We live in an ageist society, but if we're ever to fix it, it's worth exploring how we got that way. Comic Craig Ferguson, host of CBS' The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson once opened a show with this monologue/rant about how mid-20th-century marketers, in creating advertising campaigns to sell more products to young adults, succeeded so well they inadvertently pushed the nation toward what he sees as a "deification" of youth, foolishness and inexperience.
It's a claim supported by historians, writes Kavan Peterson, editor of the ChangingAging.org blog, who resurfaced Ferguson's video clip on his site earlier this week. "The way our culture views and treats age is silly and irrelevant," Peterson wrote. "I love that Ferguson tries to put this in historical perspective — and he’s largely correct."
Those midcentury marketers "didn't mean any harm," Ferguson says in the clip. Certainly, young veterans and their new families represented an emerging consumer market with disposable income and a pent-up demand for goods. But "in a strange kind of quirk of fate," he says, "youth began to be celebrated by society in a way that it had never been at any time in human history. What used to be celebrated was experience and cleverness. But what became valuable was youth, the quality of youth that made you a consumer."
"Society started to turn on its head," he continues, because, well, youth are "kind of stupid," and the advertising heralded a general dumbing-down of the culture. "The deification of youth evolved and turned into the deification of imbecility, so it became fashionable and desirable to be young and to be stupid."
Getting Older, Becoming Invisible
This dumbing-down may be most pronounced on Super Bowl Sunday, the biggest advertising event of the year, when, despite the presence of tens of millions of eyeballs of all ages, the nation's largest marketers seem able to produce only a carnival of juvenile jokes, adolescent leering and Clydesdales.
"Boomers are typically invisible" on Super Bowl Sunday, marketing expert Jim Gilmartin wrote in a Next Avenue column earlier this year, "resulting in significant missed opportunities and annoyed potential customers.
"Advertising people explain this by saying that to lock in brand loyalty they have to get to consumers early — older customers, experts say, don't change brands easily. But the truth is that, at 80 million strong, boomers represent the single largest consumer group in America."
But the near-ubiquity of fresh, young faces in ad campaigns and on prime-time TV shows, where even physicists and CIA case managers appear newly arrived from college quads, has influenced boomer views and values as well. "And then what happened was people were frightened to not be young," Ferguson says, "so they started mutilating their faces and their bodies in order to look young. But you can't be young forever — that's against the laws of the universe!"
Why We're All Guilty
Ferguson's larger point is worth consideration. He's not claiming that American youth are ageist, but simply that they benefit from a pervasive, nationwide ageism from which baby boomers are far from immune. Recent Oregon State University research, for example, found that boomers' perceptions of their elders are no more enlightened than any other generation's. We subscribe to the same strongly negative stereotypes of older people, including our parents, as younger people do.
If we want to be valued as we age, suggests assistant professor of marketing Michelle Barnhart, who directed the study, we need to change our own views and model a positive opinion of aging for the next generation. "I'd like to see that type of consciousness raising about older people," she says. "This is in the boomers' control. If they can do this in the next 20 years, before people start treating them as old people, maybe the generation behind them will not treat them exactly the same way."
In a culture in which even television shows produced for children depict older people in the harshest light, going against the current will remain a challenge. And yet new evidence shows that it's worth the effort, because holding onto negative views of older people, even as we enter into old age ourselves, may have serious consequences. Another recent study, by Yale School of Public Health researchers, found that seniors who view older people in positive ways were 44 percent much more likely to recover from disabling conditions than others. The researchers suggested that such positive attitudes about aging could diminish stress and lessen negative responses to the physical challenges of recovery. Also, those who believe older people can be strong may be more likely to embrace rehabilitation.
The fight against ageism, then, is worth engaging, but it will clearly not be led by marketers or the mass media. We'll have to overcome our own biases and then, voting with our eyeballs and dollars, do what we can to overwhelm forces that, as Ferguson says at the start of his diatribe, can be blamed for "why everything sucks."