In 1970, Gloria Steinem observed that most American children seem to be suffering from too much mother and too little father. In the mirror world of contemporary life that advertisers create, oh how the children still suffer.
Today, no stock character is as ubiquitous in advertising as the sacrificial mother. She is the conquering hero of childrearing, endlessly in demand, yet always devoted. She may be fiction, but no matter—she makes us cry. And tweet and share and like.
The laudatory-mom spot is having its social-media moment. Though it’s embraced as celebratory, it is in fact a patronizing insult—restricting mothers to the domestic sphere with empty sentimentalizing. It limits not just mothers; it confines all women to the home, burdening mothers with duties fathers and society at large should share.
Perhaps no advertiser has spent more perpetuating the archetype of the devoted supermom than Procter & Gamble. A marketing machine with a nearly $10 billion per year advertising budget, its products—Swiffer, Tide, Bounce, among many others—promise domestic order, while its marketing demands a dated ordering of domestic life. It has long courted moms, starting with its sponsorship of the 1930s “soap opera” radio shows, which eventually morphed into daytime dramas.
In 2010, P&G’s “Thank You, Mom” campaign launched at the Vancouver Olympics. The campaign started with affecting images of Olympians as the tiny children they once were. Moms, never dads, devoted themselves to raising these talented tikes. In this world, our Olympians suffer not from too much mother, but from no father at all. In the latest made-for-viral sharing ad, “Pick Them Back Up,” on heavy rotation during the Sochi Olympics, domestic life still revolves around mothers and children. Women are the sole source of nurturing and encouragement. Men are unmentioned, even if their breadwinner status is implicit: What working mother could devote herself solely to the making of an Olympian without substantial financial support?
P&G is by no means the only perpetuator of regressive, sexist stereotypes. In a popular Subaru ad, mothers, not fathers, still drive the kids to hockey. In this Johnson’s Baby ad, recycled every Mother’s Day, it’s mothers who bathe the babies. Or consider this recent ad for American Greetings, in which a chatty man interviews applicants via videoconference for what’s described as the world’s toughest job. It requires constant mobility, around-the-clock availability, and a 24/7 work-week without breaks or vacations. It’s all a hoax. There is no job because billions already hold the unpaid position: Moms. Incredulous faces turn soft and sentimental. The duped applicants laugh, launch into spontaneous monologues praising their moms, and even cry.
Not all advertisers go for the emotional jugular—but even the mom ads that are more disciplined about unleashing easy schmaltz still reinforce outdated gender dynamics. In this 2012 Capri-Sun spot, “clingy mom” answers the tough questions in chemistry for her son, (“Deoxyribonucleic acid, he knew that!”) and blocks incoming balls during a gym class dodge ball game. She gives him Capri-Sun V, so “he gets more of what he needs, without all the her he doesn’t think he needs.” Of course, it’s merely a humorous parody of a helicopter mom, but notably, it’s an authoritative, male narrator that delivers that last line.
For decades, academic studies have documented the tendency for advertising to portray women in subordinate roles. One recent meta-analysis of 64 studies noted that women are more likely to be depicted as product users, not authority figures, and three times more likely to be placed at home, rather than at work. A 2010 study found that in the U.S., women were portrayed as professionals in only 5.4 percent of ads, while men were depicted in professional settings nearly three times more often. When ads included images of housekeeping, men were virtually non-existent, showing up in only 1.4 percent of ads studied, while women were shown in housekeeping roles in 32.4 percent of the ads.
Nothing new, in other words, but this latest deluge of sexist mom ads comes during an era when women increasingly are the primary breadwinners in families. Why do such retro and conservative portrayals of domestic life persist?
The answer is seemingly simple: social media. By needling our raw emotions, the sentimental, shareable ad achieves exponential reach, all without its backer doing a thing. Press the right emotional buttons and unleash a viral sensation while saving millions in media buys.
“Mom is just such an emotional pull,” says Michelle Nelson, a professor of advertising at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has researched gender representations in advertising. “Even if these ads don’t reflect reality and reinforce the stereotype that mom is there all the time,” they are still powerful. Nothing works like cheap emotion on social media. During a recent earnings call with analysts, P&G’s CFO Jon Moeller boasted about the 1.6 billion consumer impressions gained during the company’s latest Proud Sponsor of Mom campaign run at the Sochi Olympics, with “most of those earned or free impressions generated through traditional and social media.”
In other words, we are footing the bill with our likes and tweets and every time we click play on YouTube. American Greetings garnered millions in impressions, all without running its ad on TV. Why bother? In only a few weeks, more than 17 million people viewed the four-minute ad. (There was some backlash about the portrayal of childrearing as a mom-only duty: “One of the most manipulative, and guilt-inducing representations of motherhood I’ve ever seen,” as one blogger put it.)
When P&G tried to pay tribute to fatherhood to the degree of its mom campaign, it was a social media non-starter. Consider the forgettable 2013 “Power of Dads” Oral-B spot. It offers a succession of heartwarming clips of dads joyfully engaged with their children, but didn’t exactly burn up the viral charts. An ad about a stay-at-home dad doing laundry for Tide? A measly 60,000 views on YouTube.
There’s a sad, underlying irony to this rampant valorization of motherhood by corporate America. We may celebrate mothers more than any other country, yet we fail spectacularly on almost any tangible measure–in fact, as a nation, we rank close to first in being the worst supporter of mothers. The U.S. remains the only industrialized nation without paid-maternity leave. The U.S. also ranks first among the industrialized world in first-day infant mortality. The U.S. is one of only 22 rich countries that fails to guarantee paid sick leave. And we have higher levels of childhood poverty than all of Europe, Japan, Australia and Canada, beating out only Romania among 35 countries ranked.
P&G isn't exactly bucking the trend when it comes to appreciating mothers. Although it began offering nine weeks paid maternity leave to full-time employees in 2013—an increase from eight—plenty of other companies offer more expansive maternity benefits. At American Greetings, full-time employees receive between six and eight weeks. Of course, these companies and the advertisers they employ aren’t solely to blame for persistent gender inequities. But if American Greetings and P&G have saved millions by exploiting our sensitivities about our mothers, they might consider doing more for the mothers that work for them.
P&G says its ongoing campaign “is based on the insight that moms never get thanked enough for the work they do to raise good kids.” Yet all this saccharine praise works merely as a distraction from what mothers really deserve. What women really need this Mother's Day isn’t another emotion-soaked viral ad. Equal pay in the workplace would be a good start. And maternity leave even remotely comparable to the rest of the industrialized world. Only then can we say honestly, and without irony, Thank you, Mom.
Mya Frazier, a former staff writer at Advertising Age and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, is a freelance journalist based in Columbus, Ohio. Follow her @myafrazier.