SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A recent magazine ad for Buick said, we engineered all the grandma out of it. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging and noticed this ad seems to be part of a trend in car advertising. Ina, thanks so much for being with us.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Oh, my pleasure, Scott.
SIMON: And where'd you see the ad?
JAFFE: It was in last month's issue of Bon Appetit magazine. For people who aren't familiar, it's a cooking magazine. Almost three quarters of the subscribers are women, and I'm one of them. But I wondered about this ad placement because I just bet a lot of Bon Appetit subscribers are grandmothers.
SIMON: Is it possibly just some advertising copywriter playing off the old it's not your father's Oldsmobile line?
JAFFE: Well, they're definitely re-launching the Buick brand. But in this case, it wasn't dad's car. It was grandma's. And I think I noticed it because of some other car commercials on TV that are using grandmas to make their point.
SIMON: I mean, I think of the three older women who are test-driving a Volkswagen.
JAFFE: Exactly, exactly. They're known as the Golden Sisters. And they really are sisters, two in their 70s and one is over 80. In at least a couple of the Volkswagen spots, they appear to be sexually harassing much-younger men. There's one with a blue jean-wearing guy bending over to inspect something on a car in the showroom. And he does not go unnoticed by the sisters.
(SOUNDBITE OF VOLKSWAGEN ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: You like the color? It's silver fox.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: Terse, stop it right now. You're both trying to pick him up.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: You are gorgeous.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: Do you have junk in your trunk?
SIMON: Oh, my, now, some people would find that funny. Some people would find it offensive.
JAFFE: You know, you're right, there are bunch of online comments and articles in the trades by people who think these commercials are hilarious, though one column I read thought the ads were so disrespectful, it called them elder abuse. But, you know, you also see the same kind of divide when it comes to a campaign for a BMW SUV. They're touting the cars three tiers of seats. Mom and dad are sitting in front, brother and sister in the second row. And way in the back with her little face just visible above the seat in front of her is grandma.
(SOUNDBITE OF BMW ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: Make a left at the drug store.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Thanks, mom. It's all right here on the head-up display.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: My mom used to yell heads up when she spotted a twister coming across the plains. (Shouting) Heads up.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: OK, that's loud, mom.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: That's how we did it on the plains. We're plains people.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: You're from Queens, mom.
JAFFE: And I should mention that grandma's son, the dad, looks so pained during these exchanges.
SIMON: So is this sexist? Is it ageist, a little of both, or just demeaning?
JAFFE: Well, one of the people I call when I have those questions is Ashton Applewhite. She writes about aging on a blog called This Chair Rocks. And those BMW spots - don't get her started.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I mean, what do we put in the way back of our cars? Groceries, maybe the golden retriever. You know, also, she's annoying. She's sort of generally clueless. And those are cliches that we just accept about older people because it hasn't gone challenged.
JAFFE: And she says the women in the VW commercials are also annoying and clueless. But she gives the ads props for at least acknowledging that the three sisters are sexual beings, which is rare in portrayals of older people.
SIMON: But do you reach women of a certain age by defaming grandmothers?
JAFFE: Well, the head of the Buick brand, Duncan Aldred, told Automotive News that they're consciously attacking the image of Buick as an old-person's brand. But you know Scott, maybe he's on to something. Everyone knows that boomers don't ever want to get old, right? So maybe even older women don't want a car that says grandma.
SIMON: NPR's Ina Jaffe, thanks so much.
JAFFE: Oh, my pleasure.
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