Have you seen that vile commercial for the single-dose version of a children’s allergy medicine? The one where Loser Mom and Smug Mom are sitting on a park bench, and Smug saves the day by letting Loser borrow one of her single-dose packages? Isn’t it just wonderful the way they pit mother against mother like that, in a contest of parenting skills? The way they exploit every mother’s fear that she’s not doing this right, and also the way they play right into her detail-management fatigue? All in just thirty seconds.
Before I had children, I used to be an art director in some pretty fancy-schmancy New York advertising agencies, let me tell you, so I have a pretty good idea of how this travesty came into being.
It all starts with a directive from the manufacturer (a.k.a. the “Client”). They ask their ad agency to create a TV “spot” that introduces their new product. The ad agency account executives (the suits) meet with the client and try to determine what the client wants to “say” with the new spot. Besides just “buy this crap now,” that is. What are the selling points? What makes this product great? How does this product differ from all the identical products already out there? Together with the client they determine a “strategy.”
Then the suits go back to the agency, hole up in an office, send some shlub out for coffee, and write a “brief.” The brief is a document that outlines the whole project and gives directions to the “creatives.” The “creatives” means the art director/copywriter team that will come up with the ideas for the words and pictures, basically.
They write a brief that is full of enough marketing-speak to satisfy the client, but has enough vagueness to completely confuse the creatives.
Client: Johnson & Merck
Product: “Benny and the Jets” Children’s Allergy Single-dose Plastic Squirty Thingys (Working Title)
Job Name: Product Intro/30 second spot
Account Team: M.B.A. McClueless, Up N. Coming, Wide-eyed Newcomer, Intern McClientskid.
Creative Team: Overworked N. Underpaid, Freshoutta Artskuule, Jaded McArtsyfartsy, Wantstobee A. Realwriter
Strategy: This revolutionary single-serving dose pack design offers convenience, portability and moral salvation to the harried mothers of the world. The successful ad will focus on the “drop in your bag and go” idea, as that was an overwhelmingly positive factor in focus groups (see attached focus group summary document: Depressed Des Moines Moms React to J&M’s New Product Packaging, p 238).
More feedback from the focus groups indicated that mothers have a secret fear of being perceived as “loser moms” who “don’t have their shit together,” so let’s play on this as we develop our commercial.
Next Steps: Three separate concepts should be developed by the above creative team, none of whom have children or have even smelled a diaper, and should be ready for presentation to the above account team, none of whom have any children or have even smelled a diaper, no later than tomorrow morning
The suits present the brief to the creatives. The creatives get pissed off, because this means that any plans they might have had for the evening are shot to hell. The suits then go out for drinks, and the creatives shlump dejectedly back to their offices to call significant others and tell them that they will be working late.
They order up some deli/Chinese/Indian (pick one) and a bunch of Red Bulls and go to work. Jaded McArtsyfartsy throws darts at his ironic Simpsons dartboard in a mixture of self-awareness and catatonia as he discusses what motivates today’s mother with Wantstobee A. Realwriter, who is sprawled out on the office couch, which is upholstered in an ironic vintage fifties cowboy pattern. They try to determine what kind of language and concept will appeal to their target audience.
“Today’s mother is driven to excellence by competition. She enjoys being shown a better way by other mothers, and she would never feel resentful of this. She thinks she has it easy and loves spending every minute of her life managing her children’s lives. She feels completely fulfilled if their success at preschool comes at the expense of every goal and hope she has ever had for herself.”
“How do you know? Do you know any mothers?”
“What effing difference does that make? I see enough of them and their demon-seed brats every day at Starbucks.”
“You’re right. So, our concept has to make mothers feel guilty because they don’t have enough to feel guilty about in today’s parenting culture and that will spur them to buy this product.”
“Precisely . . . right on.”
They come up with three concepts to present to the suits.
Mom, wearing a superhero cape over her business suit, comes home from the supermarket, where she has stopped on the way home from work. She takes our product out of the grocery bag and shows it to the babysitter, who has been dealing with the snot-nosed kid all day. Babysitter looks relieved and bows down to Wondermom in reverent admiration.
We see a school stage decorated for a school play. Children are dressed up as bottles of old-fashioned allergy medicines. They try to dance but keep clunking into one another and falling down, spastically. The music is an old-time children’s song coming from a tinny, scratchy record player. Suddenly, the music changes to DEVO’s “Whip It,” and one kid dances out like Baryshnikov, wearing a costume that looks like our product, and kicks the other kid’s asses.
We see two moms on the park bench, one looking tired and careworn, the other neat and perfect. The “Loser” mom’s kid comes up and sneezes on her, and she fumbles through her bag miserably and ineffectually, finally unearthing a gross Ziploc baggie full of used snot rags, a spoon, and old-fashioned allergy medicine. She looks utterly embarrassed as she is forced to display her true loserdom in front of her friend, “Smug” mom. Smug’s kid then comes up and also sneezes in her face. Smug effortlessly whips out our convenient new product. Smug then offers the product to Loser, smirks and says, “Try one of mine?” Loser looks at Smug gratefully, realizes she’s a pitiful excuse for a competent mother, and accepts the product.
The next morning, the creatives present their concepts to the suits. The suits love them all (this would never happen, but I do have a word limit here). Next, they all meet with the client to present the concepts.
After much debate, the client rejects the “Wondermom” concept, because it shows that Mom just may have a life outside the home. Also trashed is “School Play,” as it’s just too fun and irreverent, and everyone knows mothers have no sense of humor and are dead serious about their children’s allergy issues. They decide to produce Park Bench, but only after much reassurance from the agency that it will not smack of lesbianism and risk alienating the Fundamentalist/Heartland moms.
After more debate, they decide to keep fathers out of the spot, since today’s mothers are returning to a more traditional homemaking arrangement, according to the latest trend-watching research.
Then comes the talent search. The creatives and suits decide Loser should be twenty pounds heavier than Smug, she should be blond to indicate a certain ditziness, and her wardrobe should consist of high-waisted Mom jeans from L.L. Bean and a frumpy top. Smug should have short, dark hair, indicating her ability to stay in control of everything, even her hair, and her wardrobe is a mom-chic look from Chico’s. Loser’s child should be shlumpy and dim-witted. Smug’s kid should look like a future Rhodes scholar.
Once they find the proper “talent” and the location, the day of the shoot finally arrives. On set are the suits and the creatives who worked on the project, plus anyone else from the agency who can attach themselves to the project in hopes of a day out of the office and a free, catered lunch, the stylist/set people/makeup people, the producer and his or her crew, the camera/lighting/sound/tech people, the caterer and his or her team, the director and his or her assistants, the “talent” and their entourages, and the clients, who sit around eating and making everyone nervous. The only ones who actually have real live children are the stage mothers who brought their two children to be in the commercial.
They do about three hundred takes, with everyone shouting direction at the talent. “Slump lower, loser mom! Yes, like that! Look more pathetic. Smug mom, let’s try that again, but this time don’t let us see you pull the medicine tube out…it just appears magically, you’re THAT in control. Smug’s kid, look more perfect. Stand up straighter. Excellent. Loser’s kid, look at your mom like you can’t believe how disgusting she is.”
Then, the inevitable happens.
“Can we get makeup over here? Loser just clocked Smug in the face and now Smug’s got a fat lip.”
There, now. Doesn’t this make you want to go out and buy that product?
Instead of seeing a commercial that adds yet another nagging doubt to today’s collective mom consciousness, I would have been happier to see the tube of medicine dancing across a school stage. Or, as we creatives used to say when we were trying to come up with a concept and were stumped, “Ya got nothing to say? Then sing it.”