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Young Mothers Talk Back
The Second of Two Special Issues on Advertising and Motherhood

This is the second of two issues Advertising & Society Review will be doing on advertising and motherhood. I invited the participation of a research group, formed in 2005, to focus on the issues of mothering in contemporary society that are reflected in and affected by advertising. The founder and leader of this group, Andrea Prothero of University College Dublin, was the guest editor on this issue, helping to weave together a complex web of articles, videos, pictures, web links, and commentaries. This group consists entirely of academics—they are all professors in marketing departments—but they are also young mothers. Their mission is to observe the condition of maternity in postindustrial society, to interview other mothers who are enmeshed in this moment, and to reflect on their own experiences of motherhood in the twenty-first century.

This ongoing research project is conducted by an international collective of eight professors working in marketing departments. All the scholars are mothers who work full-time and live with their partners. Between them they have a total of 16 children, ranging from six months to nine years, and a 17th is due in January 2007. The professors work in four countries (Denmark, Ireland, the UK, and the US), and three live in a country other than the one in which they grew up. Their project is broad, exploring various aspects of motherhood and marketing, with advertising being only one dimension.

For this issue and the essays that appeared in the last issue of Advertising & Society Review, this group explores, singly and together, the different facets of motherhood reflected in media, especially advertising, and how these elements affect mothers and mothers-to-be. Each essay is full of a variety of ads (for baby food, prams, fragrance, or books) and links that illustrate the phenomena of motherhood today. Each article is followed by a commentary from other members of the group. Some recall personal experiences. Others call attention to the cultural differences that still occur even in countries so physically close or historically related to one another.

In this issue, the essays focus on challenges to motherhood in the first few months or years after birth, as opposed to the challenges of conception and pregnancy presented in the last issue. Here, too, there is more focus on the interactive concerns between product, mother, and baby. In contemporary postindustrial culture, early parenthood is very consumption-intensive. Many purchases seem to be “required” even before the baby comes home. “The Road to Motherhood” focuses on the most major of these investments, the baby carriage or pram. Thyra Uth Thomsen and Elin Brandi Sørensen look at Danish advertisements for prams as a window into the expectations for the experience of motherhood and representations of various “ways” of being a mother. One of the most interesting things that came out of this paper and the commentaries that engaged it was that there were still vast cultural differences in “good mothering” among the so-called “advanced” nations, despite their apparent similarities in other domains.

The second paper, “Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth?: Mothers' Authority on Food and Feeding,” addresses the way that the changing consumptionscape interacts with various social trends—about working mothers, healthy eating, and so on—and yet tends to create anxiety, guilt, and confusion for the new mothers who try to cope with the choices arrayed before them. The high level of anxiety and even tendency to perfectionism that has come to characterize contemporary motherhood are skillfully evoked by Andrea Davies. As mothers, women expect so much of themselves—and, as a society, we hold them unfairly accountable, thus contributing further to the increase of tension.

Andrea Prothero’s essay, “The F Word: The Use of Fear In Advertising to Mothers,” further extends this sense that unreasonable, insensitive standards characterize today's motherhood—but she goes farther to show how the fear appeals used in advertisements of various baby products contributes significantly to this felt sense of utter (and unreasonable) responsibility. Prothero attributes this sense of risk to the fearful times in which we live. Certainly, recent world events have increased the sense of insecurity in places like the US and the UK. Nevertheless, life is irretrievably risky, no matter where and when. I can remember twenty years ago my best friend feeling so terrified of carrying her first child down the stairs at home that she refused to leave the house except to go to the pediatrician. Obviously, the child (and the mother) eventually have to learn to leave the house and, in the process, accept a certain level of risk that comes just from being in the world. But the profound sense of protectiveness that so often accompanies the arrival of an infant is easily magnified and manipulated by advertisers—and I think Prothero's essay rightly implies that those who make the ads should use a little compassion and hold some of that fear factor back.  

Linda M. Scott