IN THE RAREFIED WORLD of Madison Avenue, youth reigns supreme.
Older people - you know, the ones with the temerity to have gray hair and a few wrinkles - often remain invisible in ads. When they do appear, they may be portrayed as objects of ridicule or as being out of touch. They also tend to be limited to products related to health and retirement.
Those stereotypes represent one way to get a laugh out of younger consumers - the darlings of advertisers.
But if researchers are right, the joke could backfire on marketers. Two journalism professors at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., warn that advertisers risk offending an important market that is increasing in size and buying power. The over-50 group is growing faster than the 18-34 population. These potential older customers might lack flash, but they have cash, enjoying more disposable income than average consumers.
Robert Gustafson and Mark Popovich interviewed 39 people over 50, showing them magazine ads that include older people. One ad for an herbal supplement features two young boys talking about how their grandfather is suddenly smarter, implying that he had been senile. Another one for a food product includes two grouchy old women. Still another for face cream carries the line "How old is beautiful?" suggesting that wrinkles are unattractive.
The list of stereotypes also includes other unappealing traits, such as being eccentric, curmudgeonly, despondent, and financially insecure.
Participants in the survey were not amused. As Professor Gustafson, who teaches advertising, explains, they were "very aware of how infrequently they appear in advertising, and very sensitive or unhappy about the roles they were cast in." They were especially angry when they were ridiculed and used as the butt of jokes. They regarded such portrayals as harmful to their sense of self-worth and their mental well-being.
As a result, more than 60 percent said they would stop buying products featured in a "negative or offensive" ad.
The potential damage goes beyond their own hurt. Almost without exception, Gustafson says, those who took part in the study "were concerned that the mass media were contributing to younger people's unfavorable stereotypes of seniors."
Images like these can be particularly cruel for older women. Jean Kilbourne, author of "Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel," describes a double standard of aging. "Men can age, women can't," she says. "Men with gray hair and wrinkles are attractive and sexy. If older women are considered attractive, it's because miraculously they still look 40."
Ms. Kilbourne had hoped that as baby boomers age, more positive images of older people would prevail in advertising. She's still waiting. "I wish it were better," she adds.
Peterson, who spent 20 years in advertising, sees no sign of a conspiracy among advertisers or ad agencies to harm seniors. Rather, he calls this an unexpected effect. "In an effort to appeal to one target, maybe younger people, they can really offend another group of people. It's not intended, but it is real."
He adds, "We just wish advertisers would be more aware of these things, and more concerned about the unintended effects of advertising." Older people, the study notes, are attracted to positive and active portrayals of their generation. Advertisers might be more successful in that market if they presented retirees in a better light.
As life spans lengthen and retirement becomes a period of greater vitality, outmoded stereotypes of the later years deserve to be replaced with new, more vibrant images. The message to advertisers is clear: When the subject is older people, ignore them - or insult them - at your peril.