Television and the Elderly: Chronological Age As a Predictor of Viewing Habits and Attitudes Toward Advertising

Scott Dawson, Portland State University
Eric Spangenberg, University of Washington
[ to cite ]:
Scott Dawson and Eric Spangenberg (1987) ,"Television and the Elderly: Chronological Age As a Predictor of Viewing Habits and Attitudes Toward Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 569.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Page 569


Scott Dawson, Portland State University

Eric Spangenberg, University of Washington

As research expands on the elderly market it is imperative to realize that chronological age is at best a surrogate variable for underlying causal variables. In this spirit, a study was conducted which shows that the apparent effects of age on hours of television watched and attitudes toward advertising are significantly different when introducing other possible explanatory variables.


Disengagement and activity theories of aging serve as paradigms for approaching the age-television relationship. Disengagement theory asserts that the social system fosters a normative and mutual-withdrawal from society and predicts an increase in television viewing with older age. However, the theory has been refuted, with one scholar concluding that disengagement is only likely to occur "among the very old whose declining health reduces their capacity to play any social roles successfully and among those for whom disengagement is a life style antedating old age" (Maddox 1966).

Activity theory is antithetic in its point of departure, suggesting that life satisfaction is maintained or heightened during retirement by involvement in compensatory activities. Studies in activity theory reveal a strong positive correlation between levels of social and recreational activities and satisfaction. Activity theory suggests that the amount of time an individual spends watching television in later life is primarily determined by sociological and psychological characteristics, and chronological age only to the extent that it results in physical limitations to other types of activities. Characteristics that may affect frequency of television viewing are marital status, sex, life satisfaction, education, and income (Burrus-Bammel and Bammel 1985). Thus, disengagement and activity theories suggest competing hypotheses of the relationship between age and time spent watching television. The first hypothesis tested follows the activity theory paradigm, asserting that when accounting for personal characteristics including marital status, sex, life satisfaction, education, and income, chronological age is not a significant predictor of television viewing.

Research findings concerning attitudes and use of television advertising among the elderly have been equivocal, indicating that concepts other than chronological age probably are responsible for forming attitudes toward television advertising. Greater levels of activity should lead to a more positive overall affective state, causing individuals to have positive attitudes toward specific subjects such as television advertising. By influencing activity involvement, several personal characteristics may indirectly affect attitudes toward advertising including marital status, education, and income. These potential causes motivate the second hypothesis investigated, which formally states that when accounting for personal characteristics including life satisfaction, marital status, education, and income, chronological age is not a significant predictor of attitudes toward television advertising.


Hypotheses were tested on a judgmental sample of 66 young (age less than 30) and 60 elderly (age greater than 60) individuals. Respondents were asked how many hours of television they watched and how many hours they felt their friends watched in a typical tay. Using a 7-point delighted-terrible scale, respondents were asked to rate attitudes toward advertising in terms of the value of television advertising in general and as a source of product information. Eleven items from the Life Satisfaction Index A (alpha = .74) were summed to measure this construct.

Analysis proceeded using ANOVA in stages, first measuring the main effects of age by itself and, secondly, measuring its main effects when accounting for other sources of variation. The first stage showed that younger individuals appear to watch significantly fewer hours of television daily than older individuals (1.3 vs. 2.7 hours, F = 12.34, p < .001). Both groups feel their "friends" watch significantly more television than themselves (2.1 vs. 3.3 hours, F = 9.71, p < .002). Older individuals also seem more critical in their evaluations of television advertising as a source of product information than younger individuals (F = 7.28, p < .008). The difference is not as pronounced concerning the value of television advertising in general (F = 2.22, p < .14). Without further perusal, these findings indicate that older individuals are heavier viewers of television, and more negative in their evaluations of television advertising, than are younger individuals.

Addition of the hypothesized sources of variation, however, causes age to be a nonsignificant factor in discriminating the number of hours of television watched, supporting the first hypothesis. The projective "friends" question produces an age-by-hours-watched relationship that is in the opposite direction of that indicated by the first analysis (i.e., mean hours watched is lowest for the older group). For either criteria, the amount of variation explained by age (ETA squared) drops significantly from 10 percent to 3 percent. Education is most responsible for the apparent age-by-hours-watched relationship (B - ,33, F - 7.91, p .01), indicating that lower levels of education among elderly respondents is primarily responsible for the earlier results. Marital status is the only other variable bearing a relationship with hours watched (F - 4.10, p. < .05). Divorced or widowed individuals have the highest mean hours of television consumption (4.1 hours). All six variables together explain approximately 24 percent of the variation.

The second analysis of the attitudinal measures produced the hypothesized outcome for the value of advertising in general question. Although none of the covariates are individually significant, controlling for their effects indicates that age is a stronger surrogate for predicting assessments of television as a source of product information (F = 7.28, p < .01), leading to rejection of the second hypothesis. In fact, the results from a multiple classification analysis show the beta value corresponding to the age-attitude linkage increasing from .25 to .49 when considering the covariates.

In conclusion, the results reported here illustrate that the haste of marketers to understand and target the elderly market should not lead to an emphasis on chronological age. Similar to disengagement theory, such an approach ultimately appears counterproductive. More representative and multidimensional paradigms such as activity or social environmental theories of aging hold greater promise for advancing marketing thought in this area.


Burrus-Bammel, Lei Lane and Gene Bammel (1985), "Leisure and Recreation," Handbook of the Psychology of Aging" James Birren and K. W. Schaie (eds), New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 848-863.

Maddox, G. L. (1966), "Persistence of Life Style Among the Elderly: A Longitudinal Study of Patterns of Social Activity in Relation to Life Satisfaction," Middle Age and Aging, B. L. Neugarten (ed), Chicago, IL.: The University Press.