Why Mother’s Day Ads Are So Cloyingly Sexist

What Women Really Think
May 9 2014 5:13 PM

Why Mother’s Day Ads Are So Cloyingly Sexist

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 1.34.24 PM
Thanks for lovingly bathing me, mom. Where's dad?

(YouTube)

Mother’s Day is Sunday, meaning that it’s time for children to thank their mothers for all that they do, and for advertisers to strong arm their products into this annual family ritual. The New Republic’s Mya Frazier rightly notes that these ads—which hawk household products and portable snacks with images of doting mothers—purport to honor moms by depicting them as “the conquering hero of childrearing, endlessly in demand, yet always devoted,” but actually end up insulting them by “restricting mothers to the domestic sphere with empty sentimentalizing.” Happy Mother’s Day, these ads say—now shampoo my head and queue up my Capri Sun.

Frazier presents a run-down of the most cloying advertisements aired in this genre  over the past few years: In “You’re Doing OK, Mom!,” an ad for Johnson & Johnson baby products, an infant thanks his or her mother (always the mother) for picking up discarded bottles, making funny faces, and administering regular foot rubs In “Thank You Mom—Pick Them Back Up,” Tide detergent sells the image of the mother (always the mother) who picks up her children whenever they fall on their butts, from the playpen to the Olympic ski hill. (Both companies are subsidiaries of Procter & Gamble). And in “Capri Sun Super V Mom Helps Son,” mom (always mom) is so devoted to her role that she accompanies her son to science class, coaches his basketball team, and sticks his straw into his Capri Sun packet for him.

Advertisement

These ads are fine-tuned for maximum emotional response, and they get me, too. I am not made of stone. But intellectually, they’re bankrupt: My dad made funny faces at me, coached my soccer team, and leant me a hand when I biffed on the bunny hill, too. So why do companies keep selling these gendered representations? “The answer is seemingly simple: social media,” Frazier writes. “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.” Similar ads starring fathers, Frazier notes, don’t rack up nearly the number of clicks.

I’ve got a more insidious theory: Women buy far more household products than men do. Detergent, juices, baby shampoo—all have an overwhelmingly female market. Mothers aren’t just the subjects of these ads; they’re the target viewers, too. The ad strategy works on them in a couple of ways: Women see mothers shampooing their kids’ hair and think, “Hey, I do that—and I need to pick up some more soap.” Or they see mothers coaching their athlete kids from the sidelines and think, “Hey, I don’t do that—and now I feel a little guilty about it.” Both create a need the mother can fill by buying the right product. (And the Johnson & Johnson ad cleverly obscures this guilt trip by having its star baby tell its mom she’s doing her best as she lathers her up with Johnson’s soap). In order to change this media landscape, we don’t need men to pick their kids up when they fall. We need them to pick up some laundry soap at the grocery store.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.