AMEC Awards WinnerCategory: Best use of communication management
Client/Entering Company: Australian Human Rights Commission/Urbis
Campaign title: Research into Age Discrimination, Age Stereotyping and Ageism
Company Name: iSentia


The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) aims, through its Age Positive project, to expose prevailing stereotypes of older people in the media and to raise awareness of age discrimination in the Australian community, as well as to change the nation’s attitudes and behaviours towards older people for the better

The AHRC commissioned consulting firm Urbis to provide it with evidence about age stereotyping and discriminatory attitudes in the media and the wider community, and to help it devise effective strategies to address these stereotypes and attitudes. Urbis commissioned iSentia to research the representation of older Australians in editorial news media, radio and television talk programming, advertising and social media, in order to understand:

  • The proportion of editorial media coverage and advertising (across radio, television, newspapers, magazines and digital media) that featured older people, to allow for an assessment of the “invisibility” of older people in the Australian media, relative to their presence in the Australian population; and
  • How older people were portrayed in the media – the kinds of stories and advertising they appeared in; related messages; and the extent to which this content created and perpetuated stereotypes about older people.


AHRC’s media research brief was complex; there is no single research firm in the Australian market that works across editorial news media, social media and advertising. The research therefore required a collaborative approach. Researchers from two organisations – iSentia (editorial and social media) and Ebiquity (advertising) – worked on their respective areas of expertise across three different datasets. Analysts from iSentia managed the project to ensure the results of each analysis could be validly compared, and synthesised the results from the three different datasets.


Editorial Media

For the purposes of this analysis, “older people” were defined as any individual or group of individuals aged 55 or over.

iSentia recognised from the outset that our usual approach of collecting content through keyword matching was not appropriate for the brief. To get around this, we devised a bespoke approach for the project that drew a sample of coverage from the highest-rating and highest-circulating publications and programmes across daily newspapers, monthly magazines, radio and television programming, and online news sources. Analysts examined each publication cover-to-cover, each broadcast report from beginning to end, and each online news site’s home page from top to bottom, in order to identify the total number of stories each day, and how many of these mentioned older people. Because older people are not always explicitly highlighted as “older” in editorial news reporting, a range of other signifiers were considered as part of this classification process, including:

  • Explicit references to chronological age (for example, “A 55-year-old man was hit by a car yesterday.”)
  • Use of age-specific adjectives and nouns (for example, “older people”, “the elderly”, “retirees”, “grandparents”, “baby boomers”)
  • Use of images featuring people who are older (researchers were conservative with attributing age to such photographs, and so numbers in this category were conservative)
  • References to public figures aged 55 or older, where their age was easily identifiable through a simple online search. This included politicians, cultural leaders, celebrities, sporting professionals, and senior executives in business and industry.


The outlets and programmes sampled for the advertising analysis were consistent with the sample for editorial content. We took a replicable approach, with analysts auditing all advertising from the sample in order to identify the total number of ads, and within the total number, the volume that featured older people. The only point of difference was that, due to budgetary constraints, “older people” for the advertising component were defined as an individual or group of individuals aged 65 or more. To enable sound comparisons across all media types, the editorial media content was categorised into the 55-64 age bracket and 65+. Advertisements that featured older people were identified through:

  • The visual or auditory inclusion of an older person as talent;
  • A verbal reference to an older person in the copy; or
  • Direct targeting of older people.


We took two approaches in the analysis of social media: channel discovery to identify social media channels that focused on issues related to older people, and then categorised these under general themes (for example health, aged care, retirement, work, etc.) We also conducted retrospective keyword searching across social media more generally, to identify the frequency and main themes of social media conversations about older people. This covered the same period as did the analysis of the editorial and advertising content.

Once analysts had identified the articles, reports and examples of advertising that did include a reference to older people, this content was subjected to an in-depth qualitative media analysis. Working closely with Urbis and the AHRC, we developed a coding framework that included all potential topics and messages that would help us test the hypothesis that older people are stereotyped in the media.

We collaborated with Ebiquity on a list of traits to be identified in the editorial media coverage and in the advertising (were older people portrayed as strong, weak, optimistic, pessimistic, financially savvy, wise, flexible loving, grumpy, active or passive?). Analysts tracked each trait assigned to older people in each execution, and analysed other features, including:

  • The main contexts in which older people were referred to (i.e. which sectors in advertising and which kinds of stories [financial/crime/health] in editorial media were likely to mention older people)
  • The ways older people were visually represented (in domestic, social or public settings)
  • The messages conveyed about older people.


The research provided clear evidence that older people are underrepresented in the media:

  • People aged 65+ appeared in only 4.7 percent of advertising content
  • People aged 65+ were mentioned in just 6.6 percent of the editorial media content
  • People aged 55+ were referred to in 11.5 percent of the editorial media content

To illustrate this apparent disparity, in 2012 people aged 65 or over made up 14.2 percent of the Australian population, while the over-55s accounted for 25.6 percent.
Moreover, the analysis confirmed that the media indeed did portray older people in stereotypical ways. Specifically:

  • Mainstream news media content most often presented older people as passive, vulnerable and frail. These traits were frequently associated with older people in the contexts of crime, ill health and financial stress
  • Peaks in social media discussion of older people were similarly focused around reports of older people as the victims of crime, or as otherwise physically vulnerable or at risk of illness

Due to its very nature, advertising tended to highlight positive traits, while also reinforcing negative characteristics: older people were often portrayed as vulnerable (emotionally, physically or financially) or unwell, particularly in advertisements for finance and professional services (including a range of legal and medical services)


On the basis of these findings and Urbis’ subsequent research, the AHRC issued a press release entitled “Fact or fiction? Stereotypes of older Australians”, and published an article on its Age Positive website (

  • The release prompted significant coverage of the research in a wide range of national, metropolitan and regional broadcast, press and online outlets. This coverage noted the research findings that confirmed the prevalence of negative stereotypes, as well as the under-representation of older people in media and advertising.
  • Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan was widely quoted in the media highlighting that older people are under-represented and stereotyped in the media.
    The insights from the study underpinned:
  • A roundtable session held by AHRC with media executives, which aimed to encourage media outlets to portray older Australians in an accurate, balanced and diverse manner – and in a way that reflected their value, capability and experience; and
  • A communication strategy and awareness campaign planned by the AHRC for 2013–2015 that aimed to reshape attitudes in the community to support older Australians in realising their potential and maximise their contribution to workplaces and the wider community.

Name of contact: Khali Sakkas
Telephone: +61 3 8327 6441

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