How representations of mothers in ads haven’t changed: Outdated Motherhood narratives

The representation of motherhood and mothers has been a subject of debate, especially with changing reality, can it not change in advertisements as well?

Image Credit – The University of Sydney


Rosser Reeves invented the Unique Selling Point (USP) in the 1950s and since then media and marketing have not looked back. Every product, no matter how small or big has a USP and its marketing shows it off quite well. This is the era where advertising saw a big change as well and since then the role of mothers in marketing campaigns and television advertisements has evolved quite a lot. In the 1950s, a woman was frequently seen in the kitchen in advertisements where she seemed to be busy running the domestic world of her family. Imagine a commercial of that time and you will know that the woman is responsible for the health and well-being of her family. This is why any domestic or baby products featured women in the roles of mothers and were targeted towards mothers.

Since then more than 60 years have passed, and advertising in women’s consumer magazines continues to show the woman in the kitchen, putting the family’s needs above hers. So what about the change? Did it not happen?


Mother’s in advertisements: why is their representation an issue?

Between 1950 and 2010, the representations of mothers buying products and things for their families evolved. In the beginning, because women knew nothing better, they were often guided by male experts who showed them what was best for their families and why they needed it. Now with the changing times, mothers are not often guided by male experts who know better, but they have become experts themselves.

However, still, the knowledge and expertise of a mother is restricted to the domestic sphere of family life and consumption. Mothers of the 21st century, despite being experts, are still in the family home, taking care of the family and their needs alone, therefore reinforcing gender roles. This kind of representation affects people’s beliefs, aspirations, and behaviors. The more people, especially children, are exposed to these stereotypes in mass media, the more likely they are to believe in these narrow ideas and live their lives following them.


Experts, men, and their expertise

In post-war advertising, a caring mother is one of the most recurring themes. Starting at the very beginning, in the 1950s, advertisements used to show that mothers were following advice from male experts, doctors, and psychologists. These ads typically showed the male experts telling the caring and loving mothers which “product” would be the best one that take care of the children and family’s needs. This often occurred from the belief that male professional advice is better than a mother’s knowledge.

These early advertisements placed mothers as protectors of her children and family where she is devoting a lot of time to making sure her children are alright. She is listening to the male scientists and other “experts” suggesting the right products to protect the health and happiness of all her family. This theme of protection, nurture, and safety continued to be associated with the roles of mothers in advertising throughout the 1960s and 1970s as well.


Working mothers and their domestic lives

In the 1980s and 1990s, women started working and competing with men in the working field which created significant changes in advertising and women’s roles there as well. The professional and domestic lives of mothers are often shown as intertwined in the ad campaigns.  In these ads later in the timeline, women are shown to be using their own expert knowledge and professional skills to determine what is best for their families and children.

In the 1980s, readers and viewers were presented with an image of a mother who know exactly how to create a balance between her professional and private lives without sacrificing the requirements or compromising her family on the way. The same structure followed through the 1990s where it was only mothers who had to worry about not affecting their family on the way to becoming successful on a professional level, or only getting a job because they did not have much to do at home. The advertisements continued to show mothers should only ever worry about their household and children, and getting jobs is still considered something temporary, something that can be done out of boredom.


Continuations of these assumptions

By the time of the 2000s and 2010s, mothers became experts themselves. In advertisements, they are no longer seen to be following instructions passively. Instead, this generation of mothers, with their degrees at home know enough and can question the experts. These questions about usually genetically modified foods hold the same importance as solar power. However, these later ads still represent women and their motherhoods still roaming around domestic lives. These new generations of mothers are striving for knowledge, but this knowledge is only primarily seen to be used for the protection of their families, especially children. It is not the professional sphere, but the domestic sphere that seems to be driving these women’s hunger for knowledge.

Even though the visual representation of women, especially mothers’ knowledge and expertise as consumers has changed quite a lot and seems to have increased over the last years. Assumptions are still there. Assumptions about the motherly care, and her duties and responsibilities endure in such ads. Throughout the years, even though the shell and storyline changed, the advertisers continued to present women’s knowledge in a way positioned restricted in the world of their domestic responsibilities such as caring for the household, cooking, and cleaning. Even though there has been a slow yet steady change in society’s attitudes about sharing the role of caregiver in the family, an enduring and natural assumption of the mother’s responsibility remains.

So what we see are largely superficial changes, especially in the portrayal of mothers and their knowledge across the decades. Although this knowledge changes with time, the knowledge remains bent towards the pursuit of being a perfect mother. A perfect mother is a selfless and idealistic person who only serves to strengthen gender stereotypes along with reinforcing the traditional roles within family life.

Edith Slocum

I am Edith Slocum and I have over 16 years experience in the financial services industry giving me a vast understanding of how news affects the financial markets. I am an active day trader spending the majority of my time analyzing earnings reports and watching commodities and derivatives. I have a Masters Degree in Economics from Westminster University with previous roles counting Investment Banking. <strong>Address:</strong> 4510 Sigley Road, Salina, KS 67401, USA <strong>Phone:</strong> (+1) 785-534-9610 <strong>Email:</strong> [email protected]

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