Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the Advertising Standards Authority.
The ASA receives complaints about the depiction of elderly people in marketing communications. Several campaigns have depicted elderly people in an adverse or offensive way and marketers should not mock, humiliate or degrade the elderly. That’s not to say that marketers cannot use humour, even black humour, when featuring the elderly. Gentle, tongue-in-cheek humour is more likely to be acceptable and light-hearted wordplays, in a context that portrays older people in a positive manner, are likely to be acceptable. For example, a regional press ad that stated “Scrap your old boiler...” and showed an elderly woman wearing a lace cap was considered acceptable. Although it acknowledged that some readers might find the ad distasteful and out of place in today’s society, the ASA concluded that it was a light-hearted use of an archaic stereotype rather than demeaning to the elderly (Invicta Gas Ltd, 24 November 2010). A Mazda ad that showed an elderly woman with her eyes closed and seemingly giving unreliable directions to a motorist, was considered acceptable because the woman was not seen as representing elderly people in general (Mazda Motors (UK) Ltd, 30 August 2006). And an ad for a vintage clothing shop that showed an elderly woman about to cross a road with the text "Silk Dress Coming Soon” was considered acceptable. The ASA concluded that, although the implication was that the dress would be available because the woman might die soon, readers would consider the ad humorous, albeit morbid. Moreover, because the ad did not make fun of infirmity, lack of mobility or illness and did not associate any particular negative characteristics or stereotypes with elderly people, it concluded the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence (Shock & Soul, 10 March 2010).
As with all questions of offence, targeting is key. The ASA received a complaint about an ad that stated "Classic FM's version of speed dating" above a picture of three elderly people in a nursing home; two were sitting down asleep and one was being escorted by two nurses. Text continued "69% of Classic FM listeners are aged 55 or over* They might be old, but Classic FM listeners still need someone to go to the bingo with …”. Because it appeared in trade press, the ASA considered the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence (Wireless Group plc, 18 May 2005).
Ads featuring a humorous or exaggerated depiction of the ageing process are unlikely to offend though advertisers should avoid mocking elderly people or portraying them in an adverse fashion (Burgon & Ball Ltd, 3 August 2005, and Body & Mind, 21 September 2005).
A charity poster that featured a hard-hitting depiction of a row of pairs of feet of dead elderly people in a mortuary was judged to be acceptable because of the serious nature of the message the advertiser was conveying (Help the Aged, February 1999). Similarly, a mailing describing the plight of older people in the UK who are victims of abuse was judged unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or distress despite its hard-hitting content (Help the Aged, 5 July 2006).Rule 4.1 explicitly states that particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of age.