The Semiotics of Ageing in Advertising: Our changing discussion on age

“Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.”

Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics

Getting long in the tooth

This is the second part of an analysis of concepts of ageing and immortality in modern times.   The first part looked at the mythology of immortality, its prominence as a central theme of the first written story in history to its rise to dominance within Hollywood storylines.   Over time there has been a shift in how we look at immortality, from it being the provenance of deities and mythological races that are immortal because of eating and drinking magical fruits or drinks, to the contemporary obsession with eating another’s life to be immortal, fantastically brought to life through vampire and zombie genres. The contemporary narrative has shifted from immortality being out of reach, to something you can gain by consuming life. Humanity already appears to be open-minded to the extension of our lives through ethically challenged skin creams made from human placenta or more radically the expanding illicit trade in human organs.

There are two parts to this discussion. Firstly, to explore some of the metaphors that frame the way that we think about aging. The second is to look at some of the semiotic structures that underpin a contemporary discourse on aging, focussing on advertising within this discussion.


Metaphors for Aging

Metaphors are the cognitive tools through which we understand ourselves and the world (Lakoff and Turner 1989: xi). Not all metaphors are created equal, some stick in our minds with a more ‘natural fit’. Some metaphors are not so easily modified or manipulated to serve rhetorical purposes. Within the broad universe of metaphors, some seem more natural than others—almost as if they are not being “chosen” at all.

There are many metaphors of time, which have been discussed previously. There are three time related metaphors that are most commonly used when thinking about ageing. All of these are very sticky in the way that we talk about getting old.


Time is Movement

A dominant expression here is in terms of time ‘fleeing’, as in tempus fugit. We talk of ‘the time has long since gone when…’ or ‘time is flying by’.

That time is a Resource

We talk of ‘time is money’ or ‘time is a commodity’. We also talk about ‘wasting time’, ‘you’re running out of time’, is that ‘worth your while’, ‘how much time do you have left?’, ‘he’s living on borrowed time’, ‘I lost a lot of time when I was sick’.

Time is a Thief

Related to the above is the metaphor that time is a thief. Here, more directly, we talk of time taking away our precious resources: our youth or loved ones. As the Poet John Milton, writes.

       How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,

Stol’n on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!

My hasting days fly on with full career,

But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th

Ageing is a Battle

This all frames our lives as something which is declining from youth, figuratively the hourglass that is running out. It suggests that fighting age starts to sound like a ‘kill or be killed’ scenario. Although, when you consider even the nature of time, it’s probably closer to what Ovid called tempus edax rerum, ‘time, gluttonous of all things’.

Aging is also referred as a disease or a curse, both of which involve battle-mentalities to address. For any readers who are thinking this is all sounding a bit bleak, the previous post did discuss the positive frame that aging ‘is a privilege’, ‘a natural process’, ‘a state of mind’, ‘a social construct’. A hypothesis is that advertising is an appropriate ‘text’ to analyse to develop an understanding of the balance of positive and negative messages about aging in social-discourse. Advertising can debatably be seen as a ‘reflection’ of society’s values, at least to the extent that we collectively and commercially endorse messages, images and values that resonate.

Semiotics of Ageing

Semiotics seeks to shed light on how meaning is created, and how meaning is understood. Emerging from structuralist traditions, answering questions on meaning can be developed by understanding the deeper structures within cultural communication.  Charles Saussure identified that “Concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive characteristics but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system”. The most important relation is that of the binary opposition.

How we talk about ageing is a semiotic function. The basic primary opposition at work here is that you are either, young or old. A semiotic square maps meaning based on relations of contrary, contradictory and complementarity axes.   This suggests that we think-through life stages as:


Semiotic Square of lifestage


Semiotics of Ageing in Advertising

We can also map the meaning that is present in how we talk about the process ageing through the discourse of advertising.


semiotic square of ageing in advertising


The metaphor of the battle against aging indicates that there are two main discourses:

  1. Defensive positioning – where ageing is framed as being natural, that you can protect against.
  2. Offensive positioning – where the battle is to eradicate signs of ageing, with promises of rejuvenation.

Reversing Ageing

Many products are competing to offer magic formulas that will reverse the ageing process. This appears to have been around since the beginning of advertising


Palmolive ageing advertising

Today there are still brands that are speaking to this ‘battle’ with calls to ‘defy’ aging. Offering ‘instant’ solutions (enumerated consumer perceptions not a brand communication but recorded in the ad) through to the effects of aging that speak to the fear of flaws that need to fixed.


Semiotic Advertising on Ageing 1

Others go as far as to suggest that they transform more than your skin


reversa advertising


Stopping Ageing


Other brands, suggest solutions that can halt the effects of aging. Even through showing a virtual mirror to youth in another person, this Vital appears to perhaps be suggesting magic as well. Like speaking to a mirror, ‘mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’


Vital Mature Skin

Some advertising evokes the symbolism of the ‘fountain of youth’ or the transformative symbolism of energy in making you immortal. Both brands in the examples below evoke science and DNA aesthetics to persuade the browser of the efficacy of their ‘regenerating’ or ‘reactivating’ properties.


mythological sources for advertisement semiotics


While there is a gender bias to advertising in this area, this does not mean that men are immune to the same concerns and seductive promises.


male ageing advertising


The Japanese brewer, Suntory, has just launched a beer with collagen peptide as one of the ingredients to ensure youthful skin.



Precious Suntory Beer

“Japanese brewery Suntory released a collagen-infused beer this month that promises to make the drinker more beautiful. The Telegraph reports that the beer, called “Precious,” is being advertised with the tagline, “Guys can tell if a girl is taking collagen or not.”

Slowing Ageing

Brands that speak through this space tend to speak more to internal change – it’s what you eat that slows ageing. Interestingly, this evokes the mythology discussed in my last post, where food has been linked since our earliest records with the promise of a longer life. A consideration here is that the central message of antioxidant narratives speak to a McCarthyistic ideological battle: that we must defeat the ‘free radicals’ to live a safe and prosperous life.


Longetivty through diet


Age Progressing

There are some brands that are actively speaking to aging as being a natural progression of human experience – that women should be recognised ‘au naturel’. These advertisements come from a more moralistic perspective that aging gracefully is desirable.


excellence advertising


Dove has had a powerful and contrary campaign to other messages in the category, stating in its copy ‘too many wrinkles to be an anti-aging ad’ … but this isn’t an anti-aging ad. This is pro-age, a new line of skin care from Dove. Beauty has no age limit.


Dove pro-age campaign

Ageing into the future

‘Aging, or senescence, is the major cause of suffering, disease, and death in modern times’.

João Pedro de Magalhães

I started this first part of this discussion with the observation that the Baby Boomers will fundamentally change the way that we talk and think about age. Astrid Stuckelberger explains

The composition of our society is changing. The proportion and absolute numbers of older people are increasing worldwide. The elderly population has already exceeded the child population (below age 15) and by 2050, for every child there will be two elderly persons.

This shift, which has come to be known as ‘demographic transition’, has far-reaching consequences. Old people have different expectations then younger generations and with each generation of older persons comes different ways of life.

Up to now, society has been oriented towards youth, but this trend is changing: the growing number of people who are now classified as senior citizens is a powerful force for change

Aging is a hot topic at the moment. Already societal expectations are evolving; middle age is now believed to last until 74. Alan Walter, a professor of social gerontology, as stated that

“Our conceptions of ‘old age’ are hopelessly out of date because of population ageing…For many people, 70 is the new 50 and signifies the quiet revolution that has taken place in longevity”.

Dr Alex Zhavoronkov, director of the UK-based Biogerontology Research Foundation think-tank believes he will live to 150 based on recent advances in science. Others in the field are more optimistic, Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge University researcher, who heads the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) project believes that within 25 years we might discover the secrets to living longer if not forever.

There might be reason to be optimistic. De Grey heads the Methuselah Mouse prize for breakthroughs in extended aging in mice. The purse of the M Prize, as it is called, recently grew beyond $1 million. There is also the Palo Alto Longevity Prize

The Palo Alto Longevity Prize (the “Prize”) is a $1 million life science competition dedicated to ending aging. Ours is one of a growing number of initiatives around the world pursuing this goal—the more shots on goal the better. Through an incentive prize, our specific aim is to nurture innovations that end aging by restoring the body’s homeostatic capacity and promoting the extension of a sustained and healthy lifespan.

There are questions about how these innovations will be framed in the near future. Will they be framed as a positive movement or sold through our fears? Dr Alex Zhavoronkov points out that the toughest ‘level of ageing to address is psychological aging’. Will the mind follow the body? The Greeks had a fair warning about seeking to be immortal in the myth of Tithonus – what is the value of immortality if your body or mind continues to age. Many of our stories, ancient and contemporary, revolve around the boredom of an eternal life. Are we ready for immortality?

‘Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter’

Mark Twain