UK magazine advertising portrayals of older adults: a longitudinal, content analytic, and a social semiotic lens

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Virpi Ylänne


The focus of this article is the depiction of older adults in UK magazine advertising. Theoretically located in the broad area of cultural gerontology, with its central focus on culturally constitutive meaning of age(ing) (e.g. Twigg & Martin 2015), it applies social semiotic categories (Kress & van Leeuwen 1996, 2004) and draws on critical discourse analytic insights in investigating persistent trends in advertising images of older adults. These are linked with the role of advertising media in constructing and contributing to specific social “imaginary” or “imagination” of later life. A content analytic comparison between two corpora of adverts (221 ads from 1999 to 2004 and 313 ads from 2011 to 2016) reveals only minor changes over time. These include relative consistency in the product categories linked with older models, the adverts predominantly targeting older adults, but a decline in humorous portrayals. A semiotically oriented analysis of a subset of adverts further examines their compositional and affective dimensions, in addition to representational qualities. This uncovers strategies that are in line with aspirational third age discourse and imagery, but which also contribute to the marginalisation of older adults via a restricted portrayal of later life(styles) and can also be seen to problematise “ageless” depictions.


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