A desolate-looking driveway leading up to a modest Southern California house -- lit at night by an AP photographer's flash and looking utterly spooky, like a crime scene. And, in a related shot, a couple dozen medical personnel clustered together, garbed in pale-blue surgical scrubs, at the Kaiser Permanente Bellflower Medical Center -- most of them grinning proudly.
For my money, those are two of the creepiest news photos of the year so far. The house belongs to the parents of the so-called Octuplet Mom -- the Whittier, Calif., woman who gave birth to six boys and two girls on Jan. 26. The babies will likely have to spend the first two months of their lives hospitalized in incubators (they were born nine weeks premature, with the smallest weighing just 1 pound, 8 ounces), but the media clearly regards the house as a sort of future Whitman's Sampler of adorableness. As for the Kaiser Permanente medical crew that posed for the maternity-ward shot, it turns out they were just a portion of the nearly 50-person team that was involved in the harrowing, insanely costly assembly-line delivery of the preemies. The hospital's decision to set up a joyful, self-congratulatory photo op now seems terribly ill-advised, given what we now know about the mother.
On the day of the birth, eager to put a positive spin on the story, Kaiser Permanente neonatalogist Dr. Mandhir Gupta declared of Octuplet Mom, "She's a very strong woman, so she probably will be able to handle all eight babies." Um, yeah, right. That was before the world learned that this single mom already has six children under the age of 8 -- a total of 14 kids. And before we learned that, jobless and apparently uninterested in marriage, she lives with her parents, who are clearly sick of her and her brood. "I'm going to be gone," Octuplet Mom's mother says she told her daughter, according to the New York Daily News, threatening to leave before the new shipment of babies comes home from the hospital. "It can't go on any longer." She told Us Weekly that her daughter was "obsessed with children" in a way that was "not normal" -- and that the only child "always blamed me for only having her. She was always upset I didn't have more." Meanwhile, Octuplet Mom's dad, a native of Iraq, is considering going back there rather than face seeing his house turned into one big Diaper Genie.
It also turns out Octuplet Mom sought sketchy fertility treatment, possibly overseas (it wasn't at Kaiser Permanente, at least). Medical ethicists are horrified at the thought that a doctor anywhere would implant eight viable embryos in any woman, let alone one with six young children (in Canada, for instance, medical guidelines generally limit embryo transfers to two -- three at the most).
But here's the sickest part of the story: This woman's poor children -- all 14 of them -- will likely have a tough time of it without a critical mass of immoral behavior by the media: namely, the showering of cash on a disturbed person. (As one Gawker commenter noted, "People can be convicted of animal cruelty for having 14 pets in their home and inadequate resources with which to take care of them.") Not only is it questionable whether Octuplet Mom can care for 14 children simultaneously, but she's chosen to bring into this world eight additional children whose risk of complications (from cerebral palsy to death) is sky-high.
You may have noticed that I've not mentioned Octuplet Mom's name in this column. The way I figure, the two publicists she's put on contract to attempt to lock down media and sponsorship deals can toil to get her name printed elsewhere. She's reportedly hoping for at least $2 million for the first formal photo op -- and she obviously intends to be famous. Word is, she sees an Oprah appearance in her future. (Octuplet Mom's unpaid "Today" show interview is sort of like a crack dealer giving out a free sample; she's getting us further hooked on her story, priming us for the coming blockbuster "reveal" of the new brood crawling around adorably, like bumper cars at an amusement park, at home.) If she's lucky, and the eight new children aren't too un-photogenically disabled, maybe she can score a TV deal with TLC, which has created an entire cottage industry around the self-exploitation of unnaturally large families, with hits such as "17 Kids and Counting" (starring a bible-thumping Arkansas man, Jim Bob Duggar, and his wife, Michelle -- pregnant virtually all of her adult life -- who home-school their children when they're not trotting them around for paid appearances at malls and such, so shoppers can stare at them like some carnival sideshow) and "Jon & Kate Plus 8" (a seemingly much less deluded, less prideful Pennsylvania couple, Jon and Kate Gosselin, with twins and unexpected IVF sextuplets).
Sadly, while there are plenty of "Son of Sam" laws on the books to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes by selling their stories, there seem to be no "Mother of Octuplets" laws to prevent baby-obsessed crazy ladies from not only profiting from their obsession but making their children wards of the Media State -- destined for surreal "Truman Show" childhoods.
The media will certainly continue to chase this story -- aiding and abetting and rewarding the pathology of an obsessed woman who is in way over her head. That's inevitable and depressingly unavoidable.
But marketers must take pause. Let's lay down the law here: Any brand advertiser, such as traditional multiple-birth outfitter P&G (Pampers), has a moral obligation to not seek branded "placement," given the circumstances. If P&G's or Nestlé's (Gerber) or whomever's big corporate heart goes out to the octuplets, well, by all means, let those companies provide much-needed humanitarian aid in the form of (very) quietly donated goods and services. Give these children material support -- please! -- but shut up about it. In fact, any such humanitarian aid should come with a proviso: No media mentions of the brand allowed.
And, hey, TLC? You need to think about what, exactly, you're selling.