Score one for the breast-feeders

Luvs diapers' controversial new ad campaign is a triumph for mothers who breast-feed in public

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published October 1, 2012 4:12PM (EDT)

The pretty blonde at the restaurant knows exactly how to deal with the waiter whose eyes are fixed on the area below her neckline. "Yeah, hey," she tells him, her fingers directing his gaze toward hers. "Up here." Best diaper ad ever.

It's the most attention-getting spot in Luvs' recent witty campaign on the triumph of the maternal experience, and a mainstream victory for nursing moms. Tied to a piece of Nielsen data that revealed that second-time mothers are more likely to buy the brand, the Luvs series features a quartet of evolutionary "first and second" baby experiences, including a horrified adventure in temperature-taking and a fumble through a public restroom diaper change. But it's the lady who transforms from the shy new mother hiding her baby under a blanket and gazing apologetically around the room into the confident veteran who can look at her infant and crack, "She's already ordered," while her toddler issues a "Got a problem with that?" stare who's the standout. Sure, that second-timers statistic may be a little skewed, but the other message — that breast-feeding should be no big thing — is rock solid. This week AdWeek praised the spot for its "humor, skill, and grace," while Jezebel declared it "pretty cool."

While it'd be nice to live in a world where a joke about getting over the awkwardness of early breast-feeding is just another chuckle about new parenthood  in general — the strange new terrain of changing diapers and taking temperatures and packing up the stroller — the fact is that we still run up against a range of horror, disgust and exploitation whenever we encounter anything about women and their breasts. Sure, it's great that mainstream magazines now run photos of new moms lovingly feeding their infants and that restaurants support and encourage nursing mothers rather than shooing them away. Yet magazines also use breast-feeding as a shock tactic to generate sales. Facebook still wrestles with the distinction between a nursing breast and one that violates its terms of use. And the Luvs campaign is far from a home run.

Note, for example, that the company's own blog about the ad asks moms if they're a "Hooter hider or let it all hang out?" type. A what or a what? We still have work to do, America. Does the diaper company really want to categorize its customer base between "hooter hiders" and "let it all hang out" flaunters? Because that sounds like a no-win contest.

But Luvs' own apparently highly variable sensitivity is nothing compared to that of some of its commenters. On its site, commenters are not universally amused. "Any woman whipping the girls out in public is looking for nothing but attention," declares a New Hampshire mom, while a California customer says, "Luvs should stick to selling diapers and stay out of the politics!" And on Facebook, while most of the response has been an enthusiastic "funny and true" assent, the inevitable chorus of disdain has been fiercely slugging it out, because there's "no point in getting all of the guys around excited," "There are way too many perverts in the world," "Using the toilet is also natural but I bet you close the door when you go," and "It should not be everyone's problem that your child is hungry. People shouldn't have to explain the situation to their young children when they see it happening out in public. People shouldn't have to feel uncomfortable going to the park, or the mall, or whatever. It's simply rude." Imagine having to explain that a mother is feeding a child — to your child! What a crazy idea!

But the Luvs campaign — flawed though its blogging may be, and mixed though the reactions are — is a positive step toward normalizing the normal. It uses common sense's most tried and true weapon — humor — to spread the message that motherhood is challenging, but that one of the great perks of it ought to be not giving a damn what some stranger thinks of how you're caring for your own baby. That's not political; it's just reality. It's a minor "It gets better" for moms, a message of empowerment in an extra-absorbent package.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

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

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