Which Paper Towel Would You Buy, or Why are Household Products Commercials Stuck in 1961?

10 years ago

Three days a week, I attempt to do my part in "saving the world," and I work at a community health organization in the Bronx. On Mondays and Fridays, however, I focus on my writing "career." During breaks from staring at the computer screen, I stare at the TV screen, viewing marathons of America's Next Top Model, Top Chef, and/or Project Runway. My new daytime TV habits may not help my writing much, but I feel as though I've been introduced to a whole new world of advertising. For instance, last week I (repeatedly) saw a Bounty paper towel commercial that left me slack jawed. Here's the paraphrased scene:

Dad and son stand, leaning over a big brown puddle of what I think is pop (or soda to you non-Midewesterners) and an empty glass.

Dad: Wow, that's a three sheeter!

Son (shaking head sagely): Four sheeter!

Mom stands in background near paper towel dispenser.

Mom: It's a one sheeter!

She rips off a towel...

Cut to me in my living room. I think to myself, she is going to give the guys who made the mess the paper towel so they can clean it up, right? No way she is going to walk across the kitchen, get down on her hands and knees, and clean the spill while the guys just stand around, right? Right? Back to scene...

A female arm with the manicure as the mom earlier displayed swipes the paper towel over the pop. She then goes on to clean something that I swear is a blob of jizz off of a doormat.

Cut back to me. What the fuck? Seriously, I hope when she wiped up the spunk, she applied for membership in the jizzmoppers union. (No joke - there's really a jizzmoppers union.) At least she wouldn't also have to mop up spilled beverages as well. Maybe I don't get it because I'm not a mom myself. Perhaps mothers love their children and husbands so much that they are overjoyed when it comes to cleaning up after them? I consulted some experts - women with children - to find out if my reaction is based on my selfish, shrewish, childless nature.

Andrea at The Real World doesn't seem to believe the hype, either:

So, in my last post I mentioned the Powerade spill and I got to thinking about paper towel commercials....it always seems like the mom in the commercials is super excited about their kids' spills.


Well, apparently I'm evil because when that spill happened, I was thinking more like,"UUGGHHH! How many paper towels is this gonna take to simply get the wetness up before I have to scrub the stickiness off the floor? And thank goodness I stocked up at Costco the last time I was there."

OK, so I'm not crazy. And it's not just Bounty who is reminding us that it is a woman's job to keep her husband, kids, and home clean. Lylah M. Alphone at Working Moms discovered a fine ad campaign from Viva encouraging women to be "Viva Divas." Investigating a Viva ad, she found:

There’s something Rob and Laura Petrie about the whole thing, but the pots on the stove look kind of like the modern-day, hard-anodized cookware I love. The husband’s got that “casual Friday” thing going on, and the wife looks like maybe she just got home from work, in spite of the apron. The backsplash is kind of 1970s, but there’s no avocado- or goldenrod-enameled appliances in sight.

And yet… the ad pretty much flies in the face of everything a generation of women fought for. The journal entry clinches it: “Tuesday. Today I found the perfect paper towel! Viva is so soft! I used it to wipe sauce of Tom’s chin, but I couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. Is Viva really paper?”

Please pass the soma! As if we working moms weren’t stressed out enough, now there’s this resurgence of 1950s ideals to contend with.

Now I know I am really a bad woman. Whenever I mop up my husband's face after he eats in the typical man-slob way of the advertising world, he never smiles at me. Instead, he gets annoyed at me for treating me like a kid. "I can do it myself!" he glowers. Maybe Viva would restore my feminine touch and make me a better wife? Or is it possible that Andrea, Lylah, and I are not the only women out there who wonder about the cheerful automatons delighted to clean, clean, clean on TV. But if that's true, you'd think that the folks behind the commericials (no longer known as "ad men" for a reason - lots of women also work in advertising) we see might re-think how they sell products so that the audience they reach can actually relate to what they see. According to Audrey, a stay-at-home mom, at Red Earth Redhead, no one can relate to these ads:

Two types of people are home during this mid-day slump (according to the commercials): one type is the wholesome mother, and the other is a complete loser who flunked out of community college and is now permanently affixed to his mother's couch. Sometimes I forget which type I am and I think "Wow, I could become a medical assistant in just five weeks!", or "Could I really still sue that person who rear-ended me three years ago?" I think that I have trouble identifying with my "type" because I have never worn khaki pants, which are apparently the uniform of moms (I was sure that it was pajamas). Also, my house looks nothing like these commercial sets. I love how paper towel ads show the pristine female hand wiping up the one tiny spot of juice off of the otherwise immaculate kitchen counter. Come on!! Show me an unmanicured, dish-pan hand wiping a real counter with coffee stains and crusted flour on it. I would buy those paper towels, because they speak to me and my life.

Why is it so hard for commercials to catch up to the times? I realize that it is very easy to rely on class, race, and gender stereotypes to sell things, but supposedly some of the most creative minds in the world work at ad agencies. Is it the clients who insist on such tired and insipid ads? My sneaking suspicion is that moms, dads, and other adults would be pleased to see a commercial showing a kid making a mess, then taking it upon his or her self to grab a paper towel, clean up the spill, and throw it out. Maybe for good measure, the kid could even thank the parent for buying such cleaning products that allow them to handle little problems quickly so they can get back to hanging out with their friends and playing Nintendo, or whatever it is kids do these days. The last shot would be a beaming parent, blogging about how proud he/she is of his/her kid.

Unbelievable? Maybe. But if ads are there to sell us our fantasies, I bet that would be the most successful paper towel commercial in history.

Suzanne also blogs about life at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants, yogurt at Live Active Cultures, and people who try to save the world at Just Cause.

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