AARP received complaints about the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s ‘bizarre’ ad campaign

“… On its face, it seems unusual to make fun of your customers and do it in a mocking and irreverent way.”

A frame from a Post-Gazette advertisement depicting an older reader opposed to the paper's digital news products is pictured.

A frame from a Post-Gazette advertisement depicting an older reader opposed to the paper's digital news products is pictured.

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Updated: 10:15 p.m.

The American Association of Retired Persons has received complaints from Pittsburgh-area members about the Post-Gazette’s new ad campaign, one critics say depicts the paper’s older readers as recalcitrant, cranky and technophobic.

“We have heard from members in the area concerned about the tone of the ads,” Pennsylvania AARP spokesman Steve Gardner told The Incline on Thursday. “They are concerned about how older adults are being portrayed in those ads.”

The complaints are small in number, coming from a handful of members, Gardner said.

He added, “The interesting thing, though, is that the portrayal doesn’t necessarily agree with the research we’ve done. That research says 9-in-10 [people over 50] own a computer, 7-in-10 own a smartphone, 70 percent get their news from a computer, and 62 percent get their news from a smartphone.”

The Pew Research Center reports news readers age 50 to 64 are more evenly split between a preference for the web (41 percent) and print paper (40 percent) when it comes to getting their written news, while those 65 and older mostly still turn to the print paper (63 percent).

The ad campaign coincides with the Post-Gazette cutting back its printed newspaper from seven days a week to five, while pushing its digital offerings and online content as the future of the brand. The ad agency involved in the PG campaign, Post-Gazette management, and the Pennsylvania Department of Aging did not respond to requests for comment.

Laura Poskin, director of Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh, said she’s heard concerns from others within her organization about the Post-Gazette’s new ads.

“First of all, we think it’s totally a smart move for them to go digital. […] There is some concern on our end that the ad campaign is not an accurate reflection of the older adult population. We really think they should rethink the campaign and know that older adults will be interested in using the digital version,” Poskin said, adding, “The PG has done some really awesome stories related to aging, and we really respect the work they’ve done. There are just concerns that these particular ads are just not an accurate reflection of older people and older readers.”

In one ad, an older woman sits with a paper on a couch and says of the Post-Gazette’s e-edition and app, “PGe and PG NewsSlide, who the [bleep] needs them. Last time I went online they tried to track my cookies. They’ll never get my cookie recipe.”

In a billboard, an older man is pictured holding a copy of the paper. The image is captioned with a single quote: “I am never going digital.”

In a second televised ad, an older man thumbs through a copy of the newspaper on a bus. “Now they’re telling me PG is going digital,” he says to the camera. “They can stick their digital. I’m not doing that.”

A third televised ad shows an older man recycling newspapers. “I’m not going to change, and you can’t make me do it,” he says.

Yet another TV ad shows a younger man in a yoga studio expressing no interest in the news — print, digital or otherwise. “The truth cannot be found in the news,” he says. “It’s all negative vibes.”

As for AARP, Gardner said it is not taking a position on the campaign yet and is waiting to see where it goes next. AARP says it hasn’t taken any action yet in response to those few member complaints. Gardner declined to discuss what that action might consist of or what action AARP has taken in similar cases before.

For now, he says, they’re waiting to see how this campaign plays out. Gardner pointed to an earlier statement from Allan Block — chairman of Block Communications Inc., the Post-Gazette’s ownership company — in which Block told KDKA-TV’s Jon Delano that the ads were “just the first part of a multi-week ad campaign that will be better understood later.”

In a new video clip posted to the Post-Gazette’s Facebook page this week, the same woman is newly converted, saying, “PG NewsSlide is way better than the old paper. My NewsSlide gives me the same in-depth news without waiting for delivery or even getting up off my davenport.”

But the initial depictions of petulant older readers vowing to fight the digital tide tooth and nail didn’t go over well with everyone, even with Block’s promise that there was a payoff coming.

“Your recent television ads comparing people who are upset about the reduction of the printed paper to five days a week with cranky, technophobic senior citizens are some of the most unnecessarily condescending and insulting ads I’ve ever seen,” Rebecca Fenoglietto of Penn Hills wrote in an Aug. 22 letter to the editor published by the Post-Gazette. 

Andrew Conte, director of Point Park University’s Center for Media Innovation, called it “a bizarre campaign” in a phone call with The Incline, adding, “I believe it must be intentional, and they must be doing this on purpose, right? They must be trying to shock people because on its face it seems unusual to make fun of your customers and do it in a mocking and irreverent way.”

Conte is also waiting to see how the campaign resolves itself.

“Presumably, [the older people in the ads] come back, and now they’re all big users of digital, but this does seem like an unusual way to deal with customers. Time will tell if it’s effective, but from the feedback I’ve seen, I don’t know that it will be. People are really put off by it. I mean, it’s effective in the sense that it’s getting attention. But in terms of convincing people [of the merits of online news products], there might have been a better way.”

Conte said his mother — who is in her 70s and a tech savvy consumer of digital news products — was one of the first complaints he heard.

“She called and said, ‘We’re not that stupid.’ And any time you upset a mom, you’re in trouble.”