THE BLOG
02/04/2013 12:42 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2013

Taco Bell: Serving Up Ageism for Super Bowl Sunday?

Humor in television advertising has become more of a challenge in recent years. How do you present human absurdities and paradoxes without offending a class of viewers based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or ethnic background? In today's socially aware era, when diversity and egalitarian values have become an obsession of public discourse, very few groups and classes remain amenable to ridicule; it's rare that satire and irony don't incur aversion and censure. Ad creators must circumspectly ask themselves during brainstorming sessions, "Whom might we anger with this ad, and what could be the consequences?"

Even in these hyper-vigilant times, one class of citizen still remains a favored ironic target of advertisers, a proverbial butt of the joke: our oldest and most wizened. And this Super Bowl season, Taco Bell and its ad agency, Deutsch L.A., have rolled out a TV spot brimming with stereotypes, a storyline that's absurd and denigrating.

A watchful nurse wishes the sleepy protagonist a "good night" while softly shutting his bedroom door, her charge safely tucked in bed, a scene reminiscent of childhood. But this clever fellow sneaks out of his retirement community and joins like-minded octogenarians for a wild night of carousing. This motley crew invades a swimming pool by breaking and entering; rocks the night away while clubbing; engages in illicit sexual encounters behind bathroom stalls; drives dangerously; and acquires brazen tattoos. Oh, yes, they also eat Taco Bell tacos while attracting wary surveillance glares from cruising police. These old people are careless, reckless, defiant and bacchanalian.

So what? Isn't this merely an entertaining TV commercial, harmless, if not a bit irreverent of old adults who refuse to remain institutionalized and marginalized? That's one way to look at it, undoubtedly the intentions of the ad's creators.

Another way to look at this commercial is through the lens of ageism. From this perspective, other narratives under-gird the message to buy Taco Bell tacos.

The adults in this ad include a middle-aged nurse making sure her charge is safely tucked in bed, a manager busting the rambunctious clan for swimming in his pool and frowning cops not quite sure whether or not to arrest the oldsters. Another message prevails: Old people have become children once again; adults are middle-aged or younger and must impose careful supervision.

A series of vignettes depict the wild and crazy seniors engaging in behaviors we might expect of a group of drunken teenagers: breaking into private property for a co-ed splash; boogieing at chaotic discos; consuming massive quantities of alcohol; catching some sexual action in a bathroom; eating fast food while cops glare suspiciously; driving recklessly though slumbering neighborhoods; and getting trophy tattoos to commemorate clandestine adventures. Through this looking glass, TV viewers behold senior citizens as a complement of young and foolish rabble-rousers: misfits who want little more from life than cutting loose while defying authorities.

This is old age as seen through the eyes of youth because, most assuredly, none of this ad's creators -- copywriters, art directors or video producers -- are themselves octogenarians. Without much worry of condemnation or censure, the "mirror makers" manipulate old age stereotypes with the same carefree abandon as their industry's progenitors once portrayed African -Americans as servile to Caucasians, women as dependent upon males for self-esteem and gays as merely effeminate and eccentric. The ad biz has a long and sordid history of reinforcing stereotypes in the guise of "innocent" humor, rendering an identifiable class as less-than adult: less capable, less relevant, less deserving of first-class status.

The late Dr. Robert Butler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning expert on aging who coined the term "ageism" in 1968, believed that the underlying basis of ageism is "dread and fear of growing older, becoming ill and dependent, and approaching death." Making fun of older people is one way to push this fear further away, to make aging merely theoretical rather than personal.

In his final book, Longevity Revolution, Dr. Butler shares perceptive observations about ageism:

Just as racism and sexism are based on ethnicity and gender, ageism is a form of systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people simply because they are old.

Advertisements and greeting cards depict older persons as forgetful, dependent, childlike and -- perhaps the ultimate insult in our society -- sexless. Conversely, older people who continue to have sexual desires are dirty old men and ridiculous old women.

According to one study, approximately 70 percent of older men and more than 80 percent of older women seen on television are portrayed disrespectfully, treated with little if any courtesy, and often looked at as 'bad.'

Similar to its nasty cousins, racism and sexism, ageism is also about power. It's about a more powerful group suppressing a weaker cohort. In this Taco Bell ad, the powerful make certain that older people are safely tucked in bed as if children, their rambunctious rebellion angrily admonished. Finally, those defiant and weary seniors return to "where they belong," sheltered from adult society in a safe home for elderly.

Disobedient older persons may consume alcoholic beverages, spicy tacos and get tattoos, but they do not gain a measure of respect, dignity or the veneration that most societies once afforded wise elders. Old people are rarely embraced in advertising today for their special gifts, wisdom or compassion. That would not be ironic or humorous, and certainly not award-worthy in ad-biz circles.