Betty White, football, and the potential for positive portrayals of the elderly in chocolate advertising

Advertisements reflect implicit, sometimes unrealized internal biases that we have inherited from society, and simultaneously reinforce that bias. Robertson writes that advertisements “position us in relation to that product as gendered, classed and raced beings” (19). Beyond racial and gender stereotypes, the ad I analyze in this blog post also utilizes problematic stereotypes about age to sell its product. The advertisement portrays an elderly subject in a way that ridicules, disempowers, and reinforces disrespectful stereotypes about the elderly as weak, and therefore undesirable. However, I will argue that advertising does not need to further entrench these harmful messages in order to sell their products; instead, advertisements can and should market their products while being a positive, active force in reshaping harmful societal stereotypes; in this case, by showcasing the elderly as strong, capable, and deserving of respect.

Problematic portrayals of marginalized populations in chocolate advertising are unfortunately commonplace. Racism is prevalent throughout chocolate advertising, such as in Rowntree’s Honeybunch, “a distinct racial caricature” with exaggerated features and stereotypical African-American vernacular (Robertson 41). Gender stereotypes are also prevalent: women are often fetishized as mothers, such as in the following advertisement, which appeals to a mother’s self-doubt and anxiety about making the right food choices for her family, by playing itself up as the choice of the savvy housewife and devoted mother. And when it comes to age in chocolate advertising, typically it is children, not the elderly, who are the targeted age demographic. Targeting children is a commonly exploited way of marketing these products; companies spend about $17 billion annually marketing to children (Martin, lecture slides), and psychosocial manipulation is often used, such as when “grocery stores place colorful boxes of sugary cereals on lower shelves where children can easily see and reach them” (Quelch). Thinking critically about chocolate advertisements can reveal our cultural blindspots to inequality and prejudice.

When the opposite end of the age spectrum is used in chocolate advertising, such as in this Snickers commercial, it is using to use age as a ridiculing punchline:

The underlying basis of this Snickers advertisement is that when the main character gets hungry, he turns into an Other, or in this case, Betty White. This Other personality is obnoxious, unwanted, and incompetent, and can only be dismissed (to the great relief of everyone) when the person eats a Snickers bar. There are many problems with the way Betty White, as an elderly woman, is portrayed and stereotyped in this commercial. She is shown struggling to keep up in a game of football with several young men. When they break for a huddle, the other men rail on her for playing poorly. She lashes back with attitude and provokes the beginnings of a fight. Ultimately, this commercial feeds into the perception of the elderly as weak, irritable, incompetent, and undesirable. She is weak in that she is physically frail and unable to play; she is irritable in that she lashes out when criticized (like the stereotype of the cantankerous old neighbor); she is incompetent in that she fails to hold up her role in the team and disappoints her teammates; and ultimately, she is undesirable, because the point of the commercial is that eating a Snickers gets rid of her.

Using an elderly woman as a marketing tool punchline for Snickers is ironic, as Robertson describes how many elderly women, such as in Bamikemo, are respected and powerful farmers and supervisors of cacao farms, “occupying positions of increased status within cocoa farming and the community as a whole” (105). The fact that these women, at the ages of 50, 60, or even 70 years of age are still spraying, harvesting, and managing these cocoa farms, while simultaneously continuing to engage in childcare and other domestic responsibilities, is remarkable. This makes Snickers’ ad particularly uncomfortable and disempowering, because they have taken a product that strong, capable, and admirable older women have had a hand in creating, and used ridiculing stereotypes of age and gender in order to market it.

Instead, we felt that Snickers could have created a commercial that admired and respected the elderly, while also selling its product:

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This storyboard for a commercial sets up the scene in a similar way: the Betty White character is playing football with the young men, but this time, she is out-playing them, despite her age. The group then gets into a huddle, but instead of insulting her, they inquire admiringly about her impressive performance. In response, the elderly woman tells them she is so quick, fit, and strong because, in her words, “I’ve been eating Snickers all my life!” This simultaneously positively promotes the product (it is not only satisfying, it is fortifying as well) and portrays the elderly character as an aspirational figure and someone to be respected. Instead of the punchline, she is now the hero; instead of a nuisance to be dismissed, she is a real person whose performance makes her the star. Instead of perpetuating ideas of the elderly as weak, unwanted, and irritating, this new commercial actually actively works to change cultural perceptions and discourse about the elderly.

Advertisements reflect implicit biases we hold, whether about race, gender, or age. But advertisements are not strictly passive in reflecting our biases for us; they constructively shape our cultural understandings and social ideas. Therefore, advertisers like Snickers have a responsibility to catalyze positive change in how we think about marginalized populations in our society like the elderly, by portraying them as the nuanced, considered, strong and venerable figures they are.

Works Cited

Martin, Carla. “Lecture 17: Race, ethnicity, gender, and class in chocolate advertisements.” Lecture. April 1, 2015.

Quelch, John. All Business is Local: Why Place Matters More Than Ever in a Global, Virtual World. New York: Penguin, 2012.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, women and empire. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.

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