Media Literacy and Seniors: Repetitive Ads Construct Reality

Many people say they pay no attention to advertisements. However, television watchers, especially seniors, are continuously exposed to questionable advertising selling medications, insurance, political issues, and doubt about Medicare. Content grows more and more familiar as ads repeat over and over each day — first creating questions, then worry or doubt. Though viewers feel like they are not paying attention, the repetitive content seeps into consciousness — just what advertisers want to happen. Gradually the content generates a different feel — the claims feel as if they are real, and it grows harder to distinguish old ideas from new — and a different reality is constructed. (Read my recent post, Seniors and Media Literacy: Fear, Voting, and Manipulation.)

It’s critical for aging adults to understand the techniques advertisers use to manipulate and bring people around to a desired point of view. Learning how to distinguish television generated fear from real fear is also an important skill, one that can significantly improve the quality of life.

During the last election cycle media representations rife with false claims about senior issues caused a lot of anxiety. I’ve also observed the process when I talk to older seniors about Medicare issues. Moreover, senior members of my own family find themselves increasingly fearful about crime and victimization.

A couple of months ago, as I sat in an assisted living dining room, two people quoted verbatim from a television ad (from a reassuringly named organization) that made false claims about Medicare. My web-connected iPhone comes in very handy  in a situation like this because I can connect to Medicare.gov, right there at the table, and retrieve the true facts. When I told them about the organization that made the ads and explained how it was not funded by advocates for seniors, they were incensed. Twenty minutes later,  just to see what might happen, I brought up the subject of television advertising, and both people said that they do no pay any attention to ads.

Sitting at the table that day we had a media literacy lesson, pure and simple.

A few years ago I completed a graduate course — the best I’ve ever taken — taught by Dr. David Considine, a professor who specialized in media literacy at Appalachian State University. Professor Considine has written a book for teachers about the important principles of media literacy. Check out what he has to say on media representations and other media literacy principles at one of his websites. He writes:

This principle involves the realization that there is a relationship between the way the world is presented by the media and the way we as media consumers perceive that world. Crime is 10 times greater on television than in real life, but many Americans perceive their world to be as violent and threatening as the media construction.

So where do adult children come in? We adult children need media literacy skills as much as our parents, especially given how as we get older, we all tend to develop anxiety about our world. Most importantly, however, adult children need to help their elderly parents develop media literacy skills, helping them to understand how manipulative and repetitive advertising causes damage and creates fear.

We can also teach or remind our parents how to use the mute button during commercials.


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