That Age Mocking Super Bowl Ad

Okay, maybe I’ve lost my sense of humor in my seventies but there’s one Super Bowl ad that I hated, and it’s the one that is getting the most attention.  It featured the elderly but ever game Betty White as a football player who gets tackled and trounced on in the field, only to be transformed into a youthful male player when given some magical energy by a Snicker candy bar.  The joke ad has an additional payoff when the young player is tackled again and turns into the seriously old Abe Vigoda.  

What’s the ad saying?  That it’s a young man’s worst nightmare to get old, first - God help him - as an old woman, then as a decrepit old man, both lying in the mud,  looking weak and ridiculous - only to be rescued by the magic of cheap chocolate covered candy – one that is sure to rot his teeth and his mind.    I can see the geniuses at the ad agency thinking that one up.  Gramps and Grandma tackled, roughed up and lying face down in the mud  - the decrepit duo knocked down and messed up by young football players – America’s gonna love that one.  Well, here’s an American who didn’t.   Later while channel surfing I stayed for a moment on a Family Guy adult cartoon in which a Mike Tyson is beating up the octogenarian Carol Channing in a boxing match – the emaciated Channing comes complete with her Hello Dolly voice –a battered face under her wig, a cruel cartoon of the great Broadway performer – who finally wins by sheer endurance of the beating, which finishes off Tyson in exhaustion.  It’s a laugh about her long survival, something which the cartoon scorns rather than celebrates.  

Now I am not asking the Mad Men of today to bow down in awe before the accomplished elderly – but they might take a break from literally beating them up as a gag ad.   Guys, gals, you find contempt for the old in the culture, use it to make a buck or get a cruel laugh, and then let it ferment and fester in the world beyond show-biz, a world in which real violence is often committed against the real elderly.   No, I can take a joke, just not yours.   And it’s fittingly sponsored by Snickers – a brand name suggesting a nasty laugh by an overweight bully.

The joke, my friends, is on you.   I live in the same neighborhood as Mr.Vigoda and when I see him walking down the street or emerging from a bus he appears to be a man of dignity and quiet ways.  I am sorry that he chose to make this ad but opportunity in the entertainment business for older actors, like older writers, is virtually non-existent.  Betty White is a vibrant personality and a terrific actress – full of what they used to call piss and vinegar.  Neither deserves mockery but I’m sure they liked their salary and could be convinced that it was all in good fun.

Okay, say it - "Can’t you take a joke?"   No I can’t when it encourages a dangerous contempt for the elderly and suggests that acts of violence against them make great comedy.   In terms of human ecology, saving what is best in our humanity – this ad was an environmental disaster.   It suggests that the old are unworthy of the recycling bin, but best thrown to the ground and used as landfill.  The waste of talent, wisdom, and memory reflected in such an attitude is appalling to me, not just because I’m getting older and feel the cold wind at my back, but because it’s so damned stupid and it hurts the young as much as the old – denying them the pleasure of respecting someone and possibly learning something from one who has lived a full life.  

A society that does not recycle its wise older men and women is doomed to keep electing the Scott Browns – the Cosmo centerfolds with the well placed staple down his middle.  Or watch as the ice tea party lady, Sarah Palin, rises to prominence on an ever growing mound of preening, mockery, and self-congratulatory ignorance.  

Ageism has its dire consequences, and one of the worst ones is not just the demeaning of the old but the glorification of the young – placing them in positions where their ignorance can affect all our lives.   That ad reminded me of the bad old days of movies in which Step ‘n Fetchitt sashayed for white folks in order to make a living, and Butterfly McQueen was shown as the epitome of female Negro ignorance, out groups to be laughed at so that their inner pain and segregated lives could be ignored.   Can you imagine the outcry if such an ad featuring African Americans thrown to the ground was run today?  As we have learned from world history, to demean is to dehumanize, and to dehumanize is to destroy.  It seems each age needs its out group to victimize and mock in order to feel powerful, and this may well be the age for mocking “The Geezer” as David Brooks describes the elderly in the New York Times.     

I promise you – all you genius copywriters and cartoonists – if you get lucky you get old.   Sure, you’ll face age discrimination – maybe lose your jobs – find work hard if not impossible to get - and have to deal with the impatience of the young to get you off the scene, to segregate you in some nursing home of senior living facility, our apartheid for the elderly.  If you are real lucky you’ll have some toddler grand-daughters as I do who don’t see you as a joke – but greet you as a full human being whose smart enough to enjoy the wonder of their lives, and still not eat that Snickers bar; a product which I will now regard as drinking the Cool Aid of ageism  If I must hunt for junk food, I’ll stick with my Coconut Mounds bar.   Until now they haven’t pushed any old folks face down into the mud on TV.   


Contributing writer, Sherman Yellen, screenwriter, playwright, and lyricist, has won two Emmy Awards, first for his drama John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America. His Beauty and the Beast was nominated for an Emmy and won the Christopher Award. Yellenwas nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the Broadway musical, The Rothschilds. Yellen's other plays include Strangers, December Fools and Josephine Tonight! Sherman Yellen received a lifetime achievement award in Arts and Letters from Bard College.