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Friday
Nov092012

Mompaganda (Guest Post) 

Ah, timing. A couple of weeks ago I received this guest post from Carly Stasko, which I had planned to run this week because I already had other content planned for last week and the week before. Then, as it happens, P&G was hosting an event in Toronto today for its Mom Ambassadors (see Rebecca from Playground Confidential's great post on that event). The timing couldn't be more perfect for this articulate guest post laying out the problem with such mompaganda and discussing what we can do instead. Please welcome Carly to the blog...

Since the 1950s moms have been targeted by advertisers because we are often the primary decision-makers when it comes to making consumer choices for the home. Increasingly however, mothers are seen not just as a market, but as a brand themselves.

The logic behind the motherhood brand is simple. Most moms care about the health, happiness and future of their children, and so a “mom-approved” company appears to embrace the same parental values by association. Mothers are seen to be discerning and cautious and safety-oriented. So by extension we conclude, even unconsciously, that a product advocated by other moms must have undergone some kind of vetting.


vintage Philip Morris ad via  The Spokesman Review


Mothers are the ultimate celebrity endorsement because almost every mom is famous to at least one person. Moms look to each other for guidance and support. It takes a village to raise a parent and so we constantly look to other parents for advice and tips. As mothers connect more with each other online, corporate advertisers increasingly apply the logic of peer-to-peer marketing to co-opt the playground culture of parent-to-parent support.

Marketing to Moms, referred to in the industry as M2M relies on mom-to-mom promotion where moms are paid as brand ambassadors hosting sample parties, writing blog posts, and sharing exclusive savings within their network.

I’ve learned from my early days as a mom that the best guidance comes from parents on the same learning curve as me. Marketing that activates the “mom-brand” to sell products exploit the sense of trust and solidarity that arises naturally between parents.

ASTRO-TURF ACTIVISM


This is nothing new. Moms have long been used in advertising to sell everything from toothpaste to cars – even cigarettes. The ads openly prey on our fears, for example: a 1960s Listerine ad that suggests a mothers’ own breath may cause her children to be bullied at school.

What’s new is the present-day strategy: PR firms devise campaigns that appear to be grassroots movements or “spontaneous” trend pieces. Using social media, hand-held footage, and paid mom bloggers, they try their best to come off as a movement of moms rather than a paid campaign.

A recent campaign for McDonalds features a rag-tag team of scrappy, concerned mothers in small bus, visiting the factories and farms that produce their McFoods. Though the moms are paid by McDonalds, the entire ad portrays them as moms-turned-investigative-journalists. They ask “tough questions” and presumably get answers to satisfy other discerning moms. The ads were shot regionally to showcase local farmers and factories, further adding grassroots cachet.

This kind of marketing is referred to as “Astroturf” because of the way it mimics true grassroots movements – legitimate citizen campaigns for clean air, land and water. It’s standard practice for PR campaigns to create fake movements and citizen groups whose “members” are paid to attend rallies and speak to the press. Astroturf marketing that uses the mom-brand is particularly insidious because the very products pushed may be harmful to real families.


EMPOWERING WOMEN TO DESTROY MOTHER EARTH


Several days ago I noticed, amongst the scrolling updates flying past in my facebook feed, an image of a confident woman in coveralls casually balancing a safety helmet on her hip. I was intrigued. What modern day Rosy the Riveter was this? On closer inspection I noticed it was posted by Shell Oil on their sponsored facebook page, linked to a PR-driven article from an online magazine about mothers in the oil industry.
Moms are an impressive lot. Whether juggling a dirty diaper in one hand and a latte in the other or helping to solve the world's energy crisis, mothers are uniquely qualified to make a mark on the world around them. Case in point: The Athabasca Oil Sands Project in Alberta, Canada.



 

The story by Tiernan McKay is framed as a celebration of working mothers who take the lead in a male-dominated industry in order to save their families from a pending energy crisis. Absent from the article is anything about the current environmental crisis we face – due to our dependency on oil. Sure, a shortage of energy sources is a crisis, but so too is the environmental impact of oil consumption and extraction.

When Shell posted it on their page, it quickly garnered over 2000 comments. Many called out Shell for the blatant PR angle. “Any mother who lets them use that status for corporate propaganda,” wrote one, “knowing the mess these companies have left for their children, should hold her head in shame... now stop spamming my newsfeed.” Irritation that the article was nothing more than PR-driven “mom-washing” arose again and again.

In the documentary “Toxic Sludge is Good For You: The Public Relations Industry Unspun” author and critic Stuart Ewen argues, “one can’t leave one’s bed without encountering public relations.” As parents we’ve grown accustomed to being advertised to, but in this case motherhood itself is the brand deployed to make an oil company’s questionable tar sands industry look warm and fuzzy.
Alberta sits upon proven reserves of 170 billion barrels of oil and Shell is working to responsibly extract these reserves — with the help of some very talented and dedicated moms. These women bring unique skill sets to this male-dominated industry, proving that there is no frontier a mom can’t conquer.

The language suggests empowerment and celebration, and yet this isn’t a sincere celebration of these particular mothers. This new co-optation of female empowerment takes the “mommy wars” to the next scary level.

The mothers featured in these ads are not the problem. They are just parents themselves, and most certainly they’re doing what they think is best for their families. Perhaps they are. But Shell uses those mothers as the face of their public image, appropriating all that is positive in motherhood for their own cynical objectives, and that’s where the problem arises.

The PR experts hired by Shell created a catch-22 for parents who consider oil sands development problematic for their children’s future. If one criticizes Shell, one must be criticizing these no doubt hard-working mothers, because to be critical of a corporation that extols motherhood is to be critical of mothers. To call for a ban on drilling and environmental devastation in an area whose Boreal Forest is decimated at a rate second only to the Amazon rainforest is to call for the unemployment of single moms. To call out another writer for shilling for Shell is just in-fighting amongst the sisterhood of moms. So Shell stands behind mothers and grandmothers not to show its support, but rather to stand behind them as human shields.

I was drawn to these ads because I love seeing the range of jobs and expertise women have, particularly in male-dominated industries that open new possibilities for women. I’d like to see more of that! But this campaign advances the cause of the oil company’s project in the oil sands far more than it does the lives of women and mothers who work on it. Was the writer compensated in line with the millions of dollars of positive spin she brought the company? Perhaps all moms should be cut a cheque for helping build the mom-brand every day.

MOMPAGANDA


The women in these Shell-sponsored photo shoots subvert stereotypical domesticity while at the same time invoking the protective aura of mothering and aligning it with the oil industry. These hard-working moms both put food on the table and avert an energy crisis. The propaganda or “mom-paganda” is so blatant I had to double-check to make sure it wasn’t a parody lifted from The Onion. While it seems like a sick joke, the problem is that the punch line is more like a punch in the face.

I deeply resent the co-optation of motherhood as a brand to sell unhealthy products or polluting corporations that hurt the very children we are trying to keep from harm, and who define us as mothers. Think of Sarah Palin: the ultimate mom-brand selling a slate of policies that ultimately undermine women’s rights, social safety nets and environmental protections. From supporting abstinence-only education to pushing for offshore drilling and denying the role of industry in climate change, the policies she pushed shut women out of making informed decisions about their bodies and the health of the environment.

OCCUPY PARENTHOOD!




We only officially celebrate the contributions of mothers one day a year, but did you know that even Mother’s Day began as a way to promote disarmament and the resolution of conflict between human beings? While I haven’t seen a Hallmark card that calls for global peace, it’s high time we revive the original inspiration for this holiday, all year long.

Instead of judging ourselves and each other so fiercely it’s time we turn our attention beyond the “mom wars” to the true battles of our era: battles over natural resources, economic disparities and the construction of truth in our media environment.

Being a parent can make us a little crazy – we want to protect and provide for our children in an unpredictable world. The powerful emotions stirred by parenthood are something marketers have tried to harness and manipulate for decades.

Just this morning I was reminded of the intense emotions of parenthood. My son had crushed his little hand, and my dear husband stood between me and the icepack in the freezer: I practically body-checked him in my haste to reach it. I was so focused on my son I only later realized later how fierce I’d been in that situation (and apologized to my husband). The fierce love of a parent is a more powerful force than all the energy Shell could ever wrest from the earth. No wonder they are trying to harness the energy source of parent-power!

Perhaps one cause of so-called “helicopter parenting” is a desire, often unconscious, to have some control in a world where we feel powerless in the face of environmental crisis, global violence and economic instability. Let’s take back the power. Let’s “Occupy Motherhood and Parenthood,” channeling the desire to protect our families into the broader project of looking out for the environment, and the larger world.

These problems seem so huge that it’s tempting to micromanage our private lives and our families in response. Instead of allowing strong images of mothers and grandmothers to “mom-wash” questionable industries, let’s reclaim motherhood.   Let’s channel parent-power into civic engagement, into creative and courageous solutions for the crises we face as a species and into holding our political leaders and corporate entities accountable.

Post a picture of you and your family and let others know what kind of world you are trying to create for them—and don’t think for a minute that you are alone in your efforts.

We are in an era where parents are able to share advice and ideas in ways and across distances never before possible. Any mom movement created by an ad campaign pales in comparison to the true parent-power we harness in our communities and with each other. Why? Simple: we have the biggest motivator of all. Not money, not market shares: our kids and their collective futures.

Carly Stasko is a self-titled Imagitator, one who agitates imagination. She is also an artist/writer/producer/public speaker/cancer survivor/new mom living in Toronto. For more Carly Stasko, check out her radio stories on CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera and her blog, Imagitate the State.
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Reader Comments (18)

Excellent post! Brings to mind Similac's new product advertising for their Similac Mom shit: the "food" itself as well as its placement in the baby food aisle. No doubt they are using real women in the ads for it, too. Disgusting!

November 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKari Aist

BOOM. this is fabulous. thank you, carly.

LOVE this piece. I am going to read it a second time now. Thank you!

November 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee with Julie

Really good, rich post. Lots to take in, lots to think about. And it's obvious from "likes" on FB friends' feeds that people don't necessarily look at these things with a learned, critical eye.

November 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGretchen Powers

While I am all for well-articulated arguments about the state of parent-driven propaganda, and absolutely agree that it exists, I want to take a moment to clarify something: not all mommy bloggers are paid for posts. While I have every intention of selling ad space (to appropriate advertisers with whom I feel connected as a mom or a woman) or writing sponsored posts of a general nature - about which I will be completely transparent - I am fundamentally opposed to any monetary compensation for my reviews, which are the central focus of www.mommygearest.com. I started my blog to help other parents wade through the good, the bad and the in-between and though I've been offered everything from $25 to hundreds of dollars to write a review, I haven't - and I never will. There are other ways to make money that won't make me feel like an icky sellout.

When I was recently invited to be a P&G Mom, I thought long and hard about it. After all, I'm a half-crunchy cloth-diapering mama who's publicly slammed products that contain questionable ingredients. So, why did I accept? I accepted attending with the idea that I may leave at the end of the day and remove the P&G Mom badge from my sidebar. I was not paid to attend. There has been no indication that the brand ambassador role is paid whatsoever - at least not that I'm aware of. Of the many products that I expect are en route to me now, I will probably only use and write about a few - the ones that I believe in, that feel true to who I am.

Perhaps I'm naive to think that my participation in this program will make a difference in some way, but my goal is to help P&G see the leadership role they could take in the war on toxins. Please don't bucket all of the mommy bloggers into one dirty little pile. If you read some of our stuff, you might be pleasantly surprised.

November 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

Wonderful post - I have been appalled by the momwashing by many of these toxic brands. It's really a dangerous trend. Thank you for writing this.

November 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaige Wolf

Amazing post. I am still waking up, so my thoughts are a tad jumbled but there is just so much truth in this post. Thank you!!!

November 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBlackgirlinmaine

[...] post, Mompaganda, at PhD in Parenting is amazing and I agree with so much of it.  This paragraph uncannily sums up [...]

November 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWhat’s a Wazoo Anyway? &

What an amazing post. I loved every word. Interestingly, I found myself thinking the exact same thought yesterday about how women are focusing so much on mom wars that it is preventing us from uniting to tackle the big issues. I have mixed feelings about a lot of the brand relationships mothers are forming, and I worry that many do not think through the dynamic and what the implications are. Yes, mothers have power, but let's use it smartly and effectively.

November 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKeAnne

I understand your position, but I don't think that the article was attacking all mom-bloggers as being paid advertisers. Instead, the article tries to tease out why having some mom-bloggers be paid advertisers is an insidious PR campaign that in the end makes it difficult for readers to differentiate between a paid blogger and someone like you who actually is trying to give legitimate reviews without a conflict of interest. At first glance, and maybe even after some digging, it can be difficult to tell the two apart, which has two issues. One, making informed decisions as a consumer using all available information is difficult if one cannot differentiate between legitimate reviews and paid advertisers. Two, articles like this one end up appearing to attack all bloggers when really it's just trying to tease out the problems of having paid advertisers as bloggers, so that conflict arises when the problem is addressed.

Thanks for the post.

November 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterValerie

Andrea:

I know that there are many different types of review bloggers out there, ranging from really well established and respected blogs like Cool Mom Picks all the way down to the bloggers who don't do much more than copy and paste every press release they receive.

I would be very interested in hearing what you heard from P&G on the issue of toxins and their plans (or lack thereof) to remove them from their products. Other than your tweet regarding your diaper question, I didn't see a single tweet that addressed any of the questions or concerns that people had or the tough questions bloggers said they were asking.

The vast majority of tweets (enough of them for #pgmom to be trending) were positive messages about the products people were being exposed to at the event. When a company is using a group of bloggers to spread a positive message about products that I consider to pose a risk to our health, I feel it is important to counter that with information on the other perspective.

That isn't done to belittle or bully the bloggers, it is done to counterbalance the positive PR that they are providing for the company. It is all part of trying to create the sort of world I want to live in and push for the kinds of changes I would like to see in our world.

November 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Thanks, Valerie. I hope it was clear from my post that I didn't think it was any form of "attack." I actually thought it was extraordinarily well-written (something I find frustrating lacking in bloggerville) and made many valid points. I was simply clarifying.

There is this unwritten code of ethics that bloggers are supposed to be following when it comes to paid posts. We are supposed to be transparent, letting our readers know if we've been paid to write. As someone who's read sponsored posts for years, I generally don't have a problem with them if they actually provide me with (a) good information or (b) a bit of entertainment. I hate it when they sound like ads. But I really hate it when I read all the way through a post only to find in teensy print at the very bottom that it was a sponsored (paid) post. I even think all review bloggers (like me) should commit to always telling readers when we've been provided with a product to review, versus reviewing something we already own or purchase ourselves.

The divide shouldn't be a grey area. People have every right to know when they're reading something that has even the POTENTIAL of being written with some bias.

November 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

I have to be honest... I didn't make it to the cleaning area to talk with the product reps there. I spent so much time on diapers, and I made it to the sustainability area next and was cut short because we were called back into the main room. It was really my own fault - we were given a good chunk of time to make our way to more than two stations. But I got quite caught up at diapers, where I asked:

1. Dioxin/chlorine - and, as I've reported back, was told they haven't been used in 10 years.

2. The gel "beads" (of which I can't for the life of me recall the proper name) - the ones that expand to soak up all the liquid - I asked if they were food-grade in case of ingestion. They are technically not, but a child would have to eat mouthfuls and mouthfuls of the stuff for it to be remotely harmful.

3. How biodegradable are they? Not very. Fewer than 30% of the world's "green bin" processing facilities have the capability to break down diapers effectively; when that number grows, Pampers says they will invest in creating a more biodegradable diaper. This is where I said that they need to take a leadership position. It's classic chicken & egg.

4. I brought up the big issue of "diaper need" in this country - parents choosing between food and diapers, and one in five families who simply can't afford to diaper their babies appropriately. I asked if they'd ever considered removing the characters, and therefore eliminating the royalties paid to use those characters and help bring down the total cost of diapers. Parents, I was told, who purchase the premium brand of Pampers (which is the only "level" that has the characters - the less expensive Pampers, like Baby Dry, are plain), expect that look. While the rep did say that the royalties represent a very small part of the cost of the diaper (it's the technology and R&D that bumps up the price), I again think this is a leadership opportunity.

I would have loved to make it to cleaning, but since my niche is baby and kid products, I really wanted to focus on diapers first. I was intrigued by the sustainability poster I saw and wandered there next, but I had barely one minute with the rep there before our time was up.

I don't feel in any way that I let myself or my readers down.

November 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

Wow! Thank you Carly for this incredible post and thank you Annie for hosting is here on your site (I wish I had written it too!). I don't do sponsored posts on my blog and never have liked the whole "working with brands" angle of mom-blogging and I think you have very expertly expressed all of the feelings that I have about this practice here! I am off to share this far and WIDE!!

November 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNatural Urban Mama

Wonderful, in depth post, Annie. I have long loathed the way mothers* are used in advertising. My focus is usually on how they are used to continue sexist narratives about women doing all the cooking and cleaning, but this ads a whole new layer.

*I especially hate the use of the word "mom" such as in "mom-approved" or "moms love...". It's just icky.

November 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

[...] Carly Stasko said in her guest post here on Mompaganda: The mothers featured in these ads are not the problem. They are just parents themselves, and most [...]

[...] Mom-washing: A marketing trend to watch These days, mothers are being treated not only as a market, but also as a brand in themselves, says PhD in Parenting. Is it ethical to stamp products “mom-approved” when they might not be in children’s best interests? Mompaganda [...]

[...] ist eine hübsche Wortschöpfung - Carly Stasko verwendet den Begriff für ‘Propaganda mit Mütter’ beziehungsweise für Werbung für Produkte, [...]

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