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PR pulse: Inaccurate media portrayals of seniors may be harmful

by | Feb 22, 2018 | Public Relations

Popular culture—and film in particular—continues to misrepresent seniors age 60 and over, inaccurately portraying the group in ways that may adversely affect how they view themselves and their health, according to new research.

The findings are part of a growing body of work from a partnership between Humana Inc. and the University of Southern California’s (USC) Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to determine the effects negative portrayals of seniors on film may have on aging adults in America. Dr. Stacy L. Smith, director of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, led the film portion of the research, which analyzed how seniors age 60 and over are portrayed in the 100 top-grossing films from 2016.

Out of the 100 films analyzed by USC Annenberg, 57 films featured a leading or supporting senior character. Of those 57 films, 44 percent featured ageist comments, with characters being referred to in demeaning ways, such as “old and decrepit,” “grumpy old rat,” or “crazy old man.” Further, a majority of the films with ageist comments (56 percent) included negative references regarding the health of seniors, including remarks about mental well-being, memory and hearing.

“There has been virtually no progress in the volume of senior representation in the top-grossing films in the past year,” said Dr. Smith, in a news release. “As Hollywood embraces representation of other diverse groups, it’s imperative for aging Americans to be included in the industry’s focus on inclusion.”

The study found that a majority of seniors in films are portrayed uncharacteristically

Seniors are shown to be disengaged with technology and uninterested in travel—a notion debunked by Humana’s research, which found the opposite to be true.

According to Humana, the majority of aging Americans (89 percent) are using computer technology, including the internet, on a weekly basis. On screen, only 41 percent of senior characters engaged with technology.

Humana’s research also found that seniors are active travelers, with 63 percent traveling at least once a year. According to USC Annenberg’s analysis, only 22.6 percent of seniors portrayed on film were shown traveling.

Health perceptions at risks

“As aging Americans continue to see these inaccurate depictions of themselves onscreen, their view of life past the age of 60 may begin to feel scary or ominous,” said Dr. Yolangel Hernandez-Suarez, vice president and chief medical officer of care delivery at Humana, in the release. “Our research shows that staying optimistic is vital to the perceived physical and mental health of seniors, and films may be negatively impacting their health by portraying seniors in demeaning or inaccurate ways.”

In fact, Humana’s quantitative survey of 2,000 people age 60 or over, found 87 percent of seniors who identify themselves as most optimistic reported their health as good to excellent, while only 44 percent of those who identified themselves as least optimistic reported the same. Additionally, the most optimistic respondents reported nine fewer physically unhealthy and seven fewer mentally unhealthy days per month than their least optimistic counterparts.

Further, 97 percent of the most optimistic seniors cited remaining physically active as a key motivator for maintaining good health, which contradicts depictions of seniors in popular films. Other motivators included enjoying the ability to travel (81 percent) and keeping an active social life (80 percent).

See additional background on Humana and USC Annenberg’s previous research on this topic here.

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Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 12 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richardc@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter

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