Are Elder Abuse Ads Actually Effective?: Attention Getter

The Huffington Post Canada   First Posted: 02/24/2012 6:35 pm Updated: 02/28/2012 11:13 am

It's almost impossible to watch the above ad without feeling something. At separate points in the newsroom over the past few weeks, editors at The Huffington Post Canada have commented on its violence, its darkness and its intensity. But does that mean it's working?

"What I love about these ads is the power of the story," says Anthony Kalamut, professor and program coordinator at Seneca College's advertising program. "This is a story that has to be told. Kudos to the agency [Ottawa's Acart Communications] who created them for showing the dark side of it."

This isn't the first time the Canadian government has broached the issue of elder abuse -- an Ontario ad in 2007 depicted a woman viciously slapping her elderly father, while another national campaign addressed the importance of speaking out when you witness neglect and abuse of seniors.

It's this latter notion that can really see these ads making a difference, according to Thomas Hafemeister, an associate professor of both law and medical education at the University of Virgina. Dr. Hafemeister, along with colleague Dr. Shelley Jackson, extensively studied the dynamics and risk factors of financial abuse of elders in a 2011 paper.

"I think what these ads are trying to do is get people to call in and report this abuse," Dr. Hafemeister says. He notes that usually it is someone outside of the situation who makes the call into authorities.

"There's somewhat of a mistaken assumption that assumes elderly people are infants. A lot of these elders are physically robust and able to take care of themselves, but they may resent intrusions. Often, the abusive individual is someone they depend on, who's part of their lives, and they don't want to jeopardize that."

From a message perspective, Kalamut agrees with that direction. "I think what this is going to spark is the outsider getting involved. I think it's going to be the Baby Boom brother sister who’s witnessing this, or a friend of the family who’s been watching."

Dr. Hafemeister says there are certain sentinels who have been identified in the general public who might be able to uncover such financial abuse as well. Physicians are the first front, as they could work from instincts that help identify risk factors, but others like bank tellers may notice irregular patterns in accounts and get in touch with the proper authorities. In Canada, there is a wide range of resources available, while in the U.S., the National Adult Protective Services Association can direct concerned parties towards specific state services.

Whether or not these ads will do anything -- other than elicit surprise and horror from their viewers -- remains to be seen. Public service announcements' success can vary, depending on the subject matter and the manner in which it's approached. Ads provoking negative emotions have been been found to be most effective in getting the desired reaction, and the ones that stick with us can make the biggest changes.

"When public service ads (PSAs) are good, they're good," says Kalamut. "There are spots that remain forever memorable. You look at PSAs for Covenant House that were done by Taxi that effectively got people to help street kids. This is a sort of pioneering spot -- they've gone down a road that hasn't been touched."

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