Food and the Ideal of Motherhood

Our modern culture conceives of women in a two-fold manner: as responsible for both childhood well-being (as an extension of their role as homemaker) and for bringing about affectionate maternal bonds. This ideal is furthered by depictions in mass media, and specifically in advertisements, which often ignore the possibility of shared domestic responsibilities (shared with either another partner or the children). Accordingly, recent research has shown that women are three times more likely than men to be shown in the home than at work in advertisements and are most often depicted as product users rather than authority figures (Eisend 2009). Similarly, men are present in only 1.4 percent of ads about housekeeping compared to 32.4 percent with women (Paek et al 2010).

In line with this trend, this advertisement depicts a woman creating harmony out of morning chaos: preparing a “nutritious” breakfast of Nutella and toast for her children, all the while looking completely cheerful:

Examining this advertisement with a critical eye, it is clear that the woman is acting out her femininity solely as a doting mother, not worried about getting to work or eating breakfast herself. Similarly, though, the ad begs the question as to why media depictions of families so rarely involve men or children helping with chores: why is it only mom’s responsibility to put breakfast on the table?

This narrative, of woman as a mother and caretaker, while entrenched in centuries of unequal cultural standards for women is also borne out of modern consumerism and a changing “ideology of motherhood.” Karen Lynch discusses this change at length, delineating four stages of idealized motherhood in the Ameircan socio-historical context. She explains that this ideal has evolved from “obedience, rather than maternal bonds of love and affection” in the Puritan era to a focus on mother as a central caregiver, “responsible for the proper emotion and physical development of children” today (Lynch 2005).

This Nutella ad largely serves to solidify this link between motherhood and child well-being. Nutella, which has 21 grams of sugar in 2 tablespoons (about the same as is in three chocolate chip granola bars) is described not only as an easy breakfast option, but a healthy one. By emphasizing how healthy and natural Nutella is (real hazelnuts! Skim milk!), Ferrero is simultaneously mis-promoting its product as well as relying on and perpetuating the role of women as central caregivers. If the mom on TV who clearly cares so deeply for her children recommends Nutella as a healthy breakfast option, then I should buy it too. The ad, therefore, is demonstrating “healthy eating behavior” while also idolizing the image of woman as the mother who is solely devoted to taking care of her children.

The other, related aspect of this symbol of womanhood is the emphasis on the role of food in creating bonds between mothers and her children. Similar to the ad above, where the mother is positively thrilled to be making breakfast, in this Nutella ad the mother has served breakfast (is not eating herself) and is looking dotingly at her children who all smile adoringly at each other:

Nutella ad 1

As Parkin points out in the book, Food is Love, while many Americans might have believed that as women entered the workforce, advertisements would change to encapsulate a new image of gender equality, not only are women still shown as being solely responsible for the family’s health, “in the hands of women, food is love” (Parkin 2011). This ad, which shows a mother (again, alone) providing dinner for her children with the help of hamburger helper, focuses food preparation as this type of ritual of motherhood, emphasizing the love between mother and child that is borne out of her providing food for them:

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This is deeply intertwined with the idea of woman as a consumer – the woman is a mother who protects and embraces her children and does so “in the context of commercial promotion,” promising closeness that a product, whether it be Nutella, or Hamburger Helper, can bring (Cook 2012; Robertson 2009).

In response to this problematic cultural symbolism, and specifically to the first Nutella advertisement discussed above, our group put together this ad:

Blog 3 Ad

There, both the children and the father are making a nutritious breakfast together. This ad, of course, should be subject to a similar type of critical analysis. Specifically, for example, this ad could be seen to be detracting from a positive portrayal of single fatherhood (the father is noticeably wearing a wedding band), or idolizing the idea of “home-made” breakfast as the epitome of good parenthood. That having been said, the ad does address the traditional gender roles captured in advertisements about food as well as emphasize that children can also take a role in helping in food preparation (and other aspects of helping around the house). Relatedly, we made a concerted effort to move away from the promotion not only on motherhood, but specifically on an idealized white motherhood. The ad therefore strives to critique the role of woman as a mother who is solely responsible for the family’s nutrition and can only achieve a loving relationship with her children through food preparation.


Cook, Daniel T. “Through Mother’s Eyes: Multiple Mothers in American Mothering Magazines.” (2012): n. pag. Web.
Eisend, Martin. “A Meta-analysis of Gender Roles in Advertising.” Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 38.4 (2010): 418-40. Web.
“Hamburger Helper TV Commercial for Box Tops.” N.p., 21 June 2013. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.
Lynch, Karen D. “Advertising Motherhood: Image, Ideology, and Consumption.” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 49 (2005): 32-57. Web.
“Nutella Commercial.” YouTube. N.p., 27 June 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.
Paek, Hye-Jin, Michelle R. Nelson, and Alexandra M. Vilela. “Examination of Gender-role Portrayals in Television Advertising across Seven Countries.” Sex Roles 64.3-4 (2011): 192-207. Web.
Parkin, Katherine J. Food Is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 2006. Print.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2009. Print.

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