Age: Representations in Advertising

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Over time, advertising experts have come to realize that age groups are invaluable demographics (or market segments) because sophisticated research methods, such as focus groups, allow advertisers to create messages designed to appeal to the wants and needs of specific age groups.

In the 1960s, U.S. advertisers began to seek out the youth market. A large segment of the U.S. population was younger than 25, and this age group had a considerable level of discretionary income. Furthermore, in that era of hippies, rock music, experimental drug use, antiwar demonstrations and feminism, youth culture and political activism were the focus of a great deal of media attention, and advertisers discovered that youthful images and the concept of "coolness" could be used to sell products to the general population as well.

Earlier, companies typically advertised to the general public rather than targeting youth in particular. For example, during the first half of the 20th century, the Coca-Cola brand was sold to people from all walks of life in every part of the U.S., and Coke was unrivaled in the marketplace. In the 1960s, however, PepsiCo transformed soft-drink advertising by appealing specifically to the youth market via its "Pepsi Generation" campaign. The matrix for much youth imagery came from Hollywood in the mid-1950s. Advertising adopted those images and continued to appropriate the slang and fashions that differentiate various segments of the youth population.

Ads today feature such stereotypes as rap artists, "Goth" groups, skateboarders, computer nerds, sexy adolescent divas and prepubescent boys playing violent and sexually explicit videogames. In part, these images are so popular among advertisers because U.S. teenagers have a great deal of purchasing power and because they buy more movie tickets and watch more TV than any other age group, a fact that makes them a relatively easy audience to reach through ads.

Also, the lesson taught by the Pepsi Generation ads continues to resonate with advertisers: youth advertising sells to people of all ages because of the strong association between youth and carefree vitality.

In contrast to the positive images of youth, the elderly are usually depicted in advertising as either afflicted with specific medical ailments or, conversely, as robustly healthy and active. More than any other age group, the elderly are rigidly stereotyped, and the very old are seldom seen in ads. One reason these stereotypes prevail may be that research shows that this group usually makes purchases based on fixed perceptions and brand loyalty. Spokespersons chosen for advertising that targets older Americans often are former film and TV stars of a "certain age": June Allyson for the Depend undergarment, or Arthur Godfrey, Art Linkletter and Ed McMahon for health insurance.

In a few instances, breakthrough advertising was achieved by daring strategies that defied common age-related stereotypes. In 1984, for example, the fast-food chain Wendy's sought to highlight the generous size of its hamburgers by calling attention to the meager portions of ground beef provided by competitors.

The spot created by Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample showed three elderly women examining a hamburger from one of Wendy's competitors. The women appeared stereotypically polite until one demanded in an unexpectedly assertive voice, "Where's the beef?" The phrase immediately entered the American idiom, and the woman who said it, Clara Peller, became an instant celebrity.

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