In this Snickers commercial, a group of young men are playing football, when one of them tackles an elderly woman, played by Betty White. As White gets up, her blue pastel pajamas muddied, she begins to yell at the football players. A young woman then runs from the sidelines and gives White a Snickers bar, transforming her into a youthful, sporty, young man. “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” the narrator proclaims. The commercial closes with an elderly man being tackled.
This Snickers advertisement portrays a rare demographic in television: the elderly. While we may examine chocolate advertisements in terms of being sexist or racist, we never think of them as being “ageist.” This is partly because of the elderly’s portrayal as “invisible.” While Americans over 60 make up nearly 17% of the population, they only accounted for 5.4% of all network prime-time characters and 4% of the casts for daytime serials (Gerbner and Gross, 1993). The elderly are rarely portrayed in advertisements, and when they are, they are shown in a negative light. This is due to the youth-oriented marketing culture. Companies focus on “cradle to grave marketing,” because youth are supposedly more likely to try new products. The elderly, however, are seen as “set in their ways.” Thus, the lack of positive portrayals (or any kind of portrayals, for that matter) of the elderly is due to the idea that marketing to them is useless.
This marketing mentality has led to many commercials full of subtle derision for the elderly. In a now infamous Wendy’s commercial, three “little old ladies” repeatedly ask “where’s the beef?” as they look at a burger. In another ad, a 101-year-old woman goes ballistic when she finds out that there is no Coca-Cola. This portrayal of the elderly as frail and irrational fits the Snickers advertisement perfectly.
This type of Snickers ad relies on a simple before and after device. Before, the main character is grumpy, fussy, and annoying. But, after eating a Snickers bar, that person returns to their “normal” state. Snickers’ use of an elderly woman in the before state implies that being elderly is something that one should avoid. What is particularly interesting about this advertisement is the fact that it stars Betty White, one of the few elderly actresses in Hollywood. Betty White’s exuberant personality, quirky humor, and strong career (at age 92) have challenged many ideas around what aging looks like. The fact that Betty White would participate in a commercial that ultimately stigmatizes her own demographic is somewhat disturbing. But then, it seems that these media stereotypes are not seen as stigmas, but as truths.
These “truthful” images links the elderly with neatly manicured nursing home lawns, crystalline pools, and non-threatening pastel suits—all with a side of prune juice. This portrayal of the elderly as impotent is what leads to the “second childhood” trope. This trope is based off of the “perceived abundance of leisure time” (PLACIM) in both youth and old age. Because neither children nor the elderly have to work, they are portrayed as having nothing to do except “to have fun.” However, on a darker note, children and the elderly are also portrayed as having no agency of their own, controlled by a generation of middle-aged adults. Senility also plays a role in this portrayal; unable to function like normal adults, the elderly revert to a more primitive, child-like existence.
In the Snickers commercial, White behaves very much like a child. She stops the game, complains about the other players, and, in short, is unable to “play nice” with the other kids. While companies should be troubled by the social effects of these tropes, they might be more effectively jolted into action by the financial repercussions of their marketing decisions. Many companies are ignoring the untapped 60+ market, because the elderly are seen as poor, dependent, and unwilling to change their buying habits. The adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” reflects the negative connotations surrounding the elderly.
While American portrayals of the elderly suffer from this “cult of youth” mentality (Diamond), other cultures around the world view aging as a positive thing. In the Middle East, families live in multi-generational homes, and the Arabic words for “old man” and “old woman” are also titles assigned to respected religious leaders. In Korea, reaching old age is seen as an accomplishment, and 60th birthdays are seen as rites of passage (Diamond). Our goal is to infuse our counter-advertisement with these positive ideals of aging while simultaneously showing how age and happiness are not mutually exclusive.
In our counter advertisement, Betty White is once again playing football, but this time she plays aggressively and scores a touchdown. Meanwhile, the younger players around her cannot keep up. At halftime, they ask her how she stays so strong. Dressed in an athletic tracksuit, Betty White answers “because I eat Snickers,” and proceeds to play again. Here, we portray Betty White as wise and experienced, someone who “knows the rules of the game.” White’s advice suggests an intergenerational exchange of knowledge, as well as a revival of elder wisdom. Furthermore, the fact that she is wearing a tracksuit instead of her pastel blue pajama set means that she is fit and in the prime of her life—in this case, fitter than the younger players whose youth does not necessarily guarantee athleticism. In this way, our commercial dispels the negative imagery surrounding old age while simultaneously opening up a new market demographic for Snickers.
Dawn, Randee (September 6, 2013). “Betty White, ‘Breaking Bad’ earn ‘Guinness World Records’ titles”. Today.com. Retrieved October 13, 2013.
Gregoire, Carolyn. “7 Cultures That Celebrate Aging And Respect Their Elders.” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 25 Feb. 2014. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.
Jacobs, Liz. “What It’s like to Grow Old, in Different Parts of the World.” TED, 25 Nov. 2013. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.
Joosen, Vanessa, and Lies Wesseling. “Linking Childhood and Old Age.” IRSCL. International Research Society for Children’s Literature, 29 Oct. 2014. Web. 5 Apr. 2014.
Lin, Judy. “Honor or Abandon: Societies’ Treatment of Elderly Intrigues Scholar.” Honor or Abandon: Societies’ Treatment of Elderly Intrigues Scholar. UCLA Newsroom, 07 Jan. 2010. Web. 04 Apr. 2015.
Martinez-Carter, Karina. “How the Elderly Are Treated around the World.” Week, 23 July 2013. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.
Trinity University. “Social Gerontology: Media Depictions.” Social Gerontology: Media Depictions. Trinity University, n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2015.
Tupper, Meredith. “The Presentation of Elderly People in Prime Time Television Commercials.” Thesis. University of South Florida School of Mass Communications, n.d. The Representation of Elderly People in Prime Time Television Commercials RSS. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.