Advertising and the Older Generation: Humerous or Degrading?

Curator's Note

Guided by a perspective that advertisements are not just about selling products, brand names, and services, I am studying the content and social effects, of  images of different social groups (e.g., gender and cultural groups), perpetuated by media ads and their potential influence on viewers/readers’ perceptions and attitudes towards these social groups. As the older generation has come to the attention of the advertising business we can find more age related ads and commercials. Some of them, however, reflect problematic stereotypes about older age. Especially older women are often depicted negatively. Especially in context of modern technology (e.g. cell phones or the internet) we can find commercials, which use older protagonists to humor their audiences by depicting the older person as either not competent or – in the case of this video – overly competent. The video was produced by the German Train Company (Deutsche Bahn), advertising the simplicity of their online booking system. The older women – the mother of the younger woman and the mother-in-law of the male protagonist – knows how to handle the online booking and thus succeeds in accompanying her daughter and son in law on a train trip - not to the delight of her son-in-law. This commercial plays with various stereotypes, the main message being “our online booking is so simple even older people can handle it”. Images and stereotypes of the older generation have an important impact on society and on the way we see and treat older individuals. It is therefore important to recognize and analyse them and, consequently, try to work against those negative images. As the internet has changed the world and online communication skills are one of the central new competences, which enable people of all ages to participate in society, media literacy is an important issue for young and old. This video uses the stereotype about the asumed  "media illiteracy" of the older generation to amuse the audience.Negative stereotypes about older adults’ internet skills have to be regarded as especially critical in the context of stereotypes of old age in the media.


Interesting advertisement and reflection on how the humor of this ad relies on cultural expectations of aging people as technologically illiterate. Advertising is perhaps most guilty of reproducing agism to not only sell a product, but to perpetuate relational ideals that maintain particular social orders.  I found myself wondering if the ad didn't both comically question and reproduce stereotypes of aging [I'm only drawing observations on image and relational tone from context of the ad, as I don't speak German]. It seemed that the storied competence of the older woman could be offering a counter image to our ideas of older persons' media illiteracy, while simultaneously offering a stereotype of the overbearing mother-in-law [takes over the ticket buying, joins the family on the trip when not welcomed . . .].  Is the son-in-law narrated as 'incompetent' in figuring out the new online system? What is the role of his characterization in upholding the stereotype or punchline? I wonder if it is possible that a new image of an aging technologically competent woman is acceptable as long as some other dominant social expectation is present [overbearing mother-in-law].

Melissa Aleman

Indeed it is important to study older adults’ portrayal in advertising. Good example, the commercial by Deutsche Bahn. The commercial also shows the difficulties of studying age stereotypes in media content, especially when humor is involved. The previous posts suggest that the commercial uses the stereotype that older people are media illiterate, and that the image of the competent woman may only be acceptable because it is accompanied by the negative image of the overbearing mother-in-law. However, at the same time, it is possible to say that the portrayal of the woman in the commercial is all positive: She handles technology better than her son-in-law does, she is the one who takes control of the situation, and she is the “hero” of the story. So how does it work? Does such ad use negative stereotypes whereas it simultaneously provides a positive portrayal of older people?

Some other issues came to my mind when reading the post: How do age stereotypes in advertising compare to age stereotypes in other television genres? Advertising is especially interesting because it needs to convey a message in such short period of time, which leads to the use of stereotypes to make the story immediately “clear.” I think research has shown that the portrayal of older people generally has been more positive in advertising than in other television genres (right?). Another thing: Caja Thimm calls on people to work against negative images. How can we do that?

Dear Caja, Melissa and Margot,

I watched the commercial and read all your posts -- very interresting. From a broad perspective, I study communication, culture and intergroup relations. One of the specific lines of my research has focused on mass media, cultural values and aging. In the past a few years, I have examined aging images and value themes in Chinese and U.S. advertising. Consistent with your views, I have found an overall positive portrayal of older charatcers in television commercials, although older chracters might be portrayed more positively in commercials targeting all consumers or less positively than other age groups. However, the value themes refelcted in the television commercials provide a different picture. For example, values themes common in television commercials targeting other age groups or all comsumers (e.g., modernity, youth, success) appear with very low frequency in commercials featuring older adults. The most frequent value theme in television commercials featuring older adults is "health." Although most of the older charatcers are positively portrayed in these commercials, the underlying negative stereotypical views that older adults are sick and unhealthy embedded in these commercails are of concern as well. The very nature of advertising is to create wants and needs in audience. The positive portrayal of older characters reflect this very nature, yet, the value theme (e.g., the overarching message, the overall image, the Gestalt effect) might reflect an intractable asscoaition of aging with poor health and/or imcompetence. One of my current project aims to exame both aging images (the unit of analysis is each charater) and cultural themes (the unit of analysis is each commercial) in television commercials. I hope that findings will inform me about the prevalence of the linkage between positive images of aging and negative age streotype. 

Thanks again for your posts. They are very infomative  and insightful!!

Yan Bing Zhang


This is a very intriguing commercial - thanks for sharing!  I'm struck most by the intersection of age and gender, especially in light of the portrayals of mothers-in-law and their intrusive natures. Whenever humor is present, I do get very analytical, as that humor is relying on some standard belief system. Is this commercial funny because an older woman is technoliterate? (ie, NOT following the stereotype-consistent script) Is this commercial funny because the mother-in-law is overbearing and overly involved? (ie, following the stereotype-consistent script) Or as others have noted, are these intersections forcing us to ask more difficult, more complicated questions involving the role of culture?  Dr. Thimm's argument for the significance of such a portrayal should not be understated, as she says, "negative stereotypes about older adults' internet skills have to be regarded as especially critical."  In a world where (patronizingly) simplified cellphones are created, we have to be very aware of the messages we endorse about older adults.  How do we do this? I can offer a few humble suggestions that revolve around raising awareness in the classroom: 1) define ageism, 2) show examples of ageism in class and discuss the explicit and implicit messages, and 3) repeat, repeat, repeat.

I second Caja's point that there is much to be learned by examining advertising images of senior citizens' interactions with digital devices. So much scholarship on new media seems to reproduce technology manufacturers' and marketers' fascination with and fetishization of youth, and as a consequence overlooks the ways that design, marketing, and consumer education, for instance, conspire to mark digital devices as off limits for seniors. That said, I am somewhat wary of attempting to rectify this imbalance in the literature on generation and new media with a discussion of "positive" and "negative" advertising images. Ostensibly “positive” images of wired seniors have become more and more common in recent years. (See, for instance, Retirement Living’s Retired and Wired.) But does this necessarily represent progress, or rather is it evidence that the consumer electronics industries have become aware of the “gray dollar”? (See Kim Sawchuk's work for interesting perspectives on this question.) "Positive" images of technologically-adventurous seniors may in fact embolden seniors in their interactions with technology. They might even convince younger people that some of their stereotypes about technologically inept seniors are unfair and unfounded. But such images also can give the impression that seniors themselves hold the keys to their own technological empowerment. Within advanced liberal societies, the cultivation of technological aptitude is tacitly understood to be a matter of personal responsibility, and a component of the regimes of self-maintenance and -improvement that all citizen-subjects, no matter what their age, are obliged to perform. By extension, technological ineptitude or technophobia are commonly regarded as personal shortcomings, or failures of character, as opposed to consequences of much more complex social determinants. It is this neoliberal mentality, more so than the images it produces, that we will need to interrogate if we are to address the ageist orientation of much new media scholarship.

After reading all the posts, an US commercial came to my mind. I cannot remember what the product is, but in the ads, it says something to the effect that even the cavemen know how to use it -- Then, several actors playing the cavemen suddenly showed up looking at the person angrily because this comment offended them. They had to come out and protest. I do not mean to compare cavemen and older adults here. I merely want to use the part where the cavemen come out to show their dissatisfaction to make a point, and that is,how do older adults view this cell phone ads? Will they want to come out and shout "ageism!" or will they find the ads humerous or will they see the ads promoting positive images of older adults - catching up with the technology. While I still have slight problem with the implicit negative stereotype of older adults embedded in this ads, I have to say that overall, this ads chooses a positive tone to present seniors. I would rather see this ads than other ads that explicitly play on negative age stereotypes. But, I would be curious what senior viewers would say about this ads.

When analyzing discourses of older adults' talk, whether to their peers or younger generations, we often find them using negative age stereotypes to their advantages, such as, "I am 70 already but I still run 5 miles every day." When we hear this, we all recognize the identity goal the narrator is trying to achieve. Seniors realize the negative stereotypes associated with their age group, and they have to communicatively and strategically negotiate socially constructed images of aging. When we educate people about this negotiation process, they usually have a better understanding of what older adults have to go through and become more aware of how negative stereotypes get reproduced. Thus, this education process is very important.     

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