A Return to Tradition? : Ads That Call Women Happiest at Home Spark Wave of Protest
Opening for Good Housekeeping Radio Spot, “My Mother,” spoken by female voice: “My mother was convinced the center of the world was 36 Maplewood Drive. Her idea of a wonderful time was Sunday dinner. She bought UNICEF cards, but what really mattered were the Girl Scouts. And she felt, no matter what, there was always enough love to go around . . . . I’m beginning to think my mother really knew what she was doing.”
What do women really want? That answer may have eluded social thinkers since Sigmund Freud, but New York advertising executive Malcolm MacDougall, armed with market research, has developed an answer he has translated into a major promotional campaign for Good Housekeeping magazine.
The contemporary woman, he says, wants just what her mother wanted: a home, husband and children. She also may want a job, but it’s just something to supplement the family income, not an encompassing career that could keep her working late at the office.
She has realized, MacDougall said in a telephone interview, that “being a wife and mother can be fun--I don’t need anything else.”
MacDougall, vice chairman of Jordan, McGrath, Case & Taylor, calls this woman the “New Traditionalist” and her depiction in a major magazine ad campaign has triggered a wave of criticism from women’s movement scholars and activists.
That’s because the national campaign--four print ads in selected newspapers and trade publications, and two radio commercials--not only promotes Good Housekeeping magazine but also proclaims that the New Traditionalist woman represents “the biggest social movement since the 1960s.”
“This is what I have been warning about,” feminist Betty Friedan said. “This is the new ‘feminine mystique,’ defining women once again in terms of their husband, family and home.”
Psychologist Eve Mayer, who specializes in couple relationships, added of the campaign’s view: “It is terribly confining for both men and women. It’s anti-freedom, anti-liberty and anti-self-actualization.”
Their protests are reiterated by many others, with no one arguing that there hasn’t been change. But there is agreement that recent years have seen major life style adjustments, particularly among American yuppies now entering their 40s.
For example, in interviews with Advertising Age magazine earlier this year, some of Manhattan’s leading trend-spotters concluded that the AIDS epidemic and the 1987 stock market crash have sent the “Me” generation scurrying homeward, disillusioned with sexual freedom and materialism. The new word for men and women is cocooning. Sample observations:
- The search for stability has led to a wistful look back at the family photo album and a parent boom, said Judith Langer of Langer Associates. “Ten years ago, the same kinds of people would’ve been screaming that they’d never have kids. Now, if it’s not too late, they’re having them. If it is too late, they’re adopting.”
- Both men and women are growing disillusioned with high-paced careers. “You’re going to see more ‘cashing out’ as men and women exchange high-paid jobs for lower-pressure, family-oriented life styles,” said Faith Popcorn of BrainReserve.
“You have a lot of women wanting a baby and hungering to cook, but their perception of themselves is not what their mothers’ was,” said Ann Clurman of Yankelovich Clancy Shulman. Yankelovich, which runs annual Monitor studies of American values for private clients, describes this new-old life style as “neo-traditional.”
It is the Yankelovich Monitor surveys that are being cited by Jordan McGrath’s ad campaign, and it is here that the objections arise.
The lengthy surveys, done for private clients, are complex, explained Robert O. Cohen, vice president in Yankelovich’s western regional office.
“Neo-traditionalism, which we first coined in 1986, has to be put in context,” he said. “We start with the 1950s when traditional meant conformity to rules and rigid guidelines. Under the social revolution of the ‘60s, virtually every tradition was challenged. There was a strong emphasis on self.
“Now we are seeing a synthesis, which is a reconciliation of two competing value systems. People are expressing a need for stability and guidelines, but there are two important differences: an emphasis on individuality, and on tolerance for diverse ideas, life styles and beliefs. That’s the neo. It’s extremely complex and women are only one dimension.”
But from this ambiguous picture, McGrath’s creative thinkers, pitching for the Good Housekeeping ad account last spring, distilled a simpler theme.
“Good Housekeeping was perceived as old-fashioned,” MacDougall explained. “The younger media people were saying, ‘That’s the magazine my mother used to read.’ We thought about it and decided that it was OK to be old-fashioned, because we could see that America was changing dramatically, going toward the home and the family and traditional values. . . . And no magazine embodies those values more clearly than Good Housekeeping.
“To back up the thesis, we looked at the Yankelovich Monitor studies . . . what they are showing is that fundamentally we have the contemporary American woman who feels strongly today about building a strong family, a strong commitment to her husband and to her home and to the values her mother had.
“The negative became a positive.”
‘The Best Thing’
At least for Good Housekeeping. “It’s the best thing that could happen to a magazine,” MacDougall said. “A publication that thought it was too old-fashioned is now a leader in the strongest social movement that has taken hold since the 1960s.”
Yankelovich’s Clurman, who coined the neo-traditional label, refused to comment on the ad campaign itself, which she had nothing to do with.
“You’re about the 30-millionth person to call, including some very angry women,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many headaches this is causing me. This is like my most impassioned thing: We are not giving up on the changes, the strides women have made in the last 30 years.”
Ignoring the Realities?
But that’s not how the Good Housekeeping message looks to a host of economists, psychologists, demographers and women’s scholars. They see the campaign, with its self-description of “a powerful new social movement,” as ignoring economic and sociological realities, while its repetition of “traditional values” revives the 1950s stereotypes of the dependent housewife.
Scottsdale psychologist Mayer maintained that “the New Traditionalist is really out to rob both women and men of their own identity: reducing them to stereotypes again.
“Not only does it send her back to the kitchen, it is equally confining for him,” Mayer said. “Men have just been given permission by the whole women’s movement to have thoughts and feelings of their own. I see the New Traditionalist woman as a step back in time and as detrimental to both sexes.”
But MacDougall insisted in response: “This campaign is not about the 1950s. It is about the shifting of values for women--where the core focus has been away from family and home, we see it moving back to family and home.”
To dramatize this, his agency created print ads with striking photos of “New Traditional” women, each emphasizing a commitment to their children. Viewing the ads, feminist critics agreed with psychologist Meyer that, at least on the surface, these media images spell “back to the ‘50s.”
Friedan, credited with launching the women’s movement with her 1963 book, “The Feminine Mystique,” called the campaign “clever and sophisticated.”
“The women in the ads are very clearly intelligent, sophisticated, strong women,” she said. “The implication is they know where it’s really at, and not for them is the feminist dream of career, but only the family. It is a subtle retreat from the goals of equality.”
Myra Strober, a Stanford University economist, said she was “so amazed” by the full-page ad in the New York Times that she carried it around, showed it to friends and asked, “What’s this all about?”
The ad shows a young woman being hugged by two children with a caption: “She was searching for something to believe in--and look what she found. Her husband, her children, her home, herself. She’s the contemporary woman who has made a new commitment to the traditional values that some people thought were ‘old-fashioned.’ Researchers are calling it the biggest social movement since the ‘60s.”
Found It ‘Disturbing’
Strober, whose specialty is women and work, found the ad disturbing “on a number of levels. First, what kind of new social movement is this? According to the Labor Department statistics, the number of working women with children this age is higher than ever.
“Second, what about all the women who don’t have husbands, or won’t have husbands later? The message from the economic point of view seems very dangerous. The reality is this: Women work because most families require two incomes to pay the mortgage. And they work to provide some kind of security for the wife and children if the marriage breaks up--which it has a 40% chance of doing.
“What is new is that some women are trying to break into occupations that have been men’s occupations and are finding it hard,” she said. “I think what we should be doing is support women who are trying to make a contribution to society. We should be looking at this as a way to set out national priorities, on day care, flex-time, comparable worth and the needs of single-parent families.
“It’s like a fairy tale, and we all like fairy tales. But let’s be realistic about what people are doing.”
That might be the problem: expecting realism from media images. A decade of ads picturing career women with briefcases wasn’t realistic either, and advertisers are just rediscovering a working mother whose image got lost in the shuffle, said Toni Earnshaw, associate research director of Young and Rubicam Inc. She calls such women a “hidden market.”
“I think we were all caught up in identifying the well-educated, leading-edge career woman as the woman of today,” she said. “In fact, that woman is in the minority. The Good Housekeeping campaign says these other women, who really are more family-oriented, do exist, and they exist in large numbers. I respect that campaign in many ways; I think they have identified their target quite well.
“We’re not doing documentaries here,” she added. “You are always going to experience a little romanticism.”
Other Criticisms Too
Still, there are other criticisms of the Good Housekeeping ads.
“I think Good Housekeeping is missing the boat,” said Diana Meehan, director of USC’s Institute for the Study of Women and Men in Society. “What we’re talking about in the ‘80s is options, and this leaves no options.
“It ignores the changing role of fathers. I think it’s time in society we say ‘parents nurture,’ not just women.”
Carol Nagy Jacklin, a USC psychology professor whose expertise is gender issues, said the Good Housekeeping ad was a subject of major discussion in a recent graduate class.
“The students viewed it as giving the information that women are staying home in greater numbers, which is just not true,” she said. “These ads advance the stereotype that women don’t want to be out in the work force, they do not want to invest in jobs and if they have to have jobs, they don’t want careers.
“If anything, the trend is that women are getting more interested in careers and men less interested. More men are leaving careers, taking early retirement, picking up new skills and investing much more in their families.”
The ads can be negative, she said, because “everyone gets to view this as a confirmation of long-held stereotypes about women. Employers can use it as an excuse to keep you in low-paying, non-career jobs. . . .
‘Nothing Is Resolved’
“I guess my main concern about these ads is the use of social trends, as if they knew what they were talking about. We are in the middle of a social change, but nothing is resolved, and uncertainty is scary.”
That idea also was voiced by a tireless tracker of American behavioral change, Martha Farnsworth Riche, editor of Dow Jones’ American Demographics magazine, who said: “I think we’re in the middle of a big wave of nostalgia.’
But rather than a return to tradition, Riche, writing in the November issue on “The Postmarital Society,” predicts unprecedented new patterns ahead for the phenomenon of love and marriage.
“In the 1990s, marriage will be an optional life style,” Richie predicts. She documents that with charts, graphs and population statistics. She outlines such trends as young adults postponing marriage, men and women never marrying, divorcing, increasing the time period before remarrying and increasingly living together in middle-age cohabitation.
“Americans are spending a record low proportion of their adult lives married,” she writes.
Riche, who discussed her research at a recent demographers’ conference in Los Angeles, explained the seeming contradiction between her work and Yankelovich’s surveys: “They are looking at attitudes, at what people are saying. I am looking at behavior, at what people are doing.
“The Good Housekeeping readers are no different from the population at large: what we’re talking about is an audience of divorced women, separated, married, re-married, stepmothers. . . . So the behavior is at direct odds with that attitudes that Yankelovich found.
“What we are probably seeing is nostalgia for this ideal family, which they don’t have and which they would like to have.”
At Good Housekeeping, publisher Alan Waxenberg pronounced the campaign--a “positioning statement” for the 5 million circulation magazine--an overwhelming success. He said it will be continued with greater enthusiasm, expanding into television commercials in January.
“We are getting input from every direction and 90% of it is very, very positive,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of media attention and a lot of conversation. That’s very encouraging to us.”
There have been a few complaints, he said, but they are from women who aren’t reading the message right.
“We’re not dealing with employment here,” he said. “We are dealing with a value system. All we’re saying is that there’s a new atmosphere out there and it is a traditional atmosphere. And anything that brings back motherhood, home and kids is part of the Good Housekeeping philosophy.”
Closing from Good Housekeeping radio spot, “My Mother,” spoken by a woman’s voice: The finest cherished things in my mother’s life were her husband, her children, her home and the wedding china she never dared to use. Suddenly that’s what’s important to me too, except I’m going to use my china ... someday.”
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