This weekend, mothers all across North America will be fêted with flowers, sentimental cards, and many a frantic brunch reservation. Of course, they deserve every single moment of appreciation. Another thing they get around this time of year is fawning from brands of every shape and color. And why not? Research has long shown that women control the bulk of the household purchasing decisions.
In recent years, brand marketers have really pulled out all the stops to pluck our collective heartstrings ahead of every Mother’s Day, tapping into our common appreciation and racking up billions of earned media in the process. Whether it’s positioning it as “The World’s Toughest Job” or quietly acknowledging the often uneven workload, brands are not-so subtly telling moms everywhere, “Hey, we really do get you.”
Annual emotional tributes that hit everyone in the cryballs are nice and all, but the best Mother Day gift brands could give is consistent, year-round advertising that portrayed women as they are IRL: 50% of the population and as diverse in interests, intelligence, humor, and style as men.
As more marketers begin to embrace the idea of purpose, and how the power of doing good can boost the bottom line, American brands should be paying close attention to the statistics, policies, and challenges facing mothers today. Like how, out of the 42 industrialized nation members in the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the least generous when it comes to maternity leave is the United States. Or that babies born in America are less likely to reach their first birthday than those born in other wealthy OECD countries. Or that the American child poverty rate is significantly higher than 30 other industrialized countries, including Mexico, Estonia, Japan, Germany, and France.
Even a quick look at some basic advertising statistics reveals a less-than flattering picture of how marketers really think about women. Last year, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and ad agency JWT studied gender representation in a decades-worth of Cannes Lions-winning ads, and found that there are twice as many male characters in ads than female characters; men are almost twice as likely to be funny than women; men are 62% more likely to be shown as smart; and women are 48% more likely to be shown in the kitchen. But you just have to watch about five minutes of daytime TV to know that.
Those findings are consistent with internal research that Unilever undertook of more than 1,000 ads from 50 countries in 2016 that found 50% had stereotypical portrayals of women, just 1% portrayed women as funny, 3% as leaders, and 2% as intelligent. At the time, Unilever CMO Keith Weed said, “These are the images that we as an industry are sending out across the world, and 80% of women do not identify with these stereotypes that we as an industry are putting out.”
What are moms supposed to think when brands give them this right around now each year:
Only to serve up appalling spots like this 2004 Budweiser Super Bowl ad the rest of the year:
Thankfully, brands are increasingly embracing a more nuanced view of women and moms. Like Yeti’s mother-daughter story about fly-fishing in Iceland. Or this year’s Teleflora Mother’s Day campaign, directly tied to the diversity of motherhood, featuring three different stories that equally strike the balance between hardship and heart.
Earlier this year, the ad agency Wongdoody launched an in-house consultancy called June Cleaver Is Dead, specifically for brands looking to attract moms. It features a rolling advisory panel of more than 650 moms, dubbed The Mother Board, that includes diverse subgroups like single moms, moms of color, LGBTQIA moms, and first-time moms. Consultancy co-founders Skyler Mattson and Pam Fujimoto say that moms are too often depicted in a one-dimensional way in advertising: primarily white, straight, middle class, wearing a cardigan, happily folding laundry in a spotless white home. Oh, and she also loves yogurt.
“Where are the multicultural moms, the single moms, the moms who have a career, the moms who have a passion they pursue for themselves outside of the home?” says Mattson. “What about moms caring not only for babies but for aging parents as well? Or moms over 50? The list goes on and on.”
Their advice to marketers is to truly get to know moms beyond the same old stereotypes. “Uncover who she is demographically, then understand her needs and how she feels about your product or service,” says Fujimoto. “Find the unique problem that only your brand can solve and position yourself as her ally. You’ll have a much better chance of getting mom’s attention and seeing results.”
In his 2016 Cannes Lions speech, Unilever’s Weed saw the same potential, saying, “The overall impact of our progressive ads was 12% more than those of our normal ads. So this is not a moral issue, it’s an economic issue. We can create better advertising if we create advertising which is more progressive and we start challenging those stereotypes.”
So a more honest and true portrayal of women might actually form a stronger emotional connection between 50% of the population and your brand, therefore boosting your brand’s bottom line by attracting more lifelong customers? Who would’ve thought?