She often looks sleep-deprived, she may have jelly stains on her skirt and spit-up on her blouse, and she usually has a child in tow. And, yes, she probably spends most of her time catering to her children. But lately she is starring in commercials that focus on her needs, not theirs.
Brands as disparate as Suave shampoo, Time Warner Cable, KFC fried chicken and Tide are tailoring their messages to mothers who, they are certain, are dying to spend more time on themselves, but feel too guilty to do so. ITN Networks, a media sales company, has even put together a roster of shows watched by moms to help companies aim their messages to working mothers.
In a sense, the trend was inevitable, marketing experts say. “We used to stereotype women as sex objects, and then we stereotyped them as superwomen: career woman, homemaker, mom and mate,’’ said Gary Armstrong, professor of marketing at the Kenan-Flagler Business School of the University of North Carolina. “But now we are recognizing that anyone who has been out in the world as a smart, beautiful woman will not give that up because she’s a mom.”
Companies have solid business reasons for playing to that notion. Studies have shown that decisions on family purchases once thought to be the purview of fathers — what cars to buy, what telecommunications systems to use — are increasingly made by mothers. And if advertising can make them feel empowered, not just martyrs to their families, they are more likely to form an emotional attachment to the brand.
Cable television promotions, for example, “always had a masculine kind of pitch,’’ stressing sports stations, for example, recalled Sam Howe, chief marketing officer for Time Warner Cable. A few networks like Oxygen or Lifetime catered to women, but few singled out mothers.
But now Time Warner Cable, like its competitors, wants to sell high-priced bundles of television, telephone and Internet services. Its research shows that, 60 percent of the time, mothers decide which package to buy. “So we are showing the packages through a mother’s lens and a mother’s day,’’ Mr. Howe said.
Time Warner recently ran a commercial showing a mom reading a story about high-speed Internet connections to her child — and the child responding with, “Why would anyone buy dial-up anymore?” And last month, Time Warner began running a commercial that showed a 40-ish mother in the midst of a revolving tableau that featured her daughter on the phone, her husband channel surfing — but also displayed sets from fashion and cooking shows that would appeal to her. “You get the idea that she is orchestrating all of the family’s entertainment,’’ Mr. Howe said. The tag line is, “With Time Warner Cable, the world revolves around you.”
Procter & Gamble, the Kentucky Fried Chicken subsidiary of Yum Brands, and many other companies have set up advisory councils or Internet networks of mothers, to discern how they view themselves and their lives, and where products fit in. One theme that has cropped up often is that mothers feel their own identities have become lost in their zeal for catering to their offspring.
“We know it’s important to spend time with family, so lots of us feel guilt when we can’t stay home and cook complete meals all the time,’’ said Ellen A. Schwarz, a 28-year- old mother of two who sits on KFC’s council.
Increasingly, that realization is being translated into imagery. KFC ads ignore the fact that mothers may feel guilty serving fast food in light of all the publicity about links with obesity and heart disease. Instead, the ads emphasize how KFC can give a mother the emotional succor of serving family dinner without spending time at a stove.
“We positioned ourselves as a home-meal replacement when fast food was still considered a family treat, and our ads still show the family interacting at the dinner table,’’ said Melissa A. Richards, director of family meals at KFC. “But now we’re recognizing the conflicting priorities that today’s moms have.”
One commercial shows a mother using refrigerator magnets to set up her day — orange for soccer, green for guitar lessons, and one depicting Colonel Sanders for dinner. Another shows a mother being ignored by her busy family until they smell the fried chicken she has brought home, at which point they all rush in for dinner. Yet another stresses how KFC can free up precious time — mom unpacks the bucket of chicken, but “you’ll do the dishes,’’ she tells her feasting family.
“We set out to show that we understand what a mom’s life is like today,’’ said Sue Verin, creative director on the KFC account at Draft FCB Group.
Similarly, Procter & Gamble’s Tide commercials, done by Saatchi & Saatchi, no longer show mother in the laundry room; they show a pregnant woman spilling ice cream on her favorite shirt, or a mother wearing well-fitting light colored pants — subliminally, dirt magnets — as she plays in the park with her child. “They don’t want to talk about laundry, they want to talk about a mom’s emotional relationship to her clothes,’’ Professor Armstrong of North Carolina said.
The Suave commercials are perhaps the least subtle of all. Suave, a Unilever shampoo that sells for as little as $2 a bottle, has always positioned itself as a value brand. “Now, we want to build an emotional connection, to be the preferred choice instead of just the responsible one’’ said Ami Striker, brand development director for Suave. “We are talking to the woman who is inside the mom, giving her the tools to bring that woman back out. “
In one commercial, a frumpy mom and a glamorous mom duke it out in a boxing ring, with the voiceover noting that moms fight between taking care of others and taking care of themselves. In another, a dog seemingly walks itself, and a baby cradles itself. The voiceover notes that mothers often feel invisible, but that does not have to be true of their hair.
The campaign, which Ms. Striker said was among the most expensive Suave has undertaken, is getting the word out in nontraditional ways as well. The “invisible” spot has run in theaters showing children’s movies. Suave has done makeovers for mothers on the Learning Channel’s “What Not to Wear’’ show. It has arranged with some pizza parlors to deliver pizzas in boxes that look like wrapped presents, with a message from Suave suggesting some self-pampering activities —including shampooing, of course — that a mom can do since she is not cooking dinner.
Donna Charlton-Perrin, creative director on the Suave account at the Ogilvy unit of WPP Group, said Ogilvy was looking for ways to “interrupt moms when they are not thinking about themselves’’— say, by putting Suave stickers on food shelves in supermarkets, or running pop-up ads on Internet sites that sell children’s clothes.
“There seems to be this feeling in the culture that moms must be martyrs, that their lives have to be all about their kids,’’ Ms. Charlton-Perrin said. “But the beautiful woman inside that mom is still dying to get out. So we’re saying, ‘A pretty mommy is a better mommy.’ ’’
Claudia H. Deutsch, The New York Times. September 15, 2006
Copyright © 2006 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.