Marketers Still Struggling With Mommy Issues

As the Number of Single, Same-Sex and Minority Families Increases, Ad Messages Are Failing to Connect With Reality

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It was an honest mistake. My husband and I were momentarily baffled when we separately met the mother of one of the kids at our son's daycare and later remembered different first names. It was only after my husband ran into the mothers -- both of them -- picking up their daughter that the discrepancy was explained.

'Modern Family' features a same-sex couple with an adopted baby.
'Modern Family' features a same-sex couple with an adopted baby. Credit: ABC
While that particular situation is still the exception rather than the rule, it's clear the face of mom is rapidly changing. Advertisements might be filled with young American mothers sporting wedding bands, but in reality, plenty of today's moms were born and raised outside of the U.S., are in nontraditional marital situations and are in their 30s or 40s.

You only have to look as far as the prime-time TV lineup to realize that traditional mom stereotypes are becoming less relevant. The ABC hit "Modern Family" includes a same-sex couple raising an adopted daughter. NBC's "Parenthood" features a stay-at-home dad and a divorced mom. And on "Private Practice," an ABC drama, one of the main characters recently gave birth out of wedlock. While that character's age isn't immediately apparent, the actress who plays her is 46.

It's true that these groups are still in the minority, but they're steadily growing both in size and importance. Isabelle Jazo, VP-brand strategy at E.B. Lane, an agency that has a specialty in moms, uses same-sex couples with kids as an example. "It's on the fringe. But if that's just 1% or 2% of households, they're still raising millions of children. Tell me that's not relevant," she said. "It compounds. You have to connect the dots."

In the 2000 census, one in four male same-sex couples and one in three female same-sex couples reported at least one child under the age of 18 living in their home. Experts have estimated that upwards of 6 million children in the U.S. are being raised by committed same-sex couples.

"It might not be that I had a child out of wedlock or am married to another woman, but I know people who are, and I'm friends with them or I connect with them on Facebook," Ms. Jazo said.

Indeed, the success of a show like "Modern Family," which took home the Emmy for outstanding comedy series, would lead one to believe that consumers are prepared to see different types of moms and family units in advertising. But an unscientific scan of the marketplace reveals a dominant type of mom in marketing: the young, married mother who doesn't look overly ethnic.

One 43-year-old mother of three young children told me that she's noticed an "interesting division" between news coverage and marketing. "There's a lot of press that talks about parents being older these days but marketing is still geared toward younger moms," she said. "Brands show younger moms or, at least, moms that are younger than me."

That's despite compelling statistics illustrating that moms are getting older. In 2006, one in 12 first births was to a woman 35 or older, compared to 1 in 100 in 1970, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The recession could be further exacerbating that trend, as people postpone having children or adjust their expectations of family size. In 2009, the national birth rate fell for the second consecutive year to 13.5 births for every 1,000 people, the lowest level in a century. According to NCHS, the number of births fell 2.6% last year.

In a survey conducted for Ad Age by Communispace of its Women's Space community, a number of women indicated that they are waiting until they are financially secure or have spent enough time with their partner before starting a family. Of the women surveyed, nearly 40% cited finances, while more than one-fifth cited career or career aspirations as the factor having the greatest impact on their decision to have or not have a child. A full 58% cited age or maturity level as the determining factor, with women citing 30, 35 or 40 as personal benchmarks for starting a family.

"We traveled a lot. We made a conscious effort to go on trips that were different and challenging and maybe not good for kids," said the 43-year-old mother, who is also a Women's Space member. Her first child was born when she was 35. "We definitely didn't rush anything."

Likewise, many women are waiting until they're older to get married. Earlier this year, the U.S. Census Bureau said the median age of a woman at her first marriage has reached 25.9 years old. That's compared to 22 years old in 1980.

But marriage is certainly not a prerequisite to being a mom. A new study out from Everyday Health, publisher of WhatToExpect.com, highlights the fact that 64% of moms are married, meaning more than one-third of moms are single today. Likewise, nearly four in 10 births -- or almost 40% -- were to an unmarried woman in 2007, according to NCHS. And you'd be mistaken in thinking most unwed mothers are teenagers. In 1970, teenagers accounted for half of all births to unwed mothers, but in 2007 they accounted for just 23%. Instead the number of births to unwed mothers in their 20s, 30s and 40s has risen dramatically. In 2007, women in their 20s accounted for 60% of births to unwed mothers, while women 30 or older accounted for 17%.

Take, for example, this 35-year-old unmarried mother of three who said she and her partner were dating casually when she became pregnant with twins 11 years ago. They have lived as a family unit since then and have had another child together. But for a variety of reasons they have chosen not to get married. "Some of it is for financial reasons and part of it is, we don't feel necessarily that a piece of paper makes that much of a difference," the mom and Women's Space member said.

And while that's not an unusual situation -- about two-fifths of children are expected to live in a cohabitating household at some point, according to the U.S. Census Bureau -- marketers, she said, always assume she's married.

"Automotive, consumer packaged goods, they run the risk of alienating what you might call a traditional mom, if they feature a same-sex couple or mom on the go without a wedding band," said Mike Fogarty, senior VP and group publisher at BabyCenter. "Marketers are cautious about how they represent moms."

Maybe that's why 42% of moms in a study conducted by the Marketing to Moms Coalition found ads that target them as a mom generally ineffective, and 28% found ads that attempt to relate to them as a mom unappealing.

"Moms are, generally speaking, not at the table when big strategic creative and marketing decisions are being made, which is why a lot of marketing doesn't resonate with mom," said Bridget Brennan, a founder of the Marketing to Moms Coalition and author of "Why She Buys." "People find themselves relying on old stereotypes. Everyone has a mom, so they think they know moms."

While there is something universal about being a mom, better reflecting the changing face of mom will become increasingly important as groups considered to be on the fringe by marketers become mainstream.

"There is a role for brands to reflect what is happening in society," said Mark Sherwood, senior VP-group planning director at Saatchi & Saatchi, which counts Cheerios, Tide and Pampers among its clients. "It is important to find shared territory, shared interests between brands and these specific groups."

To that end, ethnic moms are one area that marketers are sitting up and paying attention to, said Mr. Fogarty. He points out that one in four U.S. births is to a Hispanic woman. The number of births to Hispanic women in the U.S. has risen 95% since 1989, while the number of births to non-Hispanic women has fallen 3% during the same period. "That's a salient point that means a lot to marketers," he said.

"It's a numbers game," added Carolina Petrini, VP-market research at Everyday Health. A study from the group highlights the fact that a full 20% of today's moms are not born or raised in the U.S. "These groups are still the minority. However the fertility rate for them is much higher, while fertility of U.S.-born mothers has come down. That's when they stop being a minority."

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