IF YOU read newspaper advertisements, watch TV commercials or hear them on the radio, you might be aware that senior citizens are often portrayed as sickly or old-fashioned.
Some of the advertisements are funny. We laugh, and most of us don’t stop to think about it.
The times we do see the elderly in advertisements are when the product is targeted at them, such as hearing aids, health supplements, and other similar products. In such cases they are often portrayed as being in pain and helpless.
The other times we see the elderly in commercials is when there is a family and the elderly is there just as supporting cast.
Malaysia is becoming an ageing population. They are no longer just the old people pottering around in the garden or sitting in their singlet and sarung reading the newspaper all day.
Many of today’s senior citizens live very active lives – they travel, perform in dance performances, conduct fitness classes and some are still working. And, yes, the single ones date.
While Malaysia’s elderly population’s image and lifestyle has changed, their portrayal in advertisements has not changed much since the 1980s.
Author Mohana Gill, in her 70s, says it is very sad to see senior citizens depicted as “has-beens”.
“Not all senior citizens are ‘weak and helpless’ unless they are sick,” says Mohana.
“I think being helpless, wanting and depressed are not a fair depiction. For example, why are hearing aids and glasses always associated with senior citizens? There are also a lot of young ones who have hearing problems and vision problems.
“I think that it is high time senior citizens are given their due. I think that the most important one is respect. Respect for their age, recognition of the fact that they have reached this age through many experiences – some good, some bad, but nevertheless interesting. I think that they are a treasure trove of information that we can harness. They have stories to tell, experiences to share and advice to give.
“Besides, in this day and age, senior citizens, especially those who are educated and can afford it, live a very healthy life. They are aware of and know how to take care of themselves. They exercise regularly to make sure they are healthy and happy. They join groups for line dancing, mahjong and scrabble to keep themselves busy,” she adds.
Unfortunately, this is hardly illustrated in advertisements. When was the last time you saw an advertisement about a senior citizen driving the latest car model or travelling to an exotic location?
Are these pleasures reserved for only the young?
President of non-governmental organisations Gerontological Association of Malaysia and the Malaysian Association of Human Resource Consultants, Mohd Ghazali Abdul Ghaib, 70, says this image of seniors needs to change.
“The first complaint of NGOs and senior citizens – why do you portray the negative aspects and weaknesses of senior citizens? Why don’t you portray those who are social leaders and still active after 14 years of retirement?
“So many lead the community and the NGOs. But they are not portrayed. The advertisements only depict senior citizens being taken care of, not those who take care of others. We are not being focused on. The advertisers focus on the takers but not the givers … this is lopsided,” says Ghazali.
He agrees that this is probably because senior citizens are still not seen as part of the mainstream population, even though the country is ageing.
Radio personality and thespian Patrick Teoh, 68, says that the image of seniors in advertisements is usually stereotypical.
“A healthy, happy family with loving grandchildren. Many of the advertisements don’t say that the seniors are dependent but it is heavily implied in the story line.
“It really depends on the product being advertised. Insurance advertisements will show more independent seniors.
“Most, if not all, Malaysian advertisements are about unrealistic situations with people who converse in a special kind of ‘ad speak’. ‘Waaa! This drink is sooo good. I’m going out to buy some now. Yay! I’m coming with you.’ ”
Stereotypes tend to sell. So do youth, looks and sex. This is well known in the media world.
Until and unless the consumer world changes its mentality, Malaysian advertisements will continue to be skewered towards that.
In the meantime, seniors like Mohana aren’t wasting time dwelling on such negative images of them.
“I think that as you get older you have to realise that you are not going to be youthful and beautiful as you used to be. Dress well, be smart, wear the things that you are comfortable in, and which suit your age. If we have grey hair and wrinkles, so what? We have earned it; it is part of growing. I also think that in some advertisements of old people, the pictures are all touched up so they look younger anyway.
“We are old, proud to be old and, in spite of grey hair and wrinkles, still beautiful. You must feel good about yourself, about the things you have achieved and are still able to do.
“The keywords are dignity and self-respect and being able to accept oneself for what we are today.”