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  • The F Word: The Use of Fear in Advertising to Mothers
  • Andrea Prothero (bio)

In the last thirty years there has been a plethora of books, magazines, and Internet sites on motherhood, many of which portray motherhood through rose-tinted glasses. More recently, however, there have also been some excellent books on mothers’ experiences, which depict not only the good, but also the bad and the stressful aspects of motherhood. Some have focused on critiques of the “perfectness of motherhood”1 while other have portrayed first hand accounts of what motherhood was like for first time mothers, warts and all;2 there are websites, too, which focus on imperfect motherhood.3 A common theme across these texts is the fear and anxiety associated with motherhood, as evidenced by the language of dread, fear, fret, guilt and worry.

It seems fair to say that, in 2006, in the developed world, emotions of fear and anxiety are commonplace, and can be attributed to the risk society in which we live.4 This risk environment is very evident within the family. Julie Warner writes, in Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety:

Turn-of-the millennium parenthood is all about performance. Our performance and our kids’ performance. And there’s a reason for that. We are living in an age of such incredible competition and insecurity—financial insecurity, job insecurity, life insecurity generally—that it often feels as if you have to run twice as fast just to stay relatively securely in place.5

From a company point of view this increased level of anxiety may be good news, as many companies have learnt that selling fear can increase profits, particularly when they are selling to mothers. It is a mother’s role to worry: such worry begins even before a woman becomes pregnant, and reaches a crescendo during pregnancy. As Rachel Cusk comments, in her book A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother:

Like a bad parent, the literature of pregnancy bristles with threats and the promise of reprisal, with ghoulish hints at the consequences of thoughtless actions. Eat pâté and your baby will get liver damage. Eat blue cheese and your baby will get listeria, a silent and syptomless disease that will nonetheless leave your baby hideously deformed. Stroke the cat and your baby will get toxoplasmosis, a silent and syptomless disease that will nonetheless leave your baby hideously deformed. A temperature of more than 104 degrees sustained for several days could damage your baby in the first seven weeks of gestation, so don’t use saunas, have hot baths or for that matter wear a jersey at any point in pregnancy lest your baby be hideously deformed. Don’t drink or smoke, you murderer. Don’t take aspirin.6

Mothers in particular do, and are expected to, worry about their children: “Mothers worry. Fathers worry too, of course. But mothers are supposed to worry, and fathers are supposed to reassure.”7 At the same time mothers place high expectations on themselves and other mothers: “Thus when things go wrong, mothers are blamed, or blame themselves, for not caring enough,” as Martha McMahon observes in Engendering Motherhood.8 Similarly, in The Mask of Motherhood, Susan Maushart reminds us that “our [mothers’] deeply confused notions about motherhood are engendering a tidal wave of guilt, resentment, and anxiety among today’s women.”9

Print, TV, and Internet ads presented in the Republic of Ireland and the UK show that themes of fear and anxiety are prevalent in messages aimed at mothers and mothers-to-be.10 Worry and anxiety, traditionally the hallmarks of the mother’s role, are now over-emphasized in advertising. Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels argue, in The Mommy Myth, that a significant amount of advertising used to sell products to mothers and mothers-to-be utilizes fear as a key selling technique:

Companies that address parents’ worst fears are simultaneously providing tools to allay anxieties, and are, through their ads, articles, and Web sites about their products, dramatically inflating the paranoia already very much in the air. The risks and problems a minority—sometimes a very tiny minority—of babies and children might face become instantly...