As a middle-aged person who reads magazines, watches TV shows, and looks at internet sites broadly aimed at my generation, I can’t help but notice the increasing number of ads for personal incontinence products, i.e. adult diapers. I’m happy to say, and you’ll be happy to hear, that I have no need for such items myself, but I wonder how the marketers have calculated that others in my demographic might. Or are the agencies and their clients banking on a different strategy? It used to be said (problematically, no doubt), that a top salesman could sell ice cream to Eskimos, but perhaps today’s champions merely have to diagnose ice cream deficiency in the Eskimo community to reap the resultant rewards.
In her 2011 book Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, Susan Jacoby warned of how a vast industry was greedily anticipating the Baby Boom’s senior citizenship, and all the products and services that population could soon be convinced to buy. Often, the industry’s persuasion flatters its target audience as fitter and better-looking than they really are – thus commercials aimed at 70- or 80-year-olds which depict 45-year-olds with snowy-white hair – and promises a fun, painless transition into old age that’s unlikely to be experienced by living humans. Conversely, Margaret Talbot’s 2006 New Yorker article about the popular Bratz dolls (glammed-up neo-Barbies retailed to preadolescent girls) referred to the toy business’s concept of “Kids Getting Older Younger,” invoked by execs “as though it were a fact of modern life over which they have no control, rather than one which they have largely created.” At either end of our lives, it seems, capitalism invents styles of consumption, and then disguises them as independent cultural phenomena it just happens to manufacture the perfect accessories for.
One obvious manifestation of this is in what observers have perceived as the widespread medicalization efforts of Big Pharma: redefining ordinary conditions as clinical issues that need treatment through drugs (Xanax, Ritalin, Viagra), surgery (liposuction, implants, injections), or ongoing therapy (for anxiety, depression, gender dysphoria). Whereas people may once have tried to face their troubles by reforming their diet or their habits – or through plain old will power – they are now encouraged to think that they can only be “fixed” by professionals. Even just accepting physical or emotional conditions as inherent to one’s circumstances or one’s stage of life is now downplayed in a world with a clinical or chemical answer to the timeless questions posed by the body or the soul. As the late Neil Postman used to query of every high-priced marker of the new and the improved, “What is the problem to which this is the solution?”
More contentiously, the old-age and health care industries may be guilty of normalization: spotlighting rare, highly specific pathologies as if they affect far more people than they actually do, and that they are “nothing to be ashamed about.” Really? Loss of bladder control isn’t a bit embarrassing, something most sufferers would prefer to overcome, or at least keep secret? If people are told enough that they are not damaged but just different, or maybe even special, might they not come to embrace disorders which in the past they could have voluntarily surmounted? How many today depend on hospitals, pharmacies, or social workers to manage the chronic ailments which have become central to their identities, and which once they would have been able to heal on their own? Maybe there will soon emerge a lobby of incontinent activists (the Wet Panthers?) proudly demanding recognition and accommodation, now that a steady stream of commercial messaging has promoted them from the isolated unwell to the unified unique. With disposable incomes.
I’m not denying that there exist authentic physiological afflictions which strike people of all ages, nor that the elderly in particular can be impaired by all sorts of debilitating indignities (anyone who’s cared for an aged parent will confirm it). If there are prescribed methods to help those who want or need extra attendance to their daily functions, fine. But hawking adult diapers as if they’re a perfectly natural requirement for anyone born before 1970 is yet another exploitation of that most contemporary disease, learned helplessness, and it pisses me off.