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Representation of Motherhood in British Advertising in the 1950s and present day

The first few years of motherhood is a whirlwind experience that requires thinking on your feet and learning fast. Many new mothers find it overwhelming adjusting to a new way of life; juggling new priorities, grappling with dirty nappies and breast pumps, all while running on a few hours of sleep. Why is this reality that is shared by so many mothers so far removed from the ‘perfect’ motherhood representations seen within advertising?

In today’s world there is no escaping advertising. Its constant presence reflects our cultural values and belief systems but also has the potential to construct, reinforce and reshape societal dynamics. It’s for this reason that the representation of people within advertising must be carefully considered.

Sport England’s This Girl Can and Always’ #LikeAGirl ad campaigns have been making leaps to break restrictive and distorted stereotypes of women commonly seen in advertising. The representation of women has greatly improved in recent years due to campaigns such as these that aim to change attitudes around women’s abilities, however we are yet to see these messages targeted at mothers. Have mothers been left behind in the progress made? My research project that investigates how the representation of early motherhood in British magazine advertising has changed from the 1950s to the present day suggests that the underlying narrative of new mothers has seen little change in the past 70 years.

Advertising and Reality

Advertising images are often misaligned with reality to get audiences to desire a lifestyle and subsequently buy a product or service that will help them to get that lifestyle. This becomes harmful when unattainable role models and lifestyle models are used. It not only misrepresents the majority, but also creates an opportunity for comparison with lifestyles that are unrealistic and sometimes impossible. Repeated exposure to thin models has been shown to contribute to body dissatisfaction, heightened appearance investment and eating disorder development among women (Grabe et al. 2008).

A 2019 advertisement campaign from Mothercare shows truthful representation of post-partum bodies to address the lack of relatable imagery that new mothers are exposed to in the media. It’s a refreshing change to see real mothers with unedited bodies proudly baring skin, yet raises questions about why we never see truthful images such as these in the media.

Mothers in Society

A visual analysis of 1950s magazine advertisements revealed the importance of mothers’ domestic duties with most images showing mothers carrying out chores in a home setting and domestic products targeted towards them. After the second world war the drive to return to traditional ways brought about the expectation of mothers to serve her family at home. Mass media including advertising promoted this narrative as the dominant norm. If we compare this to the present day, adverts show women outside of the home in adverts promoting apparel, health and wellbeing products and international holidays. Women’s increased buying power, shift in consumption patterns and move away from domestic responsibilities can be seen within the advertisements.

Adverts from the 1950s show middle and upper-class mothers; housewives who could afford to stay at home and tend to the needs of their families. The plush interior furnishings, stylish clothing and jewellery sported by these glamourous ladies signal their affluent lifestyles. Mothers from lower socio-economic backgrounds who couldn’t afford to be housewives were excluded as their lifestyles weren’t seen as aspirational. When compared with present day advertisements, there is very little change in the representation of socioeconomic groups or a mother’s role in the public sphere.

Mothers’ role in the Family

Gendered stereotypes within family dynamics can be seen in both 1950s and present-day advertisements. A father figure is present in images promoting expensive products such as cars and international holidays, whilst women are shown to be acting independently when purchasing relatively inexpensive products like clothing. Interestingly, the dynamic between mothers and fathers appear similar in both decades.

Figure 2: Standard Cars. 1956. Standard Super Eight. John Bull

For example, when a father is present, the mother is usually in a passive role, seated, physically smaller and less relevant than the father, in a stereotypical display of deference (Goffman, 1984).

Within the present-day example (see figure 2), an empty driver’s seat indicates the father’s role in driving the family which is a stereotypical narrative whereby men take the executive role in mixed gendered team situations (Goffman, 1984). The similarity of these advertising messages in both eras could indicate mothers’ inferiority in family dynamics, particularly involving high investment purchase decisions.

Figure 3: Euro Tunnel. 2020. More. Town and Country

Mothers are shown in both eras as the main caregivers of the family, with particular emphasis on providing for her children. In all the 1950s adverts analysed, mothers are shown serving the family by washing clothes, providing toys and preparing meals. The advertisements are directed towards mothers yet promote products that serve the needs of her family. In contrast, products promoted to mothers in contemporary advertising directly serve the needs of mother and child simultaneously. Having said this, the stereotypical narrative that a ‘good’ mother is the primary caregiving parent, always providing for her children alongside her own needs is consistent.

Although mothers are seen to be the primary carers of the children, the care that they provide has changed. The 1950s saw fewer intimate depictions with their child as her focus was carrying out domestic duties. Present day adverts show a much deeper connection between mother and child, clearly seen in closer physical relations and teaching roles. Adverts from neither decade display a father interacting with his children in this way which reinforces the narrative that the mother is the primary provider of the child’s emotional wellbeing and cognitive development.

To understand the effects of the advertisement messages on mothers, a focus group interview and survey gave mums the opportunity to have their say. Overall, advertising images from the 1950s were seen to be far from the busy and uncontrolled reality of early motherhood experienced. They were pleased to see more realistic representations of mothers’ physical appearance today, where 1950s day dress, heels and glam hair and makeup have been replaced with casual jeans and natural beauty.

Interviewed mums picked up on several significant messages in present day advertising that were unrealistic. Not one of the adverts from today presented multi-tasking mothers and from looking at the modern samples, it could be assumed that a mother has no other responsibilities other than dedicating all her time to her children. Whilst representations of effortless multi-tasking in historic samples are considered inaccurate by contemporary mothers, the lack of multi-tasking portrayals in present day examples are equally unrealistic.

Research suggests that a mother’s life satisfaction is greatly affected by the amount of time spent with her children. Spending quality time as opposed to routine care activities resulted in greater feelings of accomplishment in work-life balance and connection with the child. For this reason, it is likely that present-day advertising aims to create desire among mothers by using mother-child quality time imagery as opposed to routine care imagery.

Working mothers have a greater challenge of creating quality time with their children around their career. As this type of interaction with their children is a central theme in contemporary ‘good mother’ portrayals, there is an increased pressure is felt by working mothers to achieve this ideal that is unattainable from most. The Office for National Statistics found in their 2019 report that 75% of mothers with dependent children are employed, yet there is a clear lack of working mothers represented in present-day advertising examples. Feelings of inadequacy, guilt and undermined confidence are generated through ‘failing’ to achieve the defined ‘good mother’ ideal. This is further reinforced by the lack of working mothers in images, indicating that being a ‘good mother’ and an employed mother are mutually exclusive lifestyles.

To this day, advertising is reinforcing the stereotype that the mother is the primary caregiver to the children in images that are unrealistic and unattainable for many. Today’s images of child-centric intensive mothering and clear lack of employed mother representations indicates the idealised mother is not a working woman, contrary to the lifestyles of most mothers in modern Britain.

Advertising’s failure to acknowledge the hardships of early motherhood and busy professional lifestyles of contemporary mothers suggest that representation across both decades is unrealistic and highlights a need for greater role diversification. It’s time that mothers get to see relatable imagery within advertising and the wider mass media.

Written by Eilidh Doig

About the author

Eilidh Doig is part-time marketeer, part-time ice hockey player interested in advertising’s role in society, particularly regarding the representation of women and minority groups. Passionate about elevating underrepresented people, she aims to positively influence and build confidence through design and communications.

Follow Eilidh on LinkedIn


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