Older People Used And Abused on TV

Barbara Morris

Barbara Morris

Some of the most questionable representations of older people are found in TV advertising and programming.

There are basically two types of TV ads directed to older people:”serious ads”, and for lack of a better word, ‘funny” ads.

In serious ads, older people are portrayed in traditional roles, generally living the good life, having fun with friends and family. Typical ads predictably show old people cutting flowers in the garden or playing ball with  grandkids. Constantly portraying old people in non productive roles confirms the cultural norm that just existing is the acceptable way for old people to live. Leisure activities are nice, but many old people actually work or are otherwise productive. Why not show them in a productive capacity?

Ads for drugs frequently  rely on using old people and are particularly offensive. Many side effects of new drugs are particularly potentially dangerous for old/older people.  In a typical TV commercial, the voiceover warns about potential serious side effects such as infection or death, while in the simultaneous visual portion of the ad older men and women are shown as orgasmically ” happy, happy, happy” One example of such an ad is for the new diabetes drug Farxiga. If you have not seen it, here is the video. While some of the side effects of the drug are quickly rattled off during the commercial, it’s not the whole story. A more complete list of side effects obtained at Drugs .com is alarming. While potential vaginal side effects for women are troubling, men in particular will be grossed out when they see what may happen to their penis.

Apparently the commercial works, and understandably. If you have diabetes and have difficulty managing it, you do what the commercial tells you to do: You “ask your doctor if the drug is right for you.” And the doctor, probably not aware of the full range of possible side effects agrees to let you try it. The obvious question should be, “why should you ask the doctor what’s right for you?” Shouldn’t the doctor know what’s right for you without your prompting? It’s all about the money. If you have stock in Farxiga’s company, AstraZeneca/Bristol-Myers Squibb, you should be happy, happy, happy.

Overall, the message in these commercials is that it’s safe for older people to take potential time bomb medications. In reality, not so much. Increasing numbers of law firms advertising on TV for clients harmed by government approved medications must really be raking in the dough.


Then there is “funny” advertising that uses old people for laughs, or portrays them as semi-senile, engaging in ridiculous or inappropriate behavior. For example, in a recent car commercial, an old woman flirts with an embarrassed young car salesman, gives him a “finger kiss” and asks “do you come here often”? It’s difficult not to giggle but it’s embarrassing to watch. Here’s the thing: Advertising is powerful and portrayals of old people behaving inappropriately carries over to the “real world” and it becomes okay for old people to mimic asinine behaviors in real life.

As for TV programming, I no longer watch sitcoms so I don’t know if things are now better or worse for old people. What I do know is that TV programs can play a role in promoting disrespect for old people. Betty White’s TV program “Off Their Rockers” (thankfully gone) was so bad it was difficult to sit through an entire program and watch old people behave like escapees from a mental institution. It did nothing to promote respect for the elderly and Betty should have known better. I hope it is not resurrected in reruns but I would not be surprised to see it again. In the world we live in, anything for a buck.


  1. Barbara thanks for sharing your insights. My thoughts from down under are: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/booming-market-why-over-50s-need-part-your-marketing-strategy-farley

    • Thanks, Michael for the feedback.

      You hit the nail on the head with this comment: “. . . a staggering 94 percent dislike the way advertisers communicate with them, as marketers seem unable to cater to this booming market and aren’t giving them the right attention.”

      Part of the problem is the culture — it hasn’t caught up with the reality that chronologically “old” people are not necessarily old in their thinking and lifestyle.

  2. Amen!

Speak Your Mind

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.