Ads Are Shifting From Aspirational to Honest in Their Portrayal of Parenting

Babies R Us, Kraft Mac & Cheese and Yoplait are going for realism

American Greetings recently released an emotional spot about a couple dealing with infertility.
American Greetings

Babies can be gassy, fussy and gross, and they present parents with new challenges every day. Between the internet and the fact that every person you know will give you contradictory parenting advice, it can seem impossible to do the right thing. The reality is that as a parent—or even on your journey to becoming a parent—you will face hardships and make mistakes, and that’s OK, according to brands like American Greetings, Babies R Us, Kraft Mac & Cheese, Yoplait and Fridababy, all of which have released campaigns in the past six months showing a more honest portrayal of parenting in 2017.

Brands are shifting away from aspirational messages with an idealized vision of family and instead infusing campaigns with moments of realism—showing moms who curse, a dad who accidentally destroys a bouncy castle, parents who forget things—because that’s exactly what millennials want to see from brands. According to exclusive research from BabyCenter, 66 percent of millennial moms say it’s important for brands to realistically portray parenting.

“There was a generation for whom aspiration work was right,” said Elizabeth Paul, svp and deputy head of strategy. “But millennials are more savvy, [have] higher expectations and a stronger bullshit monitor.”

In early July, American Greetings released a 90-second spot, “Not Alone,” from MullenLowe in Boston. The ad was timed to National Parents Day and followed a couple struggling with infertility. The story, based on a real-life couple, isn’t what you might expect to see on that day from American Greetings, but “through consumer testing,” the brand and agency “learned this story resonated as authentic and relatable,” explained Paul.

“Real life presents a range of experiences that don’t always fall on a calendar holiday or fit in a perfect box, but they are totally deserving—sometimes even more so than set occasions—of acknowledgement,” said American Greetings’ CMO Alex Ho in an interview with Adweek. “Infertility is one such experience.”

Babies R Us also retooled its messaging in July to attract millennial parents with the help of agency BBDO. The new tagline, “Be prepared-ish,” speaks to the impossibility that parents can be prepared for everything.

“Millennial parents, more than any other parent, were very vocal about us being real, us being honest and us being raw,” said Babies R Us CMO Carla Hassan. “The vulnerability that we’re bringing in the language that we’re using—this notion of, you’re going to forget things, and that’s OK. You’re going to make a mess; that’s OK. You’re going to be scared of leaving the hospital; that’s OK—[came from] the idea that they just wanted us to be much more raw.”

The move away from aspirational messaging and touting perfect parents in ads makes sense. According to Meredith Hirt, insights writer for youth research firm Cassandra, “Rather than striving to be the perfect parent, at least half of Generation Y parents in the U.S. [55 percent] and U.K. [50 percent] say they are open about their parenting mishaps and challenges.”

Added Hirt, who referenced Cassandra’s 2016 Modern Parents’ Report: “More than four in 10 in both the U.S. and U.K. [44 percent versus 42 percent, respectively] say they feel better about themselves as a parent when other parents admit to their own parenting mishaps and challenges. Thus, they want brands to provide honest marketing campaigns with relatable portrayals of the challenges of parenting, as well as moments that show more performative parenting to provide humor.”

Kraft creative shop CP+B in Boulder tapped into the insight that “there is no such thing as a perfect parent,” explained Adam Chasnow, vp and ecd at CP+B. It created a humorous campaign showing parents’ imperfections, including one spot featuring moms admitting to swearing in front of their kids.

“Trying to be a perfect parent is impossible, and frankly, the best parents are the imperfect ones,” Chasnow said. “Younger parents seem more open to doing parenting their own way, not just repeating the way they were brought up or relying on one source of parenting information.”

Some other recent campaigns, like Yoplait’s latest work from 72andSunny (below) and Fridababy’s from Special Operations, tap into the anxiety and pressure millennial parents may feel from their family and friends to be perfect. By creating narratives that lean into that feeling, the brands are able to create fun yet honest work that seems to use similar insights as the Kraft spot above.

But shifting away from parenting stereotypes isn’t as easy as it might seem.

“The fundamental differences between these generations become the springboard to a variety of approaches towards how agencies would reach out to each one,” said Anibal Casso, group strategy director at 72andSunny New York. “While there’s not a right or wrong way, the rules are a lot tighter as millennials represent a more demanding generation with expectations that have been amplified through a higher and louder voice thanks to social media.”

Allen Adamson, a longtime brand consultant and the founder of Brand Simple Consulting, also believes the demands for brands to come up with honest, realistic messaging are more intense now.

“It’s hugely challenging because if you have to talk to everyone individually or talk to more slices in the marketplace, it’s less efficient,” Adamson said. “Marketers long for the day where they could create one message, one size fits all. Life was easy when you could depict the American family as dad going to work, mom staying at home with two kids eating a bowl of cereal in the morning.

“That world is long gone, and there is no one size fits all anymore. You live in a unique world where everyone has a unique story, and millennials expect you to talk to them, not some abstract representation of their parents.”