Visions of Older People: How Japanese TV Ads Portray the no longer Young

In a recent TV commercial, an older Japanese woman leads a younger woman, dressed in a suit and presumably an employee of a home renovation company, to a spot near the veranda in her traditional Japanese house and says, “I wonder if my grandson will come over to play more if we renovate.” The premise of the commercial seemed peculiar. Enticements for grandchildren might include a swing set, pool or video game console, but making the switch from shoji paper screens to curtains, or tatami mats to carpets isn’t likely to get the grandkids hurrying over to revel in the up-to-date ambiance.

Perhaps some fastidious teenager might welcome a non-archaic tub/shower and washbasin with all the newest, shiniest appurtenances added, but surely that would be the limit of required renewal. In my experiences visiting the old Japanese homes of elderly relatives and family friends, the fusty, slightly shabby, cluttered, dim rooms often feel like a welcome trip to another world, far from the hustle and bustle of daily life. I may prefer to live in a more modern home, but they’re wonderfully relaxing places to visit.

The commercial ends with a toddler playing on a small slide set up in the new hallway, to the delight of the doting parents and grandparents — a slide that could have functioned equally well in the former home. The extreme deference to the anticipated wants of a little kid felt a bit silly, and I say this as the grandmother of a 2-year-old who I indeed love to spend time with. Nonetheless, I think I would have just bought the play equipment. Yet, the commercial presents a woman attentive to a desire she holds, seeking a means to attain her aim, executing it and enjoying the successful result. Who am I to find fault with that?

And who can blame a lawful company for trying to tempt grandparents to part with some of their money in aid of achieving their vision of a happier, fuller family life? Michael Prieler, a researcher on images of older people in advertising, notes that in 2010 people age 50 and over in Japan held about 80% of the country’s personal financial assets. That’s a great incentive to pitch products and services to that demographic. Prieler and three colleagues have made a study of how older people are depicted in TV commercials in Japan.

So, what is “older” anyway? They defined “older” as appearing to be age 50 or older, which means it would include people still working as well as the retired. The researchers compared commercials in Japan in 1997 and 2007 by randomly selecting 28 weekdays and making a database of all of the commercials that were being shown for the first time, to avoid duplicates, on the five major TV stations on those days and then further filtering for only the commercials that included people. This resulted in 1,236 commercials in 1997 and 1,220 in 2007.

Two Japanese graduate students coded the commercials, classifying the people appearing in them according to 1) age: above or below 50 years of age; 2) role: major or minor role; 3) image: positive, negative or neutral; 4) social interaction: alone, with other older people, with adults under 50, with a child, or multigenerational; 5) setting from the perspective of the older person: home, workplace, other inside, outside, or other; 6) product category.

Some things changed a lot, others not so much. The percentage of commercials featuring older people in major or minor roles was 17% in 1997, rising to 25% in 2007. In each case, the frequency is an underrepresentation as roughly 34% of the population was over 50 according to the 1995 census and 42% in the 2005 census, but 2007 was at least a lower underrepresentation. Interestingly, the incidence of older people playing a major role in the commercials in which they did appear remained consistent in 1997 and 2007, at 65%, while the frequency of positive images increased, from 30% to 39%. Neutral images were most common in both years but declined somewhat from 57% to 50%, with the swing to more positive images. Thirteen percent of the images of older people were negative in 1997, which decreased slightly, to 11% ten years later.

The biggest shift, surprisingly, was related to social interaction. Twenty percent of the older people appeared alone in the commercials in 1997 but this rose sharply to 38% in 2007. On the other hand, commercials in which older people were shown with people younger than 50 dropped from 58% to 43%. This initially struck me as gloomy, but Prieler and his colleagues suggest that it could signify a positive societal development: Older people may now be considered important enough in their own right not to need to be shown with others.

The other types of potential social interaction did not show much difference between the two years. Older people with other older people were the third-most common at 10% and 9%, respectively, followed by multiple generations, at 9% and 7%. Older people with children had an occurrence of about 3% in the commercials of both years.

In both years, the frequency of indoor settings other than home or workplace were most prevalent, at 34% and 42%. The greatest shift was in outside settings, which fell from 26% to 17%. The prevalence of inside settings other than home or office may be explained by foods and beverages being the largest product category in both years, at 23% and 26%. The second-greatest category in 1997 was services and leisure (11%) and cosmetics and toiletries (10%) in 2007, but generally speaking, there was not much difference between the two years.

Despite traditional respect for the elderly in Japan, in the 1980s, as Japan’s aging society became a major issue in the news and other programs, sociologist Wataru Koyano and other researchers drew attention to various negative stereotypes of older people in Japan, for example, being set in their ways. The more I think back on the home renovation commercial, the more I like it, although I like to think that even after the grandson has gone back home with his parents, the two grandparents continue to feel satisfaction in their new surroundings, the main players in their own continuing lives.