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If advertising told the truth

May 15, 2017

If you’re like me, there’s a whole lotta head-shaking and eye-rolling going on when you see TV and magazine advertising nowadays. So much of it is so ridiculous, pandering, ageist, sexist, patronizing and/or [insert your adjective of derision here]—especially some ads targeting us baby boomers—that it makes you wonder where Madison Avenue’s head is (besides up its ass).

That said, can you imagine what some of these ads would be like if they portrayed what real people might do and say?

The ad for the ED drug that shows a sexy young woman telling men how great it’s going to be when they pop that little blue pill:

How about we have a woman in her 60s or 70s saying something like, “Look, sweetie, I love you to pieces, but sex isn’t all about your boner. And frankly, if you get an erection that lasts for four hours, I’ll be the one seeking medical attention. My thinning vaginal walls can’t take that kind of pounding. But if you want to learn how to pleasure me in other ways, well, let’s talk, okay?”

Or keep the young temptress actress, but have her say: “Let’s get real, honey. If you need an ED drug to make love to someone who looks like me, chances are you’re way older than I am, overweight or otherwise not in great shape. Unless you’re incredibly rich or powerful, do you really think I’m hot to have sex with you? Dream on, big boy.”

The ads for pricey anti-aging skincare products in which the models look about 14 years old:

Let’s have the child-model say something like: “Yes, I’m young enough to be your granddaughter. I don’t have a single wrinkle or age spot, you can’t see my pores without a magnifying glass, I’m decades away from having saggy skin, and I’m airbrushed to within an inch of my young life. If you think using this product I’ve been paid obscene amounts of money to hawk will make you look anything like me, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you, too.”

Or have an age-appropriate, non-airbrushed or surgically altered spokes-model say: “Hey, world, this is what 68 looks like. No face cream is going to make me look 28 again. This one does have sunscreen and it makes my skin feel soft, but it’s still outrageously expensive because of the fancy packaging and all the money the company spends on marketing to make you think it’ll turn back the clock. My advice? Learn to feel comfortable in your own skin—confidence, self-love and happiness can give you a glow you’ll never find in a jar.”

The TV ad with a human colon sidekick

This one isn’t so much ageist as simply stupid, IMO. “Irritabelle” is the personification of an irritable bowel with diarrhea (IBS-D)—an actress in a flesh-colored bodysuit who makes life difficult for her owner by showing up whenever the owner needs to do something important, like attend a business meeting.

I get the value of informing people who suffer from this condition about the treatment options available. But a walking, talking, kooky colon? I wish the woman with IBS-D would look at the camera say something like:

“Are you shitting me? I get this painful, overwhelming urge to poop at the most inopportune times, and you friggin’ creative types think a perky woman in a flesh-colored bodysuit who’s supposed to be my colon is ‘relatable’ and ‘engaging’ about my condition? It’s not just my colon that’s irritated—this infantile crap makes my head feel like it’s going to explode.” Then she storms off the set, presumably to go to the bathroom.

The ads for undergarments to deal with incontinence

The Depend brand says it’s committed to increasing awareness and reducing the stigma of incontinence, but I thought their “Drop Your Pants for Underawareness” campaign was absurd. Ads showed a procession of adults walking down a city street wearing business attire above the waist, and nothing but the brand’s underwear below. The voice-over tells people to “Show them they’re not alone, and show off a pair of Depend, because wearing a different kind of underwear is no big deal.”

Come on. As if I would walk anywhere in public in my underwear—regardless of what kind it is. I just kept imagining word bubbles over the actors’ heads saying, “This is the most ridiculous gig I’ve ever done. I should get an award for keeping a straight face. On the one hand, I like the residuals from this kind of, um, exposure. On the other hand, I hope no one I know sees me in this stupid ad. And as for raising awareness, people should know there are treatments for incontinence so they don’t have to spend a shitload of money on products like these.”

In a New York Times article about this campaign, the chief marketing officer of Kimberly-Clark (makers of the Depend products) is quoted as saying, “The mission of this brand is to restore dignity.” My ass.

When it comes to ageism in advertising, I’m not the only one who’s turned off by the way Madison Avenue talks to older folks. According to a 2014 survey of 400 consumers aged 70-plus, 60% of respondents said advertising targeting seniors are dominated by stereotypes, with older folks either portrayed as too active, too rich, too well dressed, too perky and too attractive, or conversely, as sick, feeble and out of touch.

Certain categories of ads scored especially low, with only 8%, 15% and 20% of respondents saying they agreed with the portrayal of seniors in pharmaceutical, financial services, and senior-living community ads, respectively.

Part of the problem is that there’s ageism within the advertising industry itself, as this 2016 AdWeek article pointed out, noting that there’s real age discrimination against over-50 creatives. As a result, we often have thirty-somethings crafting the ad messages that target older adults.

One of the most telling—and infuriating—quotes from the article: “This is one of the few industries where wisdom counts for nothing.”

I rest my case.

And I wrote this haiku:

You want some truth in
advertising? Here it is:
your ads piss me off.

So what do you think? Are there particular ads that stick in your craw? What would you like some of these ads to say? Please share!



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  • 14 thoughts on “If advertising told the truth

    1. Shari E says:

      I agree! Have you seen the ads for hearing aids? Full of stigma despite what they say. Thanks for this interesting article.

      1. Roxanne says:

        It’s so true, Shari! I’m surprised they don’t show some stereotypical oldster with one of those old-timey ear trumpets, for crying out loud! Thanks for commenting.

    2. Barbara says:

      Amen, Sistah! I am so over the ED ads I want to throw something at the TV every time I see one! And, the colon cutie is just some sick ad agency joke. I’m happy to say I’ve never seen the depends ad you mentioned and hope I never do!
      You’re right about the 30 something’s creating their vision of us old folks, which means over 50 to them. Talk about sad. 🙁

      1. Roxanne says:

        Barbara, I think we should start our own anti-advertising agency and show these kids how it’s done! Thanks for your comment (and commiseration!).

    3. Haralee says:

      I saw the ad for Depends and the first thing I thought of was how much did that pay! It blows me away, the ageism. There was an ad and they showed a guy supposedly in his 50’s and I’d say this guy was mid to late 70’s unless they made his makeup look old. My point is, the distortion of what certain ages look like and act like is not representative of reality!

      1. Roxanne says:

        It’s so true about the distortion, Haralee–which I think is attributable in no small way to the relative youth of the folks creating so many of these ads. It’s frustrating!!!

    4. Renee says:

      I hate all ads…especially the big pharma ones…seriously, why would you take something with all the side effects, especially the one, it could kill you….also the ED ad with the two people in separate bath tubs…is that the new way to have sex? No sure, since it has been a long time…LOL…

      1. Roxanne says:

        So many of these ads are truly ridiculous, aren’t they, Renee? I’ve never understood the two-bathtub thing–the logistics of filling the things with water alone (since there’s apparently no plumbing) boggle the mind. And if you’re planning to get it on, wouldn’t it make more sense to get frisky in a tub together??? And the litany of potential side effects intoned during most drug ads is definitely chilling…

    5. YES! All the way around and so true.

      1. Roxanne says:

        Thanks for commenting, Cathy!

    6. Jon Brush says:

      The best ads ever are the risqué ones from foreign countries, and the SNL parody ads from many years ago. The SNL ad for “Colon Blow” high fiber cereal..,the parody of the “Nut’n’Honey” cereal called “Nigga Hush” and the ad for the dual toilet for the height of intimacy… all were very clever and made you really LOL before “LOL” was a cliché.
      This isn’t about ageism…just ads.
      One thing I remember from Econ 101 is that those products that are the most similar (beer, toilet paper, cars) have to spend the most on ads to create the illusion of brand difference. It makes a lot of sense.

      1. Roxanne says:

        I agree that many of the foreign ads are quite clever. And some of the SNL parodies are classics. I also understand how “commodities” like TP or beer have to push the envelope to cut through a crowded marketplace. But some of the advertising that big pharma and other companies targeting older folks produce, well, it just sucks. Thanks for weighing in, Jon!

    7. Teri says:

      So true Roxanne! Another reason I have cut way back on my TV watching. I agree with Renee on the shut my mouth reaction to the pill ads that seem to proliferate with the breezy way they enumerate the multiple side effects.
      MS magazine has for years on their last page featured readers sending in sexist, ageist ads so we can write emails, letters to those companies and ad agencies and NOT buy their products

      1. Roxanne says:

        I love the way Ms magazine calls out the “perpetrators!” Thanks for commenting, my friend.

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