What kind of mother are you?

Marketing mavens dissect moms for eager advertisers.

Published February 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

According to Sales and Marketing Management magazine, women in the United States control 80 percent of all household buying decisions. In the category of single-parent households headed by mothers, the percentage is even higher. These are heady numbers, the kind that drive advertisers to probe, speculate and scramble to find images that will compel women to buy lots of stuff.

Traditionally, advertising geared toward mothers has been watered down to appeal to broad marketing stereotypes such as "Supermoms" or "Happy Homemakers." As established categories readily accepted in consumer circles, they were easy to keep using -- until recently.

Motherhood is now being acknowledged as a package that requires more diverse wrapping than the history of advertising might suggest, according to Denise Fedewa, a vice president and planning director at Leo Burnett, one of the world's largest advertising firms. As part of LeoShe, a team at Leo Burnett that profiles women to find out what kind of marketing messages prompt them to get out their wallets, Fedewa says that mothers, like any other consumer group, are now defined not just by motherhood, but by income, age, upbringing, employment and marital status.

Ignoring the complexity of motherhood is not only offensive to women, says Fedewa, it's also detrimental to the advertiser's bottom line: to sell. People won't buy products unless they can fit them into their ideal image of what their lives are or, more importantly in advertising, what they should be like.

LeoShe creative director Jeanie Caggiano, also a vice president, points out that the current generation of mothers grew up watching TV. "They are smarter, sharper and far more cynical," she says. "This is a generation with a bullshit meter that will go off at the slightest provocation." Survival for marketers to moms, says Caggiano, means deep knowledge of their targets and a more subtle approach.

Fedewa spoke with Salon Mothers Who Think about the way advertisers package and sell to moms today. A leader of the LeoShe division, she's been in the advertising business for 15 years. Fedewa has worked on campaigns for McDonald's, Proctor & Gamble, Pillsbury, Ameritech, Kellogg and Hallmark. She is the mother of a 4-year-old and two adult stepchildren.

Caggiano added to the discussion, elaborating and clarifying in a later interview. She also is a veteran of the advertising business and the mother of a 7-month-old daughter.

Tell me about LeoShe -- how it came to be and what your team is doing.

Denise Fedewa: When you work in the advertising business, a lot of what you do in terms of research and learning about women is to look through the lens of the product you're working on. If you're working on deodorants or anti-perspirants, everything you do starts with, "Let's go talk to the frequent anti-perspirant purchasers!" or "Let's go talk to the heavy processed-cheese users."

So your research gets to be skewed toward the kind of people who are heavy users of the product. What several of us realized is there are really much broader things going on in women's lives that we as marketers need to understand and we're not picking up on them because we have this product lens on all the time.

We started LeoShe two years ago as a group that was just going to be an added bonus to Leo Burnett clients and help all of our efforts here at Leo Burnett. But what happened is -- because we do go to the grassroots and find out new things that no one else has written about -- it's taken off. Now we've become our own business.

What would you say have been the traditional messages sent to moms?

Fedewa: All of us in LeoShe have worked on several brands targeted to moms over the years. We've all experienced having to tell the creative team that this assignment is a "moms assignment" and they're not thrilled. The reason is, in the past it's automatically meant the genre of very stereotypical, generalized ads with a universal but boring portrayal of what moms are.

I think that what's happened with advertising is that we've fallen into these cliches, these stereotyped portrayals of people because [companies] have boxed themselves in. "Here's the way we can portray a working mom that everyone culturally accepts." Even though it might be really removed from what's going on right now.

We made it our mission to turn all that thinking upside down, to challenge the conventions about moms. What we saw was about seven or eight clichid categories that you could put all the moms advertising into.

What are some of those traditional categories?

Fedewa: There's the '80s supermom, "She can do it all." It's waned a little in recent years, but if you look closely, you'll still see some of that. Another one is the whole super exaggeration of some tiny little problem in people's lives, making it seem like mothers are just obsessed with this thing. Another one is like, "Just serve our food and you will have family harmony!"

What are the new ways you're targeting moms now?

Fedewa: So often the target is only defined as moms aged 18 to 49. Sometimes the company will want working moms and non-working moms, but that's usually about as refined as it gets. So what we really try to do is to present moms 18 to 49 as a really diverse group of people with some really interesting challenges and needs and insights into their lives. Let's break that down and start to understand what's really in there and let's start to address the different kinds of mothers that there are.

How do you do your research?

Fedewa: One of the things we often do on our projects is what we call a pop culture audit: How are moms being portrayed in the media? What are the movie images of women? What's happening on the talk shows? How are they being portrayed in magazines? We also looked at all the ads and frankly [ads that target mothers] is a very dismal category in advertising.

We don't do focus groups. We don't believe in them because we think when we put a bunch of people in a room, they're going to lie. They're going to tell you what's socially responsible to say, like, "Of course I only let my child eat apples after school."

We do what we call "girlfriend groups." We ask a woman to invite four or five other women to her home -- their environment. We've just found that people are a lot more honest and they keep each other honest. If someone tries to tell that apple story, their friend will go, "Oh I've seen your snack cupboard. Give me a break!" We feel we get much better information this way.

You mentioned that advertising to women has been dismal. How and why did that happen?

Fedewa: How and why it happened is probably due to two big things: On the one hand it's probably a little bit of laziness and complacency. People in the industry get it in their head "Oh yeah, I've done moms before, this is what they're like, this is my picture." They don't bother to update when that picture might have changed.

The second one is a trend that I find a little disturbing: In some respects, people have become too scientific about it [advertising] and too dependent on research to make all their decisions. If you depend on research to vote on what's the best idea, often what happens is the safest, most generic [approaches] are going to win because they're safe and comfortable for consumers to deal with. I think you end up with a product that's sort of general and sterilized so as to appeal to the widest branch of people.

If you don't stop and rethink those images, it follows that eventually people -- the intended audience -- will stop buying the product.

Fedewa: Yes. The more your brand gets distanced from making itself relevant to real people's lives, the less acceptable it's going to be, absolutely.

Jeanie Caggiano: The product has to be seen to solve a problem. People want answers to their problems and, hopefully, these products can help them solve problems.

But it's always about getting people to buy something.

Fedewa: Absolutely. It makes dollars and sense.

What are the four different kinds of moms you've defined?

Fedewa: Well, we found there were four distinct groups, roughly equal in size, all around 24, 25 percent.

We start with the most traditional group, which is "June Cleaver: The Sequel." These women have the most traditional gender roles in terms of their jobs in the family and so on. But we say "The Sequel" because, well, you see so much about people wanting to go back to the '50s lifestyle and you just can't do it, you know? It's not the '50s. It's 2000 and the circumstances are very different.

How does it look different?

Fedewa: Well, these are women who very much believe that mothers of young children should not work; but about 50 percent of these women are working -- a lot part time. That's the whole sequel thing: It's different times and now mothers are working, even the ones who believe you shouldn't work if you have small children.

They also feel that their need for self-actualization is fulfilled in motherhood. They feel that the fathers of their children are very involved but in an interesting way: He comes home from work and he plays with the kids, he does activities with the kids on the weekends. But this is not a father who's staying home with a sick child, running the car pool, that kind of thing. And she's OK with that because in her mind, that's her job. His job is to make money; her job is to do all that kid stuff.

These are women who tend to skew to be Caucasian and pretty high income. They're very highly educated. Almost all of them are college educated.

Can you talk a little more about how a woman's view of self-actualization determines what group she falls into?

Fedewa: Well, we found there were two huge variables that determined what group [mothers] go into. The first is the extent to which a woman was still pursuing what we call self-actualization outside the motherhood role. What we found is that some women get all their needs for self-esteem and self-actualization from the motherhood role and they're fine -- that's all they need. We found other women who said they could never just fulfill themselves in the motherhood role. They need something else too.

Caggiano: One of the problems that existed in past advertising is that 99 percent of ads only talked to mothers about their role as mothers. There was no room in advertising for mothers who get self-actualization another way.

Fedewa: Another determining variable for moms is how involved the dad is in helping to raise the children. It doesn't matter how involved he is in reality. What matters is the mom's perception of it. We found that some women said their husband was an equal partner even when he wasn't even present.

Caggiano: I think that is why women in every group like to see father involvement in advertisements. It doesn't represent their reality in a lot of cases, it represents their dream. There is this feeling: 'If my husband sees this, maybe he will see my dream and it will come true.'"

What's the next group?

Fedewa: The next group is what we call "Tug Of War." These are women who have many of the same beliefs as "June Cleaver: The Sequel," however, their income level is very low and they cannot live that lifestyle. They're pretty upset about it.

"Tug Of War" unfortunately is a pretty unhappy group of moms. They're very angry at their spouses. They feel like the father of their children is not helping with the work and there's also some resentment because he's not supporting the family enough.

When you talk about the guilty, harried, stressed-out, working woman, this is her. She resents working and the time away from her children and further, she's the one who has to come home and do the whole second shift because nothing's happened during the day. These women are in a bad place.

How would you market to a woman you acknowledge is in a bad place?

Caggiano: Mostly, you show ideals, but I think that more realistic role models in advertising would help relieve the angst. I think it might be refreshing and supportive if you could show that everything is not perfect. But a client usually doesn't want to create controversy. They want things to be wonderful and perfect -- they want things to look nice.

So how do you reach them? Do you create an ideal?

Caggiano: Well, there is an example of how to do it in new Crayola crayons ads, which are based on the fact that children involved in art early in their lives score higher on every possible test later on. The ad conveyed this, and if I am a "Tug of War" mom I might think that even if I can't be there, if I can provide my child with Crayola crayons, then some nurturing is taking place while I'm not there. It solves a problem: I can't be there and I want to nurture my child.

Fedewa: Demographically, the "Tug of Wars" are certainly lower income. That was the only real skew we saw -- no age or ethnicity or anything. A pretty high number of them are working moms. I think it was close to 90 percent.

Why would you bother with them if they don't have any money to spend?

Caggiano: Well, they are a segment that actually spends more on brand name things -- because they aren't there. They stress obedience, but they are more likely to indulge than other categories. The guilt definitely comes out and marketers, whether they are playing to that or not, know that these mothers are using products to try to provide mothering that their lack of time won't allow them to do.

Is the third group is a little better off?

Fedewa: They are. They're called "Strong Shoulders." This group is interesting because they have a lot of same circumstances as these "Tug Of War" women: lower income, very little support from the father of their children -- in fact a lot of them are single moms. They have to work but the difference is that they don't hold that "June Cleaver: The Sequel" model up as what they're supposed to be doing, so they're OK with the fact that they're working. She also has a positive outlook on life, the "I'm going to make the best of this situation" kind of outlook.

We found that this group was driven by women who came into motherhood in an unexpected way: 89 percent of them said their first pregnancy was unplanned versus 40 percent for our overall stay-at-home moms. Like I said there are very low levels of father involvement, but they're OK with this. They're moving forward and trying to make the best of the situation. So they have a lot of the same challenges as "Tug Of War" but a real different mindset about getting through.

This is one group where there was an age skew -- this group skewed young. In fact 30 percent of them were 18 to 24.

What kinds of images are used to market to them?

Caggiano: Well, about 10 years ago you would rarely have an ad with a mother and her kids without the presence of a father, even if he just leaned into a room and smiled. More and more ads now don't have an obvious father and they appeal to the "Strong Shoulders." If I am a single mom and watching this kind of ad, I can see my family in it too. There is a certain amount of acceptance and glorification of the single mother going on.

And the final group?

Fedewa: Our last group is what we call "Mothers Of Invention." These are women who say the father of their children is very involved. In fact they come right out and say he's an equal partner in raising the children. These are dads who would stay home with a sick child. He is a dad who would run car pool and that kind of thing. These are also women who come right out and say, "Hey, I like having an outlet outside of motherhood. I enjoy my work and the outlet that it gives me." They feel well-rounded. It's probably easier for them to feel that way because the dads are so involved and we also found that they have good support networks beyond the dads too.

This group was skewed a little to upper income but not like "June Cleaver: The Sequel." The other thing that we saw was evidence of this kind of mom in all income groups, so it isn't just an elite phenomenon. What's interesting about them is that they seem to be really taking advantage of technology and the labor shortage to create some really creative, flexible working arrangement for themselves -- which is probably another reason why, relatively speaking, they seem to be pretty happy. Things are going pretty well.

Is it safe to say that in order for "June Cleaver" to relate to a product she probably wants to see images that are like her?

Fedewa: This is another sort of trap people fall into. Just because you've understood what your target's life is like doesn't mean you have to portray that life in the ad. You don't have to play back people's lives to them. You need to give them cues that you understand their life, but you don't necessarily have to play her life back to her.

For example -- and I'm making this up -- let's say the product you're trying to sell is brooms. You might find that the most compelling thing to your target is that when you sweep with this broom, there's not a single speck of dirt left. So there would be no reason to show any type of person at all in an ad like that. You just want to prove to them that this broom picks it up better than any other broom. You might know from all your background research that maybe that's more important to a "Mother of Invention," who doesn't have time to re-sweep it than it is to a "June Cleaver" mom who doesn't mind the extra broom stroke. You might know there's a difference between those two people, but you didn't have show them.

Are there any emotional constants for mothers as a whole? Is there a way to target all the mothers at once?

Caggiano: Oh yes. In our research, we asked all the moms if there were things that they weren't doing a very good job on and which of those things were important to them. They had similar answers across the board. We came up with what we call the "motherhood gap."

For instance, cooking from scratch didn't count at all; keeping a home neat and clean wasn't that important; consumption of junk foods and sweets wasn't that important either. The things that mattered the most to mothers were building close relationships with their children; expanding their children's horizons; and fostering good ways of living in their children. And they were worried that they weren't doing enough on those things.

So how do you play to these fears in advertising?

Caggiano: Disney is our client. The approach there is that you are expanding your kids' horizons by exposing them to the fun and magic of Disney World.

But what about products that would appear to have nothing to do with those things?

Caggiano: Well, making Rice Krispie treats together becomes an example of building close relationships with your children. The ads I'm thinking of are firmly targeted to "June Cleaver: The Sequel," but they will work for all moms because the message is that the time you spend making this stuff with your kids is some of the most important time in your life.

Fedewa: A great example of the raising a good person -- a great Burnett commercial -- is a Hallmark commercial about a little boy who comes home from school and his mom finds a card in his backpack that his teacher gave him. She pulls out of him that he's been staying in at recess to play with a sick boy who can't go outside.

I've watched it 50 times and I still cry. It's so beautifully done because she finds the card and asks him what it is. He says nothing. She asks why his teacher gave him this [the card] and she drags it out of him, like you have to with kids, and she's just so touched that he's staying in with the sick kid and he's like, "Mom, it's no big deal!"

That commercial is like a mother's dream. To have it so internalized in her kid that he didn't think he was doing anything special. That was on our reel that we showed in our girlfriend groups and they were all like, "Yep, that's it. That is a successful mom."

A lot of the advertising you talk about seems to deal with ideals, with deferred dreams of mothers, who, it would seem, have more deferred dreams that most.

Caggiano: Dreams are a big part of advertising to mothers. Of all the roles we play in our lives, no one has bigger dreams than we do as parents or as mothers. Nothing is ever going to be more important than raising children.

But aren't women resentful that you play with their dreams, that you use their dreams to sell them macaroni and cheese?

Caggiano: I know that I get angry when I'm being marketed to and their slip is showing. In other words, I get angry when they are very obvious about it. A lot of women do. I want answers to my problems in the form of products and the more marketers provide solutions, the better.

But how do you solve a problem of providing you child with expanded horizons through products?

Caggiano: My job is to help clients do that. Like you can show Disney World as not just a place of fantasy but a place of learning. I know with some basic utilitarian products you won't be able to do that, but I'm going to try.

On how many different consumer fronts are mothers targeted?

Fedewa: In the advertising business, women are the target for almost every consumer packaged good -- things you would buy in the grocery store: food, drugs, health, beauty. That's a huge, huge portion of the marketing and advertising that's out there.

What's happening over the last few years is that categories that people didn't traditionally think of as female target categories like auto insurance, investments, computer hardware -- these categories are realizing they should be speaking to women.

Based on your research, can you talk about how you think these groups might change in the future?

Fedewa: In terms of predictions, even though we could be wrong, we think that "Mothers Of Invention" and "Strong Shoulders" are the two groups that are going to grow, both in terms of size and their inspirational value to other mothers. Well, they're probably not inspirational to "June Cleaver: The Sequel," but to the other groups.

Here's why: With "Mothers Of Invention," it just seems like every week it gets easier and easier to arrange flexible work. Also, the men who are now becoming fathers, the Gen-Xers and the Millenials [18 to 24], are going into fatherhood expecting to be equal partners. Obviously there are some in their age group that are still very traditional, but generally speaking, it feels like more of them are coming in with that attitude.

We also think "Strong Shoulders" is inspirational and they're also going to grow because most demographers predict, unfortunately, that the divorce rate's about to spike again. It stabilized at 50 percent for a few years but they see it jumping to 60 percent pretty soon. But you know what? When you talk to "Tug of War" moms, you can totally see why it's going to. The human body is not designed to live under that much stress for long periods of time. Something's going to get resolved.

So in terms of marketing, these are the two groups companies will focus on?

Fedewa: Yes, those two are what we would say are the most important if you've got a brand that you want to position on the forward thinking, leading edge of where moms and women are. [However], you still have to recognize that "June Cleaver: The Sequel" will always be a substantial segment. We see it shrinking a little bit because as I said, younger men are thinking a little differently, and despite our economic abundance right now, it's still well projected that it'll be more and more difficult for a family to make it on one income.

Sometimes when I see an ad on the television, I think, "Who are they talking to?"

Fedewa: Well, they're mushing these people all together. You can't do that.

Let me tell you an interesting story: Are you familiar with the AT&T campaign a few years ago where they had the mom taking the girls to the beach -- "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" -- and they also had the "Rocket Man" ad?

Well it was so interesting how polarizing it was. About two-thirds of the mothers we showed it to liked it and one-third hated it, roughly speaking. But it was really strong feelings one way or another. There was no middle ground on that ad and we didn't really understand exactly what was going on. It was so funny how people can react to the same element so differently. For instance, the littlest daughter asks, "Mom, why do you have to go to work?" and she says, "So I can buy you video games and roller skates, etc." Moms who like the ad are like, "Yep, that's how it is: A never-ending cycle of everything you gotta get." And moms who hated the ad were like, "Did you hear why she's working? She's working for video games! I can understand if you have to work so you can pay the mortgage, but you're working for that stuff?" We got a vehement reaction.

That's when we realized. "Wow." That's why so many ads targeted to moms have become so vanilla and sanitized because they focus group them to death and take everything out of them so they please the lowest common denominator. If you really want to strike a chord with people, you have to make a choice about which group you're talking to, realizing you might be alienating the other groups.

Would you say you have clients who are marketing to more non-traditional families, like single parents or gay parents?

Fedewa: Well, it is certainly a consideration for some of our really big clients, who I'm not going to name specifically because I'll get into trouble. But instead of targeting directly, it's more about a heightened sensitivity to not alienate, because if you think about it, a lot of ads are structured in such a way they would be pretty alienating to someone that's not in a traditional family.

In terms of being a target, both of those segments -- gay parents and more non-traditional families -- are still kind of really tiny segments. That makes it more of a don't-alienate strategy than target directly strategy because that would be just diverting marketing funds in lots of different directions.

Do men have the same sort of reactions to ads targeting them?

Fedewa: I've done very little work in that arena, but I will say when we were doing the moms project and we talked to some Gen-X dads, we did hear some of them say that they were feeling a little bit offended by the moms commercials where they make the foil the dumb dad: "He doesn't know how to do it [so mom has to]," or "It's so easy, even the dumb dad can do it."

Some of them -- these men wanted to be involved fathers -- were pretty offended by that. And I think rightly so.

Would you say there are any elements of motherhood, parenthood that have been exploited by advertising?

Fedewa: What do you mean by exploiting? This is a difficult question. I guess I would turn it around. Really good planning and advertising is all about finding the insight about people and linking it properly to your brand so that you know it makes your brand relevant to their lives.

By Lisa Moskowitz

Lisa Moskowitz writes and lives in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Adweek, PC World Online, MyLifePath.com and American Kite magazine.

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