Drop the June Cleaver stereotype, please

Despite changing dynamics of modern families, advertising still largely holds mothers to unattainable standards of perfection, writes the managing director of Maxus Chicago

The calm, loving mother caressing a cooing infant in a sunlit field. A mom standing in an immaculate kitchen, giving an "aw, shucks" as her child does something adorably destructive.

You’d be right to think that situations like this are straight out of a 1950s TV commercial. Problem is, they never really went away — they just look different now. Despite huge shifts in the makeup of our families, the demands of everyday life and the gender roles of parents, we’re still living in an era where advertising and media largely hold moms to unattainable standards of perfection. Even worse, they don’t seem to know their coveted target audience and are further alienating moms through their reliance on stereotypes.

A recent Saatchi & Saatchi global study looked at the gap between the way marketers portray moms in advertising and how modern moms, like myself, perceive ourselves. The results were enlightening, to say the least. According to the survey, "More than 50% of these moms feel that marketers don’t understand them, and are talking to their moms." If 50% doesn’t sound like a staggering enough statistic, consider that 70% of women over the age of 15 are moms — that’s almost 2 billion women worldwide.

Failing to connect with roughly one billion of the people who, by and large, make most of the world’s purchasing decisions is a disaster of monumental proportions for marketers. Furthermore, with 90% of all babies now being born to Millennial parents, advertisers need to rethink the ways in which they are portraying moms and how they’re connecting with this audience. So what is the solution, and how can our industry repair it?

Drop the stereotype
It’s a well-known fact that the way into the American home is by winning over the household CEO. While a few brands today are taking a richer, more nuanced view of modern moms, the majority relies on a simplistic portrayal of the "ideal mom." Gone are the perfect soccer moms of the '90s, only to be replaced by crafty, detail-oriented moms who throw picture-perfect, handcrafted first birthday parties; bake artisanal gluten-free cupcakes for school events; and generally excel at "the toughest job in the world." Millennial moms seem to have earned their own unattainable stereotype to try to live up to.

Ultimately, there is no one clear picture of what a "real," much less a "perfect" mom, looks like, so marketers need to stop indulging in one-dimensional portraits of their customers. With more than two-thirds of all moms in the US working or pursuing careers, many are providers as much as they are caregivers.

Most of us are too busy working at our actual jobs to make ombre party streamers by hand. We’re also playmates to our kids, in-house medical consultants, rule enforcers, life coaches, entertainers, teachers and a million other things that come along the way. Not to mention the interests we hold outside of our kids or careers. If brands want to truly engage and relate to us, they must explore and celebrate a greater variety of these roles — which will also help show that you get us and you are letting us be whoever we want to be.

Tap into universal truths
It’s important to remember that at its core, good advertising taps into universal truths, rather than stereotypes, and makes an emotional connection with the audience. Advertising that places unrealistic expectations on consumers might result in an emotional connection, but most often, it will be the wrong kind. It’s one thing for a brand to feel aspirational, and quite another to make someone feel like an inadequate parent.  

For moms, those core truths usually have more to do with real life — both creating and sustaining it — than baking Pinterest-worthy cakes. Whether it’s love, stress, hilarity, discovery, exhaustion or the way it all comes together to create the chaos that is raising a family, there’s no shortage of truths about parenting for marketers to draw from.

Produce meaningful content
This disconnect between ads and modern moms persists outside of TV commercials — we see it in real time and in never-ending supply on the platforms this group uses most: Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook. Marketers and advertisers are pumping the same kinds of content across these mediums, without adjusting it to the audience or the platform. Not only are these ads not well-tailored, they’re ultimately anxiety-inducing, as a recent survey by the Today Show showed that more than 42% of moms reported experiencing "Pinterest Stress — the worry that they’re not crafty or creative enough."

To change this, marketers must convey the diverse variety of roles moms play in real life by producing content that is relevant, engaging and customized for each platform. Be as diligent and pragmatic as you are creative, and you will turn from misunderstanding to bringing value to mothers’ lives.

To succeed in the long run, brands must embody the values and attitudes of modern motherhood. Marketers have to embrace the fact that having kids is more complex than the few stereotypical categories most often portrayed in the media. Parenting is both beautiful and messy; it’s ever-changing; it looks different for every family. Like anything else, it’s filled with highs and lows. If your ads are beautifully staged, or just poke fun at the inevitable disasters that come with raising kids, make sure you are speaking to real moms, whoever we might be, rather than creating new stereotypes of what we should be.

Julie Lee is managing director of Maxus Chicago.