Tag Archives: advertising

Half-Baked Motherhood: Compromise & the Dough Boy

There’s a Pillsbury commercial that has been nagging at me to rail on it since late 2014. Here we are, three months later. No time like the present. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find a clip of this commercial, so a description based on my memory of having seen it once will have to suffice.

A Commercial Mother encounters the three members of her family as she makes her way through the house. She tries in vain to get the attention of each:

  • Child #1 cannot hear for the headphones that keep him glued to the TV screen on which he’s playing a video game.
  • Child #2 charges down the stairs, nearly running into Mom as she texts on her smartphone.
  • Husband is changing the channels on the TV in the kitchen.

Instead of snatching the devices away from these rude family members like a sane person would, Commercial Mom sighs with an exasperation meant only to underline her infinite maternal patience. There’s even a smile creeping into the corners of her mouth. Oh, family members–can’t live with ’em, can’t get ’em to acknowledge your presence. 

Suddenly, a solution!

We see her pull a steaming sheet of something presumably delicious out of the oven. One by one, each family member unplugs themselves, the irresistible aromas drawing them to the dining room. The closing shot sees them all sitting together, face to face at last. “Nothing brings them to the table like Pillsbury.”

My eyes almost got stuck in the back of my head. I’m really glad I only saw this commercial once, or Feminist Rage and also a very high ophthalmology bill.

As alluded to previously, what I had hoped this mother had done was confiscate the offending devices that were turning her family members into offensive people. Nothing brings ’em to the table like dropping all their technology down the garbage disposal. Also, if we’re being reasonable about things, maybe they could have had a family discussion about why it’s a problem when you don’t acknowledge someone who is trying to talk to you. But no. Commercial Mom gives in to the socio-technological forces swirling around her and tries a different tactic to reach her goal of familial engagement.*

The message of the ad is if you can’t beat ’em, bake for them. Sacrifice. Work harder for what you want. Embrace your family’s foibles. Aren’t people these days a riot, with their technology and lack of interpersonal skills? Why, we should reward them with baked goods–and not just any baked goods, but par-baked goods that make your life of thankless sacrifice a little easier, more palatable. To get what you want–which is, apparently, not respect, but rather the physical presence of your family–you need to meet them more than half-way. You need to meet them half-baked.

What might be most troubling about the existence (and persistence) of this representation of American motherhood and winking maternal “wisdom” is

  1. Many mothers (parents, really) must identify with this representation
    and
  2. These women haven’t yet pushed back to a degree that would manifest itself in market research

Ads are not a mirror of the real world, instead tending to lag slightly behind cultural trends and social mores. But they also serve to reinforce kernels of truth in the collective lived experience. Too much money is riding on the ability of this ad and its representation of modern family life to resonate with its target market for it NOT to have sufficient market research behind it. Market research that told the Pillsbury executives that a significant chunk of American parents feel like the mother in this commercial. A feeling of futility that only our product can alleviate!

Parents in general will likely identify with the mother–so the market research would have shown. You want to be a close-knit family, have quality moments with your children, but modern technology is getting in the way. Luckily, Pillsbury is here to save the day, offering up a product as a solution to the problem the ad offers up on a platter.

This convenient confection is just the sticky substance that will keep your family unit together. If you value your family–if you’re a good mother–you will buy it. Motherhood is a goldmine of social anxieties,and Pillsbury knows it as well as we do.

So instead of the mother laying the smackdown in this commercial–which wouldn’t really present a problem that a Pillsbury product could solve–and teaching her family about the importance of NOT BEING RUDE and RESPECTING OTHER PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY THE PEOPLE WHO GIVE YOU THE LUXURY OF A MIDDLE-CLASS EXISTENCE…we get get the tired trope of sacrificial maternal compromise, repackaged & refrigerated for those struggling to parent the iGeneration.

*I am not making judgments about real-life parenting decisions. In situ, I’m sure plenty of great parents pick their battles and exhale their anger instead of making every moment a teaching one. In this deconstruction I am taking issue with the way the mass-media represents motherhood and family life as a social structure in which the mother is disrespected and then rewards her family for their rudeness. A representation that holds up motherhood as self-sacrificing and somehow still rewarding. A representation that holds up as relate-able, emulate-able, and Good a person who takes shit and bakes it into cookies.

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Gender Trouble, Technology

Embracing Multiplicity, Shunning Competition

The prevailing mode of research in academia is that you want to find what no one else is looking at and explore the crap out of it. Dive into that niche, carve it out of what exists if you must, but first and foremost do your due diligence to make sure no one else has staked their claim on it. This is a great way to produce knowledge, and a shit way to produce culture.

Culture needs repetition. Culture needs a multiplicity of voices. In short, culture needs movements, or it will never be, much less change.

“I will never be the only person writing about X, and that’s okay.”

As a blogger, tweeter, nascent fiction scribe, I will never be the only person writing about X.  And that’s okay. That’s a good thing.

Rather than bemoan the lack of opportunity to be original, the healthier thing might be to embrace it. To shout it from the mountain tops. To foster a sense of pride in sharing ideas and opinions and ways-of-expressing with others.

It’s little wonder that many of us have similar opinions. True iconoclasm may be a myth. There are no isolated test-tubes within which we incubate our conscious selves. We are each of us exposed to shared nutrients and toxins. We choose what to take in and what to discard. And there are so many of us that of course some of us will have chosen to take in and discard almost exactly the same things. Thus are many of us raised in similar vats of culture, allowing us to harbor similar opinions. look anywhere, to any opinion on any subject, and there will be a vibrant multiplicity of voices.

Even diversity needs multiplicity. Needs amplification. Just as we flock together, so must we cast outside of our comfortable nest, to visit and understand and embrace other flocks. But each flock must be just that–a flock. Otherwise we lose difference in the noise. One single voice is difficult to hear. But many voices crying out, in bunches, creates tides of change and opinions to move millions. Multiplicity is amplification. Amplification is the first step in cultural transformation.

Why not share and repeat and re-work a great idea? How else will that idea change anything for the better? Ownership is a dangerous thing…

Rather than feels guarded, jealous, turf-y, we can choose to read one another, share one another with others, and continue writing ourselves. We can choose to embrace multiplicity by amplifying the ways others express ideas we care about; ideas we want out there so much that we wrote about them ourselves. By sharing and amplifying the work of others, we bring these ideas we hold dear to even more people than we could ever hope to enlighten alone. Together, we can multiply the number of people who care, increasing that idea’s importance in public discourse and consciousness.

We can choose to shun the idea of competition, not worry about who’s doing it “best,” but worry that any of us are doing it at all–and support and encourage one another to keep at it. By reading one another, we all learn to do better. We see slightly different ways of expressing the same idea. We encounter slightly different perspectives that can cause us to examine our own and shift it to suit the greater good. By embracing the difference and the sameness, we are stronger together.

I hope I’ll never be the only one thinking and writing about

  • gender
  • class
  • power
  • technology
  • consumerism
  • body politics
  • animal-human relationships (bovinity, even)
  • the insidious ways that advertising misconstrues and reconstitutes social norms, influencing us without allowing those who live them a say in how we are represented

All these things and more, which are each huge and multiple and deserving of many voices and much attention.

I’m sure many writers have already figured this out. But every now and then I catch myself slipping into that academic fetishization of the new, or else the capitalist obsession with credit, and I needs must remind myself of the good that comes from multiplicity.

We must embrace one another, be each other’s champions, if we wish to change the world.


In the spirit of supporting, sharing, and connecting, here are links to a few voices I enjoy listening to:

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NKLA and Participatory Advertising

In the age of the internet, advertisers can rely on consumers to do a lot of work. Because people in this hyper-connected, digital culture are in the habit of constantly looking things up, only to forget them because they can call back that knowledge at will (think wikipedia) less and less information can be provided in advertisements. It is up to the consumer to figure out what’s being sold. What the message is.

To over-simplify a bit, this trend started nearly 100 years ago, when advertisements became less about long-form essays detailing the benefits of a product, and more about images that conveyed the feelings one would get by consuming said products. Now, there’s a type of ad that uses a combined strategy of images and limited accompanying text, relying on consumers to either guess at or go looking for the message and even the very product it’s attached to. These advertisements don’t even have to be about selling something. They can be about conveying an idea; making it “go viral.” It’s propaganda that masquerades as subtle, all the while hoping the masses will whip out their smartphones, find the hidden message on the internet, and hit themselves over the head with it.  Oh, and tell their friends, preferably via tweet. The marketers have passed off their work to us.

Take, for example, the NKLA billboards that popped up in the greater Los Angeles area. These consist of black-and-white photographs of cats and dogs, the letters “NKLA,” and a tiny emoticon-like logo in the bottom corner that suggests a doggie face. That’s it. What the hell are these for? Is it a new clothing line? A rap-group? Soap? Unless the viewer of these ads already knows what they’re supposed to take away from this collection of signifier-less signs, it’s a mystery. And I’d argue it’s designed to be obscure in order to pique the viewer’s interest, igniting a burning curiosity that eventually forces them to take to the interwebs and find out what these billboards and bus-stop ads are supposed to mean. It’s designed to force participation on the part of the view–or in the case of an ad for a product, the potential consumer.

Far be it from me to do the same thing and keep you, my imagined reader, in suspense. It turns out that these “NKLA” ads are for a campaign promoting the idea that no “viable” pet animals be killed in the city of Los Angeles. Here, you don’t even have to go looking. The campaign is backed by a coalition of like-minded organizations, some corporate and some non-profit. What they’re really selling/proposing is an old idea: eugenics. Like Bob Barker used to remind us after every “The Price is Right,” they want us to remember to spay or neuter our pets, and these organizations are mounting an effort to make that easier for people to do. I won’t get into the politics of this or why I find this problematic. For the purposes of this discussion, it’s enough to note that this is not a revolutionary idea that this campaign is trying to promote. Rather, it is the method of promotion and dissemination of this old message that’s somewhat revolutionary. It’s not word of mouth; it’s words from technology.

It is curious that the coalition’s strategy was to rely on viewers to figure out what campaign they were seeing. To do the work to figure out what the message was. Now that is some clever propaganda, and a risky move. Predicting the crowd is not an easy thing to do. And baiting them to do what you want them to do is arguably harder. If not for our digital, internet-connected, give-me-the-info-now culture, this would have no chance of working, of getting the message across. The images would just sit there, not being “read;” not being understood as their makers intended. The message would remain un-conveyed, or at least misinterpreted by the many consumers who were now going to be sorely disappointed the next time they tried to find NKLA’s newest album release.

This type of advertising strategy implicates the viewer–it requires that they participate. It demands their effort and their involvement in the campaign itself. They are part of the advertising team. It is self-directed marketing. Only those with the curiosity bug will exert the effort to get the message. It is self-selected, in a way, as it is more likely that someone with a soft spot for vaguely sad-looking pet animals will be inclined to take the time to find out what those puppies and kitties are trying to tell them. The black-and-white images help set the down-and-out tone, but that only really clicks and becomes part of the message when the viewer looks on the internet and finds out what the ad campaign is “selling”–the idea of a society in which no animals qualifying for the “pet” category have to be killed. (I won’t hold my breath for an “unhappy cows” spin-off.)

It’s all quite clever. And would seem to usher in a new era of marketing methodology.*  The consumer is the partial-producer of the advertisement that encourages them to buy (or in the case of NKLA, buy in to an idea and possibly become involved in either materially realizing it or further disseminating it). The consumer becomes a partial producer of the ad’s message because only after going through the effort of finding the message does the entire campaign gain its layers of meaning. And now, the idea has another follower. Perhaps another member of the movement who is willing to participate even further. Because that viewer searched and found the site and read it and understands. Understands that they now have to decide whether to cruelly say “no” to a campaign that is only trying not to have stray pet animals needlessly die to make room for more stray pet animals. The manipulation is palpable, but is over-ridden by the ostensibly “good” message that is so benign and “right” that no one who took the trouble to find it could possibly, in good conscience, disagree with it. Propaganda’s sneaky that way.

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*Or maybe this strategy has been employed before. It would be worth looking into from a history-of-advertising perspective.

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Edible Miscegenation: Food for Thought (groan) on a Recent Ad Campaign

Full disclosure time: I have a nasty note-taking habit, and as a result, the forthcoming book review of Sorry I Pooped in Your Shoe has turned into a bit of a term paper. A term paper that needs some serious work. We’re talking outlines, spreadsheets, coding, lists of themes and tropes, meta-structuring–obscene amounts of (dis)organization, here. And, if history is any indication*, most of this thorough preparation will be ultimately ignored in a sleep-deprived “holy fuck, fuck this fucking shitpile of amassed notes and ragged half-finished paragraphs I’m just gonna write the fucking thing I can’t even gaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhrgh!” moment of desperation.

So stay tuned for that monstrous gem. In the meantime, here are some disorganized and underdeveloped thoughts on a commercial about a new snack food. Fair warning–it’s a messy one:

Mel the Milkbite “has issues.” Yes, yes he does. Milkbite is basically a granola bar, and the advertisers have been tasked with coming up with a clever way to convince American consumers that this particular granola bar is different. It’s what we’ve all been waiting for. It offers hereforeto undiscovered combinations of deliciousness. Their marketing strategy has been to produce a virtual mini-series of these commercials. In each, we are made privy to the fraught inner life of one, Mr. Mel Milkbite, depressed offspring of milk and granola. “Who are you?” he asks his reflection. “I don’t know,” is the whispered reply. This identity crisis seems to stem from his mixed-food lineage.

One commercial in particular seems to play on the idea of a (damaged) mixed-parent child who confronts said parents about their decision to procreate. “You didn’t think, did you?” About how it would affect me, he goes on to say. The idea is that inhabiting an interstitial category makes life hard: one is “unclean” based on normative social structures, matter out-of-place. Mel is a product of miscegenation, and we’re supposed to laugh at this, or at his having “issues” because of it. This is where things get complicated, and I’m not going to pretend that I can tease everything out perfectly. But I do think it’s worth at least trying to unpack what’s going on here.

On a superficial level, it’s pretty dumb that a milk/granola-bar is talking and has an inner life. There’s a type of surreal, absurdist humor in that by itself. But to make the character’s inner life so fraught with the internalization of social stigma is…crazy awful. And in that awfulness, in that banging together of expectations, also comes the humor.

Broadly stated, humor says what cannot be said in serious contexts. It draws its power from placing categories of things together that cannot normally coexist, often exploding them. This is the unexpected aspect of humor–combining those things that are not normally combined (e.g., a granola bar that talks…to a therapist, no less). The other, related aspect, is that one of speaking the unspeakable: drawing attention to what is rendered invisible in daily life. In a way, humor combats erasure and epistemic violence. The ugly side of this is poorly timed and unsympathetic “ironic” humor, to be discussed further on in this “essay.”

To get back to the break-down of the layered humor in the commercials, besides the inherent silliness of a talking snack food is the fact that Mel takes himself very seriously. This is another source of the intended humor of the whole ad campaign: we, the audience, are not supposed to take Mel seriously. We are meant, on some level at least, to dismiss his serious concerns as those of a fake, normally (hopefully!) inanimate character made of food. It’s ridiculousness played as seriousness, which I’m tempted to call satire or irony, but I’m just so confused at this point that I can’t quite suss it out.

The humor of Mel’s milkbite commercials at least partly comes from making fun of the very serious issue of racism and how it plays out in cases where children have parents that society marks as racially different. The commercial serves to reinforce this taboo against miscegenation…or does it question the taboo? I’m not entirely sure if the “humor” in these commercials is combatting or exacerbating the stigma…or denying that the stigma exists all together. But I’m obviously leaning toward the last two.

The commercial takes license to make light of racism because its creators seem to believe that our society is past all that. Look how ridiculous we were to have had anti-miscegenation laws! If those still existed, we’d have a bunch of depressed Mels wandering around, blaming their parents for giving them such a hard life. Boy, I sure am glad we aren’t racist, anymore! In any case, the fact that we identify with Mel and feel sorry for him (do we? or do we think his problem isn’t serious in this day and age? are we just laughing at him?) means that we recognize the taboo being referenced. In encouraging the audience to both understand and then dismiss Mel’s perspective, it at once negates real people’s lived experiences and makes the (faulty) declaration that we are post-racism. But we can’t be post-anything if we still understand the signs of that thing. And anyway, is this laughter at all healing? Because the humor is very dry…almost ironic. And that gets dicey, as I will try to discuss below.

I’d argue that the existence of this campaign and all the cultural baggage it is trading on doesn’t point to a post-racism culture, but rather to one that has a more complicated relationship with its racism. This commercial can only exist in a culture where its producers (in this case, marketers and advertisers) believe that the culture is post-racism. This makes the brand of humor “safe” enough for a mass-media audience. It still messes with expectations, but in a more meta way that comments on a social situation that is assumed to be long past. The producers seem to believe this humorous take on a historical reality–setting it in the present and using a snack food as its face–won’t offend consumers. That it will resonate just enough and in the right ways in order to sell the product. But it’s also arguably a present reality, and even if it weren’t, its “humorous” take on a decidedly un-funny cultural taboo that oppressed real people in real ways is insensitive. (The argument against the insensitivity claim would be something about irony and being post-race and why can’t I just take a joke, which I will touch on later and you can read more about at Jezebel.)

The commercial may trade in deadpan ridiculousness, but it’s still based in something very real. The undercurrent of (anti-)miscegenation is extended to and reintensionalized in this extremely absurd context, rendering it less serious, less worthy of careful consideration. But it is serious. The commercial is playing on the idea that the children of people who aren’t “the same” in one way or another have it harder. That they’re damaged. So, it’s both that this creates issues for the kid, and then creates the stereotype that these “types” of kids have issues, thus making the “project,” if you will, of actually combatting these taboos a bad thing in itself, instead of creating a world where these taboos don’t exist because there are more interstitial people, who then become accepted categories in their own right. (I know that sentence is confusing, but it’s too far gone to help at this point. I don’t even know.) But the point is that making light of the history and ramifications of anti-miscegenation sentiment and policy, “mixed” children of all kinds, and the current (effectively ignored) lived realities of people who inhabit this interstitial social categories is harmful. These commercials operate in a sort of post-racism haze of denial. Anti-miscegenation is over, so it’s okay to joke about it. These commercials try to get us to believe that taking it all seriously would be ridiculous in this day and age–we’d be like Mel.

The thing is, we don’t live in a post-racial world, as Lindy West points out. The “humor” of trying to make it seem like we’re post-race by framing someone’s difficult lived experience as mixed-race individual as funny–implicitly discounting that this experience could be less-than-rosy–falls flat. It makes fun of the individual for having “issues” as a result of their racialized social location; it belittles their own understanding of their particular experience. And that is pretty wrong.

Now, not being what our society would deem a “person of color,” I cannot speak to the lived experience of someone from a mixed-race background. But I don’t imagine it’s always a walk in the park, simply because our society remains socially stratified, and one of the markers that keeps certain populations in disadvantaged socio-economic positions is skin color. Skin color is taken as the definitive sign that signifies one’s race; as if it were a natural thing. As if it weren’t a cultural construct (which it is, and an arbitrary one at that). And in America, we still see people’s skin color. We treat each other in various ways because of this type of discriminatory vision. Now, are mixed-race couples more accepted than they were 50 years ago? Sure…but only in some contexts. Are the children of  mixed-race couples less subject to ridicule? Again, it depends. We can maybe make a sweeping generalization that things are “better,” but it is dangerous to do so. And to base an ad campaign on this very real and personal part of our cultural history (and cultural present) is hugely problematic… and because it’s meant to be funny, it’s quite insulting, as well.

To wrap up before this all gets even more out of hand, let’s get back to the milkbite character himself. Mel, if we are to take his perspective, is the product of an unholy union between milk and granola. The irony, of course, is that plenty of folks enjoy this very combination. The fact that mixing them is “normal” is why milkbite exists as a product in the first place: created to fill a newly discovered [read: invented] niche, marketed as the answer to granola-and-milk-eaters’ as yet unrealized unfulfilled need for a convenient snack that pairs their two favorite things. Milkbite was created because he should have existed all along–so the marketers want us to believe. He’s what’s been missing in this world of fast “health” food.

Is that why we laugh at Mel? Because his underlying “issue” is that he fails to grasp his true role in the world? Bringing us all together in a holy harmony of interstitial bliss? Is milkbite the future? Let’s look to the heated discourse surrounding the controversial ad that South Africa’s Democratic Alliance party put out… They don’t live in the future, and neither do we. In fact, the very existence of this series of commercials implicitly arguing that we do live in the post-race future proves, ironically, that we don’t.

*UPDATE* Balancing Jane has also written about the disturbing nature of this ad campaign and provides a link to sign a petition against it.

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*For example, I once compiled over 200 pages of notes in preparation for a ten page final. Yep. Rifuckingdiculous. It’s kind of a problem.

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Racism

Separate Spheres and Situated Knowledge: Subtly Indexing Gender Stereotypes in a Bounty Commercial

I’d like to haphazardly discuss yet another example of the stealthy pervasiveness of gender stereotypes in U.S. culture. This example is from a nationally (and maybe internationally) televised commercial for Bounty paper towels. Perhaps you’ve seen it of late.

This commercial makes use of what I would call harmful gender tropes to market its product to consumers. Because it was created to be mass-mediated and appeal to as many (female) consumers as possible, one might argue that such commercials have to extend to and re-create certain structures of cultural categories, no matter how stereotypical and harmful these representations may be of culturally created groups of people. Otherwise, they would not be comprehensible to a wide audience. But I argue that such use of stereotypical representations are yet another example of gendered norms being held up as natural, with implications for what roles differentially gendered people are expected to play in our culture.

This commercial in particular offers up women and men as possessed of differentially valued sets of knowledge by virtue of their being women or men. This has to do with how gender intersects with the notion of separate-spheres: the idea that people generally inhabit either the public or private sphere on the basis of their being women or men. (Things are never this neat in real life, of course, and never have been.) However, the intersections of these false dichotomies (men:women :: public:private) is the assumption upon which one of the messages of this commercial rests: that women “know better” than men how to clean up messes because of the particular knowledge they have thanks to their primarily inhabiting the private sphere.

Now for a description of the commercial itself. Please note that the voice-over quote is most likely a paraphrase, as I could only find the commercial online en Espanol. To see for yourselves and to have a better basis to disagree with my analysis, here’s a link to the commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCbSCzvMYxY (The sound is off by a few seconds.) And if you don’t want to watch it, I’m going to describe it, anyway. Lucky you.

Two young girls (sisters?) are baking and dancing in the kitchen as a woman and man (one or both of the girls’ parents) go about their daily lives nearby. Theirs is an open floor-plan, so one can assume that the adults are “supervising” from the adjacent breakfast nook or dining room table. Mom’s at the table working on a laptop computer, Dad’s relocating a small houseplant to an undisclosed location. The houseplant is never heard from again. When Dad’s slightly behind Mother, they both look over to the kitchen and smile at the girls who are having so much fun mixing ingredients with dancing.

Because this is a Bounty commercial, a sudden mis-calculated hip-check delivered by older girl to younger sets off a chain reaction, sending a glass flying. Its contents spill neatly across the counter. (Finally, Bounty thinks. I’ve been off-stage for quite long enough, thank you.) Father bends over to look at the mess as Mother walks behind him. Her voice-over says, “My husband? Thinks this is a three-sheeter.” She pauses and smiles at his somewhat befuddled worry, then continues walking to the roll of paper towels, which the older of the two girls has pulled in anticipation of the clean-up. Older girl, presumably taking a cue from Father’s view of the world, offers about three sheets worth.

Not so fast! Mother stops the spinning in the nick of time and cheerfully reprimands this folly, half-wagging her finger and half-using it to indicate that no, they only need one sheet of paper towel. Because Bounty’s just that awesome. Older girl relinquishes the end of the roll to Mother, who winds it back and deftly rips off just one sheet. Then the requisite test: women’s hands do the side-by-side cleaning of Bounty-vs-notBounty paper towels. Cut to Mother cleaning up the mess the girls made with that one sheet. The two girls are seen in the background, talking and smiling in a corner of the kitchen. (Why aren’t they cleaning up their own mess? But that’s another issue.) Mother smiles at the now-clean counter. Thanks, Bounty.

Cut to the happy ending. Older girl carries a now-finished cake of Dr. Seuss proportions over to where the rest of the family stands, ready with a stack of plates and say-cheese smiles. Everyone basks in the ridiculousness of the cake. They are proud. Then the cake implodes, sinking into itself. Four human heads trace its spatial deflation in familial whimsy. Cut to more paper towel vs. kitchen counter action. Take that, spilled fruit punch! BAM: BOUNTY. (don’t forget to try our napkins!)

The End

So, remember up there when I was talking about separate spheres? I sussed that out from that one-line voice over, but a lot of the images and the attitudes that the mother and father characters visually exude back this up. The mother addresses the audience and expects us to identify with her exasperation over her husband’s misguided counting: “three sheets, he thinks—three! Silly man with his man-knowledge…clearly he knows nothing about cleaning with Bounty—am I right, ladies?!!”

It is the woman who is held up as the correct one in this scenario; the adult who has the privileged knowledge about cleaning and cleaning with Bounty in particular. Her authority comes from the fact that she is the woman, the mother: that she inhabits the female role that is relegated to the private sphere, where the household cleaning is done. The mother’s knowledge is situated here in the home—laptop-work notwithstanding—and gendered female, and because the scenario is taking place in this sphere, her female private-sphere situated knowledge is privileged as authoritative.

The husband’s assessment of the situation and the solution it requires is rejected because he, being a man, is not privy to the privately-situated female knowledge about cleaning kitchen counters with Bounty paper towels. Poor man, how could he know—he may be carrying a houseplant, but his knowledge is still mostly male. His male knowledge comes from the public sphere, where there are no kitchen counters to be cleaned. Without getting into second- and third-order indexicality, just trust me when I say that these gendered associations correlate in all directions.

The commercial uses these gendered associations in order to connect with its audience: ladies, don’t you find it hilarious when men don’t know how to economically dispose of waste? Aren’t you happy to be so wise in the ways of housework? Now get back in that kitchen where you belong. Where you are the master of disaster because you are a woman. This conglomeration of gendered stereotypes is harmful to both women and men: it makes a joke of men attempting to take on more traditionally “female” roles, effectively keeping them from mastering housecleaning tasks because the stereotypes assume that, being male, they do not possess the requisite knowledge to clean house effectively. They are laughed away from the merest hint of an attempt to understand the situation of cleaning up a kitchen counter spill. Men are simply no good at this; everyone knows that. (This is where I could go off on a tirade about 90s 3rd-wave feminism that sadly persists today, whose power comes from reinforcing gendered stereotypes with a favor for femaleness instead of maleness, and taking pot-shots at men and their stereotypical male ways. But I will refrain from delving into this issue. For now.)

Back to the gendered assumptions in the Bounty commercial. I’ve discussed why they are harmful to men.  These stereotypes are harmful to women because they assume that by virtue of their gender, they are automatically better-equipped to handle crises of the home variety. This effectively relegates them to the role of home-maker, expecting them to know how to cook and clean, etc. To have the knowledge/expertise to do so efficiently, and with the right branded products.

The overall effect of the proliferation of mass-mediated images and other representations that employ gendered stereotypes is that society as a whole loses by forcing everyone into a binary system of gendered roles and expectations. We are capable of so much more! So much more variation if we only allowed ourselves to be open to them… Woe betide the gendered person who tries to cross these lines separating tasks based on gendered spheres: you will become the butt of a joke in a commercial. Or worse yet, the punch-line to joke numbers 1-26 on a sitcom. In America, we still create images that reinforce these gender stereotypes and mass-mediate them, further entrenching them into the social consciousness. Mother knows best when it comes to kitchen messes, and Father is just a helpless bystander to be pitied for his lack of female/private-sphere knowledge. Am I right, ladies?

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Gender Trouble, Media