Does Tide hate tomboys?

In a confusing new detergent ad, Mom's tired of her daughter's dirty hoodies. But is that the real issue?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published August 10, 2011 10:01PM (EDT)

Detergent ads have never offered just a simple narrative of how to vanquish tough stains. After all, the ladies know that dirty, stinky fabric is a reflection of personal failure, a reminder of some heavy emotional baggage, and of course, your crappy parenting. But now, apparently, even when you get your child's clothes clean, you're still a mess.

"Well, we tried the whole pink thing," the prim mom in the prim cardigan chirps through gritted teeth, while her khaki-and-camouflage-clad daughter happily plays with her blocks. "Nope," she continues stiffly. "All she wants to wear is hoodies. Hoodies and cargo shorts. Getting dirty. Then she left some crayons in her pocket and they went through the wash. I thought all her clothes were ruined. Enter Tide and Tide booster. The stains are gone. It's kinda too bad." She sighs and looks wearily at her child. "Another car garage, honey? It's beautiful." Buy Tide, the detergent that will thwart your attempts at gender-conditioning your offspring!

Since debuting last month, the latest "My Tide" story has not been quite the epic failure of the recently pulled PMS milk ads or those talking vaginas. Yet the ad has been attracting increasing critical attention as the latest in a year of bizarre campaigns. As New Civil Rights Movement asked, "Hey, Tide, What's Wrong With Girls Wearing Camouflage And Cargo Shorts?" The Frisky mused, "Tide Thinks Your Little Girl Is A Big Ol' Lesbian Because She Likes To Play With Blocks."

Daughter panic seems to be Tide's theme of late. As Riese at Autostraddle points out, this new ad has an uncanny kinship to a stunningly creepy recent Tide ad, in which a nervous dad deliberately dirties his teenage daughter's white miniskirt. I don't have time to unpack all the metaphoric horror in that one. Suffice to say that "Dad may try to ruin your style," but Mom will thwart him in the end. And let's just pretend that dysfunctional little tale is just about skirts.

But are these ads really subverting girls from waving their freak flags? One could interpret the Tide campaign as making the case for rebellion. After all, that brazen teen is going to keep wearing her miniskirt, just as the sweet little girl in the hoodie is going to keep on shoving crayons in her pockets. Tide is going to see to it they can.

Yet if Tide is on the side of messy girls, then who in sweet stain-lifting heaven are these ads supposed to entice? It's clear that mother is doing the wash in them, yet mother is hardly some heroic laundry doer. She's just the woman helping her daughter stick it to Dad in one ad, and she's an uptight priss in the other. Or is the viewer supposed to identify with the kids, those free spirits who live a little? After all, this is the company that also recently gave us the mom who lies to her daughter about going clubbing in the kid's shirt.

Perhaps Tide is consciously aiming at the great, untapped, deceitful parent demographic. Or more likely, the company and its ad agency hasn't clue one what it's doing, and is just throwing a heap of "My Tide" spots out there and hoping some of them strike a chord. Somewhere, there's a mom who not-so-secretly loathes her little girl's hoodies, and dammit, that woman needs to do laundry like everybody else. She's all yours, Tide. But the rest of us can't help noticing the irony of a company devoted to cleaning with an ad campaign that's such a massive, mixed-up mess.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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