The XX Factor

Why Mother’s Day Ads Are So Cloyingly Sexist

Thanks for lovingly bathing me, mom. Where’s dad?


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.

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.