Survey: New mothers don't see themselves in 'airbrushed' ads

Data says brands may be barking up the wrong tree with messages focused on beauty and fitness

A new survey of more than 4,800 pregnant women and new mothers in seven countries exposes stark discrepancies between the portrayals of motherhood in advertisements and the feelings mothers have about their lives. That disconnect could be making it difficult for brands to reach a coveted market and for women to find the products they need at a crucial point in their lives, says the site behind the survey.

According to the research from parenting Web portal BabyCenter, only 30% of respondents said they used the word "beautiful" to describe themselves. But 63% of them said advertisers used the term to describe people like them. The difference between the perceptions was even more pronounced for words like "fit" (13% vs. 32%); "anxious" (50% vs. 21%); and "emotional" (55% vs. 37%).

Taken together, the responses suggest advertisers may be overestimating the value women place on appearances during early motherhood, said Julie Michaelson, head of global sales for BabyCenter.

"Of course in marketing, images and messages need to have an aspirational component to some extent," Michaelson said. "But it is definitely not the right approach to take with women at this stage of their life — pregnancy and new motherhood specifically. Brands may be turning off potential new customers by presenting what one mom called ‘an airbrushed version of motherhood.’ "

Instead, authentic messages work best. "They’re showing a real family at dinnertime, and there might be food on the table or on the floor," Michaelson said. "It doesn’t necessarily mean the people are ugly, it’s just portraying families and mothers in more real-life situations. It’s something that’s really easy to do, but goes a long way with mothers."

It could also be as simple as hiring the right talent. A previous BabyCenter study found that 60% of millennial mothers prefer ads that feature real moms rather than actors.

Brands that don’t deliver more authentic portrayals could stand to lose customers. The survey’s respondents said they were very willing to switch brands at this point in their life, with 85% having changed their purchasing criteria since becoming a mother. While that’s a danger for advertisers with the wrong message, it presents an opportunity for brands that successfully capture recognizable snapshots of life with a new baby. "She is reevaluating her brand choices," Michaelson said. "She even stops using certain products and brands as she is introduced to new ones at this stage in her life."

One sobering piece of data from the study highlighted the need for brands to remain aware of their customers’ concerns. Fifty-six percent of pregnant women and mothers in Brazil, which is now contending with a widespread Zika epidemic, described themselves as "anxious," far higher than respondents in any other country. "We noticed over 7,000 conversations in the last six months in our Brazilian community talking about the Zika virus," Michaelson said. But only 18% of those same women said brands portray people like them as "anxious." Brands are "still presenting more of an ideal life, but these women are struggling and not feeling that way. So they’re not connecting with a whole host of brands that are trying to connect with them."

Instead, Michaelson said, Brazilian women are more likely to engage with messages focusing on safety, regardless of whether the product itself has any impact on Zika risk. Brands must speak to women in the spaces they’re in, even if it’s not a good one. "Show your brand as supportive, as a resource," Michaelson said. "Make it as easy for her as possible as she’s going through this life stage with these additional concerns."

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