Defining Mom

Proctor and Gamble’s (P & G) “Thank you Mom” commercial appeared in 2012 as part of the campaign that ran during and put narrative focus on the 2012 London Olympic Games. The commercial depicts the progress of athletes as they move from young children to Olympic competitors, supported along the way by their mothers. Five or six different mothers are depicted waking their young athletes early, making them different (assumedly culturally appropriate) breakfasts, and then delivering the children to various athletic practices. The mothers do it all again the next day, and the next, and the next. The athletes are shown in different stages of life and after trial and tribulation each arrives at his or her specific Olympic event. The mothers look on with tears of pride.

Proctor and Gamble is the parent company of over 60 brands that comprise mostly of household cleaning and beauty products. Dawn dish soap, Brawny paper towels, and Tide detergent are just a few of the company’s most-recognizable assets. Because of the company’s brands, we can assume the advertisement’s target audience is people who work in the home performing domestic tasks: whoever uses dish soap, paper towels, and laundry detergent most often will likely be the buyer of such products. The first (and most important) assumption the ad makes is that the Mother is the keeper of the home. The campaign called “Thank You Mom,” and the text at the end of the ad specifically addresses mothers. By targeting mothers with their ad, P & G assumes they are the primary users of P & G products.

The argument P & G addresses to its viewers runs along these lines: Domestic work leads to greatness; washing uniforms, and cooking meals allow children to become Olympic athletes. P & G ties greatness to working in the home. At this point in the commercial, it appears that P & G has made the assumption that all primary caregivers are women: no male caretakers appear in these video sequences, unless you could the fuzzy half-outline of a dad at a gymnastics meet.

The ad furthers this assumption when the words “Thank you, Mom” appear on the screen. All caretakers are women, and all Mothers are caretakers. The ad also assumes that the same member of the family is responsible for both the housework and taking care of children, a situation that does not hold for every family structure. One interesting consequence of the lack of male caretakers in the ad is the resulting lack of comment on caretakers’ relationship status. Are the mothers of the commercial straight, lesbian, or trans? Are the mothers perhaps single mothers? No assumptions are made in regards to this element of family life.

The ad assumes all caretakers are women, all Mothers are caretakers, and the caretaker performs all the housework. The argument is simple: domestic work (the kind facilitated by P & G products) leads to greatness. Just as mothers work tirelessly to support their children, P & G supports Moms (and so moms should buy their products).

Proctor and Gamble’s ad is an attempted intervention into the myth of the happy fifties housewife: yes, taking care of a child and taking care of housework is hard, says the ad; The text at the end of the video reads “The hardest job in the world is the best job in the world.” By acknowledging the difficulty of maintaining a household and raising children, the ad disrupts the image of the smiling mother who has lots of time for book-club and social gatherings. (Maybe my own image of junior-leaguers and country club cocktails is shaping my view of this commercial a little too much here.)

In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan enters into Proctor and Gamble’s chosen world of the happy housewifeFriedan argues (contrary to P&G’s ad) that mothers and wives must stop searching for happiness among their husbands and children: happiness lies in fulfilling the dreams that are frustrated when intelligent women give up education and careers to stay at home with children. Friedan contradicts P&G’s message of motherly fulfillment through self-sacrifice, yet both Friedan’s and P&G’s arguments have the same oversights: both ads entirely ignore differences of race and class. (Though, admittedly, P&G does attempt to address the race issue by showing athletes and mothers of all nationalities).

bell hooks’ criticisms of Friedan in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, hold for the P&G commercial. hook argues that Friedan’s narrative of the troubled 50’s housewife is the narrative only of the white, upper-middle class housewife; Friedan’s dilemma in no way parallels the experiences of lower class white women, or of women of color (from any class). Friedan assumes that all women (her assumed audience) are mothers with husbands and no careers. Similarly, Proctor and Gamble assumes that all mothers are stay-at-home moms, who take care of cooking and cleaning. The ad leaves no space for mothers who have to work (usually a class issue), or for mothers who choose to work, or for fathers who are the primary caregivers for their families.

According to the Proctor and Gamble, children who achieve great things have mothers that sacrifice; sacrifice to wake up early, sacrifice to drive children to practice, and sacrifice to do all the housework that allows their children to be great. Don’t worry, says the narrative of the ad, being a mother is the “best job in the world.” Plus, you’ll get thanked and acknowledged for all your hard work… if you sacrifice. How do career moms feel when they view this advertisement? Do they feel that they are being thanked for all their hard work? P & G’s “Thank you mom” ad supports existing stereotypical norms of American family structure (white, mother and father, 2.5 kids).

BUT WAIT. What if these are real athletes and these are their real mothers? Are we to fault companies for reflecting real-life realities? Or perhaps the commercial is not based upon real Olympic athletes, and is rather a strategic attempt to sell product to P & G’s target demographic. Is it wrong to assume that the large majority of P & G’s buyers are mothers who are also primary caregivers and housewives? The ad is undeniably touching, and on some level appeals to nearly everyone. Everyone, at some point, had a mother. Most people have had a caretaker who cared for them with the maternal affection demonstrated by P&G’s mothers. The analysis of a commercial is tricky business: do we evaluate commercials based on their effectiveness as advertisements, or based on their representation of the society to whom they are selling? The morality of the advertising world is a topic that will have to wait for another post…

This post, by the way, is dedicated to my own mother. Mom: sorry I haven’t done anything as impressive as win a gold medal. Nonetheless, #thankyoumom.

Works Cited

The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan, 1963

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks, 1984