stature. Younger audiences can certainly aspire to be like that at Sister Buder’s age, but many older adults — while they are able to learn new things — might not be able to complete an Ironman competition. 

The marketing and advertising world today is incredibly vast and successful in producing content that can be quickly digested for the general audience. Why not make that content age-friendly to stimulate realistic intergenerational conversations? Now’s the time to realize and fix the consequences of ageism, for it is not only helping current older adults but also paving the way for the future of longevity around the world. Maybe that Postmates ad in the future will look a little bit different before I get back to listening to Hall & Oates. But for the meantime, I’ll be hoping that I get to reflect back on all the changes we’ve made thinking, “Back in my day…”

Lois Angelo is a sophomore writing about the intersections of gerontology and social issues. He is also co-chief copy editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Back In My Day,” runs every other Tuesday.