According to the most recent census figures, nearly half of women between the ages of 15 and 44 don’t have children. This is the highest percentage since the Census Bureau started tracking fertility rates in 1976. Half of women is a lot of women, and yet, advertisers continue to behave as though they don’t exist. “[T]he majority of marketing talks to adult women like they are all moms or want to be mothers,” Adrianna Bevilaqua, chief creative officer at M Booth, a public relations company, told the New York Times for a recent story on the subject.
Industry experts explained to the Times that the absence of childless women in marketing materials is likely the result of inertia. Advertisers have long targeted moms because moms buy their goods. In 2015, American moms were in charge of $3.4 trillion worth of spending decisions, which makes them the largest consumer group in the United States. Still, expansion is possible; in recent years a number of campaigns have moved past the confines of the traditional, heterosexual family. There was, for example, Chase’s recent ad about a single mom and a Campbell Soup commercial featuring gay dads. Now childless women are wondering when it will be their turn.
This might mean creating content that features a woman who is identifiably childless, like the 2014 Lands’ End catalog, which featured a cover photo of a woman and two children captioned: “Being their auntie means that when we are #together there are no rules.” Others quoted in the story would like to see more content featuring women, particularly middle-aged women, who are not explicitly engaged in the act of parenting—their breeding status need not be explained.
While they might not have the collective spending power of moms—many of whom, I suspect, would be very happy to give up some of the power derived from choosing laundry detergent in exchange for power derived from something like equal pay—childless women also have the potential to improve a business’ bottom line. One report found that they spend twice as much on beauty products as women with children, and spend 60 percent more time abroad. The Times also notes that they spend 35 percent more on groceries than moms, likely because of a preference for fancier, less chicken nuggety, food.
Of course, advertising has had a long time to adapt to the ongoing shift in gender roles, and still, brands churn out retrogressive and sexist ads that many find degrading. And even when brands do try to get with the times, as is the case with Dove and Pantene, many women still call foul. These critics take offense with the way such campaigns overstate and capitalize on female empowerment when, in reality, such empowerment is far from being fully realized.
The fact is, seeking validation for one’s lifestyle from an advertising campaign is a peculiar and frustrating compulsion. But it’s also one that’s hard to avoid in a capitalist society. In their current role, advertisements don’t just tell us what we should want, but also who we are. It’s no wonder that childless women want in.
Ironically, earlier this year, ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi researched women with children’s perceptions of representations of moms in advertising and found that they weren’t happy either. They surveyed nearly 8,000 women from around the world, the majority of whom responded with feelings of frustration at the outdated mom tropes, including the harried mom and the saintly, perfectionist mom we so often see. Above all, they resented the notion of motherhood as a job. “Motherhood is about being, not doing,” said Mary Mills, worldwide director of strategic intelligence at Saatchi, when describing the findings.
So as it turns out, both childless women and moms are motivated by the same desire. They want advertisers to let go of motherhood as an all-consuming identity for women and instead present them as the varied and idiosyncratic beings they’ve long known themselves to be.