In the latest installment of our 'Modern Parenting' series, we had the opportunity to chat with Louise Lang, Director of Client Service, Europe at VIRTUE Worldwide, on depicting a more honest view of parenthood in advertising and what we can learn from Gen Z parents.
How has the depiction of parenthood in advertising evolved?
The depiction of parenthood in advertising stagnated for decades with brands seemingly using the same tropes from the 1950s to the Noughties. In recent years we’ve seen huge progress, with brands acknowledging it isn’t just moms they need to talk to but parents generally and that families now come with very different make-ups from the ‘norm’. It’s just a start though. We’ve got a long way to go before we can successfully demonstrate that we understand the challenges of today’s parenting in advertising. There is an ever-growing number of single parents who could be directly engaged with and also a cohort of parents who carry very different parenting styles to their own parents. Ultimately we should be looking at the way Gen Z sees parenting: that it becomes part of their fluid means of identity, an additive to who they are and not a replacement. They view their children as a person in progress, not just a child. This creates a much more subtle and collaborative parenting style where children are involved in decision making, not issued with orders.
How are agencies and brands adapting ad comms to inclusivity around parenting?
The representation of diverse families in advertising is starting to improve through casting but that is only the first step. We still need more role models that represent families of different cultures and the nuances they bring to parenting in mainstream culture.
Inclusivity is a different thing. Embracing neurodiversity, disability, carers and mental health within the family dynamic feels like the next big challenge for brands. For example, for the next generation of Gen Z parents, acknowledging the open and honest approach they take to their mental health and supporting them with the anxiety parenting brings into their lives is a big and important shift that brands should be making. These challenges don’t yet have a lot of brands engaging within them but represent an amazing creative opportunity.
In what ways does your role as a parent inform your work?
In the strategic and creative process, being a ‘parent’ to the work itself can be very helpful. You spend your life as a parent saying no to your children for their own good. I’ve been struck by how much of the development of the work involves the same sort of navigation by an agency. If you say yes to everything everyone asks, you end up with the equivalent of letting your kids eat all the treats - everyone feels tired and slightly unwell at the end and realises they actually didn’t get the enjoyment they were after. I’m a big fan of being professionally unreasonable (my 14 year old certainly thinks I’m unreasonable) in the name of the greater good.
There is also the perspective that being a working parent gives you on the work itself. I remember being shown a creative route for a soft drink that was aimed at Moms as the ‘gatekeeper’. I was horrified to see that the central character they had developed to represent the maternal figure in the home was, well, let’s just say it was a predatory animal. The team (none of whom were parents) were really surprised this hadn’t researched well with Moms. I was like, “Are you kidding? You literally told Moms you think they are predators!” No Mom in the country sees themselves that way, and you have to show respect for one of the most complex roles in a woman’s life.
Watching the depiction of moms in advertising used to really wind me up. There was, and sadly I think still is, this weird watershed that advertisers created for you where by becoming a mom you lose all sense of attractiveness, sense of humor, fashion sense or interest in anything other than your kids or cleaning your house. This patronizing view is dangerous because it seeps into societal conditioning. And it certainly didn’t endear me, as a Mom, to the brands who behaved that way towards me.
I think this is even more true when you look at Gen Z parents. The world will soon belong to them and advertising can help to create a portrayal of the parenting world as they want to see it, and childhoods they’d wish they’d had. The hard work mantra of Gen X no longer applies to their parenting views.
What are some areas regarding parenthood that you feel could use more visibility in advertising?
The struggles of parenting are somewhat underplayed. Advertising is all too quick to show happy families bonding over everyday moments and special experiences. The reality is a lot more like hard work, both in how you parent your children and how each parent responds to the other. For single parents (and I’m one now) the strain is in having to make every single decision yourself and being judge, jury and executioner when it comes to drawing the line.
We also seem to be overlooking the fact that kids grow up faster these days. The tricky sex and drugs conversations you think you’ll have with them when they’re teenagers, you have to have when they are older tweens. In fact, tweens get lost altogether - good luck as a parent finding clothes your tween approves of in the kids department of any store.
Legal guardians can play a significant role in the lives of children who are no longer with their birth parents. How can brands balance the importance placed on these other parental figures in their messaging?
It feels like there is little to no representation of this group in advertising. This cohort plays a vital role in raising children who for whatever reason are not able to be with their birth parents. It would be wonderful to give them the recognition they deserve through representation. Brands should make sure they understand the commonalities they share with birth parents and the nuances that make them subtly different. Get the love, support, understanding and security that these parents provide right.