Commercials that make fun of old people.

Advertising deconstructed.
May 26 2003 8:52 AM

The Return of Hilarious Old People

Ads that make fun of the elderly.

The land of advertising has many stock characters—Zeligs, almost—who return over and over, in one commercial narrative after another, the only real difference being the product or service they are supposed to be selling. There's the Sexy Girl, of course. And the Hapless Dad. The Hip Teen comes and goes. The Black Friend is usually available. And then there's the Hilarious Old Person.

Hilarious Old People—Clara "Where's the Beef?" Peller being the archetype—have been in a bit less demand in recent years, as the ad business has figured out that there are a lot of "mature" consumers who happen to have money to spend and don't think of themselves as (barely) living punch lines. (Although Madison Avenue has not quite figured out how to deal with this. Are older consumers adventurous? Are they horny? Do they have a sense of humor?) But a pair of ads touting a mobile-phone outfit called Boostdoes not seem hung up on any of this. With a few contemporary flourishes, the ads represent the old school of old-think. You can see them here.

Boost ad
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In the first spot, a well-dressed African-American senior citizen is shown standing near an SUV-style stretch limo. "So we come out the Fabolous show, aiiight?" she says, somewhat gingerly. "And I'm like, yo, where my homegirl … ? So I two-wayed that chickenhead on my Boost mobile phone." Cut to the friend, also an older black woman, who is in another limo, with a young man and a blaring hip-hop soundtrack. This woman screeches that she's "getting' my freak on!" The first woman wants "some of that," and we promptly see the two ladies pawing the young man in the back seat.

The second ad shows an older Asian man standing in front of a muscle car with the hood removed. Other old people of various ethnic backgrounds mill around. The Asian man explains, again using streety jargon, that he'd been two-wayed by "this Latin fool" —he indicates an elderly fellow moving about with the aid of a cane—who challenged him to a race. So, the Asian guy says he will now "burn a hole in his butt!" He guffaws—and then bright lights and distant police sirens intrude. "Five-oh! Five-oh!" he shouts, using now somewhat-dated slang for the police as all the Hilarious Old People shuffle, with the help of walkers and wheelchairs, to their cars.

Typically, when advertisers do something that they suspect will offend a portion of the audience, they claim that they aren't actually committing the offense, they are critiquing the offense. So, for example, the Miller Lite "catfight" spots aren't exploiting sexy girls in their underwear; they are simply making fun of advertising that stoops to such levels and those who respond to it. The inclusion of the actual sexy girls in their underwear happens to be the only way to make this sophisticatedly ironic point.

Is this fig leaf available to the Boost boosters? Well, both ads end with the onscreen slogan: "Boost Mobile. Designed for young people. But it's just more fun showing old people." (The contemporary flourish in the Boost ads is of course the invitation  to laugh not just at older people, but at older people of all creeds and colors—at a stereotype that looks like America.) Clearly, that tag line is meant as some sort of joke. But it's one that strikes me as post-ironic: On some level, it almost seems to be making fun of marketing that hides behind the critique defense.

Because when the irony defense fails, the fallback is usually a claim to a brave sort of honesty—the kind that challenges dissenters to stop being so high and mighty and learn to laugh. This is the refuge of certain belligerent comics and daytime talk show hosts, and of the schoolyard bully taunting you to have the courage to be on his side while he picks on someone "different." These ads are saying: "Oh, stop feeling guilty and just admit it: Old people are funny! Laugh, target demo, laugh at your feeble, doddering elders!" Maybe that's honesty. But I wouldn't call it brave.

Rob Walker is a columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.

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