FRONT PAGE / POSTS
Coming of Age
by Malcolm Evans| Brighton, UK
Thursday, 26 May 2016
tags: consumer culture, culture, emergence, europe, making sense, semiotics
Malcolm Evans and Peter Rock have been collaborating since September 2015 on a project to database semiotic & cultural data & insight into themes influencing people aged 50+, a demographic with whom advertisers and marketers could profitably improve their communication. This is an initial look at the UK leg of that work in progress.
In March 2013 Sraboni Bhaduri looked, for Semionaut, at changes in representations of older people in Indian advertising. Here we do the same for UK. This comes at a time when popular culture, especially film, is very much involved with themes around ageing and mortality, and a series of high-profile celebrity deaths have prompted a time of reflection. We give below the headlines on the Ageing theme in UK advertising’s Residual (dated), Dominant (mainstream) and more emergent (dynamic, forward-looking) codes – and say more about representative campaigns and executions.
The Residual codes are partly based on cultural memory and nostalgia: Dame Thora Hird’s ticket to ride on the patriotically-named Churchill Stairlift in the 1990s (how different in her ageing aunty persona from our 2016 dames, Judi & Helen); the forlorn J.R. Hartley haunting second hand bookshops in the 1980s in search of a volume he once wrote on fly fishing, before finding it via Yellow Pages; the Werther’s Original kindly grandfather, updated and professionalized as an older male confectionery chef in the most recent TV execution.
Our example here of how the codes of the past can endure into the present is Michael Parkinson for Sun Life insurance. This plays on an ancient formula in which the older celebrity male twinkles to camera and takes the “If you’re like me…” mature market into his confidence. Parkinson talks directly but discretely about death and how to make provision to avoid inconveniencing those we leave behind. In the past, on these relatively unsophisticated 50+ communications, a free biro might be thrown in at some point as an incentive to respond for the frugal pensioner. This has been updated today to a choice from an attractive range of higher value gifts for anyone who signs up. With the pen, going to anyone who even applies for details, upgraded to a Parker – once a near-luxury marque for this generation. A result all round, one surmises, with Yorkshireman Parkinson (knowing what’s what, calling a spade a spade etc) belying his super-rich status and standing up for the canny consumer.
The Dominant codes are more complex. Some of that Residual harmlessness and eccentricity lives on – in the comic catatonia modulating to Dionysiac frenzy of the old men and women in the Specsavers Aerobics Instructor ad, for example, and the toe-curling sentimentality of the 2015 John Lewis Christmas ad, which took viewers into the darker area of isolation among UK’s elderly population: “Show someone they’re loved this Christmas”. This ran in parallel with the charity Age Concern’s awareness-raising campaign (“No Friends”) with its ironic Facebook generation echo – and soon-to-emerge connotations of exploiting the vulnerable when press headlines appeared in February 2016 alleging that the energy giant E.ON “paid £6m to Age UK in return for the charity promoting expensive tariffs to pensioners”.
There is a stark contrast in this mainstream area between recent still glamorous endorsers of anti-ageing products (for l’Oreal, Jane Fonda, at the time of writing, is 78, Helen Mirren rapidly approaching 71) and the shambling objectified old geezers in the Barclays Digital Eagles ad about Walking Football. As this game, designed to ensure that the infirm can still compete and have fun, explicitly targets men of 50 and over (young enough for Jane and Dame Helen to be their mums) we have some dissonance here between how 20- or 30-something ad men see their older co-genderists and how the 50+ male nowadays sees himself. This is profoundly stereotypical and non-aspirational mirroring.
An older colleague suggested chirpily to me that the walking game should be staged in a Shawshank Redemption-style prison yard where crowds of football lovers now in their eighth year of austerity cheer on the guilty (yet uncannily plucky and somehow sympathetic) bankers, with their balls and chains, as they drag and dribble along. Because they’re worth it. A quick antidote for the agency – watch the first 15 minutes of Led Zeppelin’s Celebration Day 2007 reunion concert film (Robert Plant was then 59, Jimmy Page 63, John Paul Jones 62– all on top of their game and some). That’s a bit closer to how the inner wrinkly, as you see him, (AKA a grown-up) likes to see himself. Even next generation drummer Bonzo Jr., currently 49 (June 2016), will qualify for his Walking Football permit soon.
More needs to be said about the anti-ageing codes. Keeping a questioning of self-worth on the agenda for women (even by explicitly affirming you are worth it) is at best a questionable activity. Are you planning at any point to suggest overtly to Sir Ian McKellen that he might be worth it? Or maybe Charlie Watts? One of our most insightful critics of these cultural representations wrote recently that the time has come to move on from anti-ageing to pro-ageing. The fact is, if you deconstruct the codes and signifiers of this category carefully enough, that this shift, very subtly, has actually already begun.
The trajectory overall so far is: from gentleness, eccentricity, common sense (with a twinkle); to pathos, humour & ambivalent empowerment, with occasional lapses back into a grotesque objectification that would never pass today in relation to ethnic, religious or gender differences but is still alive and well in the world of ageism. All the more alarming because (unless we are negligent or unlucky) we will, as is not necessarily the case with other forms of diversity and otherness, be there ourselves one day. The apparent ease, culturally, with which one may become a self-hating ageing person, for we all age from the moment we’re born, is just wilfully storing up even bigger problems arising from ignorance and prejudice for ourselves later on. Having reached 80, on his birthday, the late great Acker Bilk said “By the time you get to my age you’re either 80 or you’re dead. And on balance I’d rather be 80”. Obvious but worth saying. Just what mortality said it would do on the tin.
David Bowie, Blackstar
So to the Emergent zone in ads.
Contextually what’s happening, with regard to ageing, in popular culture in UK (and arriving from the US and/or mainland Europe) is amazing. The generation after the first teenagers (the ones who perfected youth culture), the ones who were hippies, mods, rockers, all that, who were the puppet-masters of punk, are now in their late 60s (a magic second coming-of-age decade which shares its name with a magic historical decade) or 70s and… guess what… promise you won’t laugh… ageing and death have become cool. Now who would have guessed the Boomers were going to make that happen? There are some quick tasters in Paolo Sorrentino’s sublime film Youth (starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda), in The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, in the devastating Still Alice, of course, and in the very private yet transcendentally public death of David Bowie (a brilliant business model – enjoy your post-death royalties from investors up front while you’re alive, then pay them back with knobs on by staging the most charismatic and commercially astute exit in almost two millennia – nice one – you’re definitely worth it, Ziggy!)
And the ad men are beginning to respond with an emerging light-touch mix of wisdom, love, compassion, kindness, integration, strength, the spark of life and shared mortality. A lot to ask, perhaps, but it’s all there when the fear, denial, objectification and stereotyping are suspended and the authentic values of the return half of life’s journey gain expression.
Dove celebrates the beauty of grey hair, tapping into a cultural trend, making a point to do so in the context of hair (and people) diversity rather in a cultural ghetto specific to Oldies. Being addressed as a semiotically ‘unmarked’ person (rather than specifically as old, gay, black, Muslim etc) can occasionally be heartening and on the side of life. Then how to showcase perfectly in a branded commercial format the elegant understatement and ever-present latent menace of Harvey Keitel, ironically morphed into a kindliness which allows Direct Line to bring their edgy transposition of Werther’s Original-style warmth and security to the emotionally fraught and inherently uncertain world of car and home insurance.
Finally two ads which touch on the highly topical dominion of death, the ever-present, however shadowy at times, elephant in room 50+. IKEA follow the happy memories of a couple, as boosted by love and imagination and as seen more realistically in the family album – and poignantly as the woman, now older, sits with her granddaughter and glances over at the empty chair. A brand which specialises in feet-on-the-ground democratic excellence and understanding life’s transitions just about rescues the execution from the semiotics of non-ironic greetings cards.
In The First Choice all-inclusive holidays “Seeker” ad, where the music track (The Who’s 1970 single name-checking the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Timothy Leary – it only reached number 19 in the UK charts so still has freshness and cultural discoverability) is, subtly supported by vintage styling and aura, the only thing that explicitly interpellates UK youth culture’s greatest generation. While an underwater sequence cues in dream imagery, the unconscious, a wandering through one’s personal avatars of male or female, youth, childhood, middle age and what may be to come.
It’s clear from this execution that it doesn’t take a representation of an older person (whether IKEA’s glancing soft-focus emotion or documentary observation of physical decline set off by jaunty comic music Barclays-style) for the 50+ target to empathize and identify. They have a fluid lifetime of those avatars to tap into. And no one can know better the import of this First Choice execution’s joyful, impulsive take on carpe diem. Seize the day, nurture and harvest the time. Don’t always mirror what the sceptic, with a jaundiced unloving eye, sees on the outside. If ever the person inside becomes an old codger, he or she’s already dead. And you’re not going to sell them anything. No one knows better that you have to be mindful, active, fully in the moment. The sound track keeps stopping just before “The Seeker”s punch-line and jump-cutting to later in the song. This is the ad’s lyrical absent presence: “Don’t get to get what I’m after/ Till the day I die”. But you do. You will. You can have it now. It’s already well past the point where you still have to pinch yourself and remember that this is not a rehearsal.
© Malcolm Evans 2016
With heartfelt thanks to the UK MRS Advanced Semiotics class of May 2016 – Elisabeth Bennett, Sarah Hall, Lyndsay Kelly, Tom Pattison, Laure Payen