Tearjerker holiday ads put spotlight on lonely seniors

Click here to read ‘Tearjerker holiday ads put spotlight on lonely seniors‘ by Susan Krashinsky – The Globe and Mail, December 10, 2015

In advertising, a word you often hear is “aspirational.” Ads paint a picture of the life, the looks and the status that viewers might desire, while presenting a product as a feature of that idyll. So why are advertisers suddenly telling stories of an impending struggle that nobody wants to think about: the sometimes desperate loneliness of growing old?

Christmas advertising often leans on emotional stories to make an impact on viewers. But this year, in a curious coincidence, a small group of brands around the world has created ads starring elderly characters who are lonely or ill.

British retailer John Lewis – known for tearjerker holiday ads – gives viewers a story of an old man living by himself on the moon, gazing pensively into the sky. The allegory for the isolation of seniors is particularly poignant at a time of year when holiday messages are all about togetherness, and the pain of loneliness can be especially keen.

Swiss photo-printing company Ifolor AG tells the story of a woman who shows photos to her husband, to trigger the memories of her that he has lost in the fog of dementia.

An ad from Audi in the United States features an old man gazing out his window at snowed-in roads, anticipating spending the holidays alone. (His family rushes in the door, shepherded through the snow by their trusty cars, of course.)

And in the most brutal and polarizing story of the bunch, German supermarket chain Edeka gives us an old man so lonely that he fakes his own death in a desperate bid to force his family to gather at his house. “How else could I have brought you all together?” he says to the sorrowful group. (It apparently does not occur to the fictional master manipulator that the kind of personality that makes him willing to traumatize his children – and young grandchildren – in this way might have something to do with their reluctance to visit.)

Edeka’s ad has racked up roughly 40 million views on YouTube, an astonishing figure for a regional chain. But among the chatter on social media such as Twitter, where people declared that the ad made them cry, there were some negative reactions from those who called it dark or manipulative.

These stories, from different ad agencies in different countries, stand out against an advertising landscape where older people have often been portrayed as laughable cranks – shouting “Where’s the beef” or grumbling about TD Bank’s newfangled business practices. But now there is increasing awareness of the world’s aging population; in 1950, there were just 205 million people in the world over the age of 60, but by 2000, that figure had increased to 606 million and is estimated to reach two billion by 2050,according to the United Nations.

“We don’t think it’s a total coincidence,” said Loren Angelo, director of marketing for Audi of America. “There’s a new generation of ad creatives who have had long relationships throughout the years with their grandparents. So when we try to dig up our most treasured memories and turn them into creative ideas, it makes sense that a lot of those special moments will involve our grandparents. We try to draw inspiration from things that are relatable.”

That was certainly the case for Pius Walker, creative director and founder of Zurich-based agency Walker AG, who based the Ifolor ad on his own mother’s use of photos to connect with his father, who suffers from dementia.

“It was quite emotional to produce,” he said, adding that his mother – a skeptic who is not a fan of advertising – was happy with the spot.

“There is common ground there – the fact that people are getting older, where 50 years ago they might not have reached an age where they got Alzheimer’s,” Mr. Walker said. “Advertising will always walk behind general movements in society. … For a long while, it was all stylized and ideal. There is a trend there of going closer to the truth. It’s not all glam and beauty. And I think advertising needs to go there.”

There is another trend at play, as well: Highly emotional advertising that seems designed to make audiences cry has become more widespread in recent years. As more advertisers reach for stories to rouse the feelings, they are searching for more sympathetic subject matter.

“It’s a bit like how people use animals, because there are things that touch people. Babies, too,” said Naila Butt, executive director of the Markham, Ont.-based Social Services Network, which provides programs to promote health and well-being among seniors. While pop culture portrayals of seniors can perhaps make people more aware of issues such as social isolation, she is skeptical of ads that stop there.

“It touches a chord that I sometimes feel is exploited,” she said. “If it does not eventually benefit seniors in some way, then I have a problem with that.”

Susan Eng, executive vice-president of seniors’ advocacy group CARP, agrees: “Does the contribution to the social discourse outweigh the blatant commercialism of the message?” she said.

Retailer John Lewis partnered with the British arm of the charity Age International, and used its campaign to encourage people to reach out to older people in their lives and to donate to the organization. The agency used footage from its ad shoot to create a video appeal for donations, voiced by Helen Mirren. And the company has committed to giving 25 per cent of sales on “man on the moon” mugs and cards to the charity.

“There’s a bigger message. … It wasn’t just, ‘We’re going to show you a lonely old person and pull your heartstrings,’” said Ben Priest, founding partner and executive creative director of London-based adam&eveDDB, which begins working on its John Lewis Christmas campaign as early as January each year. “It was important for us to do something meaningful.”

Mr. Priest believes the similarities are partly due to how universal the emotions about growing old, and our elderly family, can be.

“There are a lot of people in this territory trying to make work that moves people,” he said. “Aging is incredibly personal, because it’s happening to all of us.”