Let’s think back to the pristine image of the prim and proper American housewife in the first half of the 20th century. Media and mass advertisers depicted moms as one-dimensional, always-put-together archetypes whose sole purpose was to cook meals and take care of the kids. Women dedicated their time to unpaid domestic labor, and somehow, they always did it with a smile and a full face of makeup—at least that’s the story we were told by advertisers.
This image of motherhood reinforced long-standing, gender stereotypes, and while it has evolved some, advertisers still have a long way to go to present a fuller, more authentic picture. However, today, narrow-minded ideologies based on gender norms no longer resonate with our ever-evolving society. According to the “Perceptions of Progress: The State of Women’s Equality in the US” study, conducted by the advertising collective SeeHer and Dentsu, 81% of consumers agree that media is critical in shaping gender roles and a full third of respondents do not believe the media currently does a good job of accurately portraying women.
Consumers want to see better representation of women and mothers by the media. So the pressing question for advertisers then remains: How do you radically transform the depiction of mothers and caregivers and tell a more inclusive and accurate story?
How women have historically been portrayed in advertising
Plainly put, the role of advertisers in society is complex, but one main function is to simplify complex messages to reach mass audiences. The recipe is simple: the more catchy and memorable, the more profitable.
However, this methodology can become problematic when it comes to the depiction of people. From the 1930s to the 1940s, advertisers told a standard storyline of women, according to Judith Freeman in “The Distorting Image: Women and Advertising, 1900-1960”: “the quiescent portrait of the dutiful, loving wife and mother that was used by promoters of everything from crackers to paint and wallpaper.”
“Those early ads rarely showed mothers as independent from their families or homes, even though we know women and caregivers lead complex lives,” said Jeannine Shao Collins, president of SeeHer at the Association of National Advertisers.
This simplification of people in advertising can lead to reduction and harmful stereotypes, added Kiah Nicholas, senior integrated creative at BMF Australia.
“As one of the arbiters of culture and cultural norms, it’s easy to see how women, mothers and caregivers have paid the price for reductionism in advertising,” Nicolas said. “But these harmful stereotypes reinforce deep-set biases that halt the progress of equality on all levels.”
How women are portrayed in advertising today
Today, while consumers agree about the critical role that advertising plays in the achievement of women’s equality, there is still a discrepancy in how men and women perceive the media’s portrayal of women. Research shows that women are more likely than men to believe that advertisers portray women in stereotypical roles as caregivers (60%), submissive (55%), dainty (44%) or in supporting roles (63%).
“Women have always been multidimensional, but we haven’t always been depicted that way in the media, which is why SeeHer was created—to harness the combined power of advertising and media to increase authentic portrayals of girls and women,” said Collins, adding that’s why SeeHer was created—to increase the authentic portrayals of girls and women. “While the progress made to date is encouraging, there is still a lot of work to do.”
Eve Rodsky, New York Times best-selling author of “Fair Play” and national bestseller “Find Your Unicorn Space,” agrees that more needs to be done in today’s advertising industry. She recently received a Mother’s Day promotional text from a major wireless company that read: “Moms do it all, so we’ve got deals to make their life just a little bit easier.”
“Even on the holiday that’s intended to support and celebrate us, we’re served with reminders that ‘moms do it all,’” Rodsky said. “How can we as caregivers start to believe that we can be more than our roles as parents, partners and professionals when advertising and entertainment only center those identities?”
But we cannot ignore the progress that has been made. Procter & Gamble’s “Share the Load” campaign launched in 2015 to encourage equality in the division of household chores, with the brand releasing its fifth installment earlier this year. In 2021, P&G Home Care brands Dawn and Swiffer also leveraged a highly coveted Super Bowl spot to inspire people to “come clean to close the chore gap,” a campaign that challenged gender role stereotypes in the home. Last fall, PepsiCo’s Pure Leaf tea released a campaign encouraging women to say “no” more to the things that no longer serve them and make time for the things that do.
How advertisers can do better
Creating a more accurate depiction of mothers starts with advertisers understanding and educating themselves on the realities of family caregiving.
“Our responsibilities are harder and more complicated than ever as families have increasing demands, and the emotional and financial stress can be overwhelming,” said Staci Alexander, VP of thought leadership at AARP, who is caring for a child with special needs and an aging parent. “Our stories should be accurately represented in the media, marketing and advertising industries.”
Nicholas agreed about the responsibility to end the narrow-minded portrait of dads who work full-time, “babysit” the kids and are incapable of completing household chores and mothers who take care of everything. It starts when advertising agencies set rigorous standards that upend gender stereotypes.
Rodsky said women should be shown in their “unicorn space,” the place where they are in active pursuit of what makes them who they are and in their full power beyond their roles as parents, partners and professionals.
Blessing Adesiyan, the founder and CEO of Mother Honestly, agreed, adding, “There are so many aspects to us. We are CEOs, C-level executives, business leaders and we just happen to be mothers.”
Collins said it best: “Every mother has their own unique story, and it’s crucial that advertising and media recognize that there is not one story to tell, but many. We all want to be seen.”
It’s also important to hire and promote diverse talent in advertising—it amplifies diverse, often-underrepresented voices and creates work that reflects the world as it is and as it could be.
Ultimately, advertisers must stop portraying “mom roles” and “dad roles” as separate.
“There’s one role: parent. And the sooner advertising reflects that, the better we’ll all be,” Nicholas said.