This last weekend social media and mass media has been flooded with Mother’s Day messages from brands – almost all going bombastic and ballistic with emotions on a Mother’s love for her progeny.
But in the US this year, many brands have created an ‘opt-out’ option for customers because Mother’s Day may not have the same warmth and same happiness for all.
Brands have figured that for too many people, Mother’s Day may be a stinging reminder of the death of a parent or child, a broken relationship, infertility or other ruptures between desire and reality. In India too, the same sentiment is valid but currently ignored – hence the question: can you universalise Mother’s Day messaging?
The celebration of motherhood has long been a part of human history, but it was not until 1908 that the US established a day dedicated completely to mothers.
After her mother died in 1905, an American woman called Anna Jarvis wanted to set aside a day to honour the work and sacrifices made by mothers. As a result, she held the first formal Mother's Day celebration in Grafton, West Virginia, in May 1908.
Soon after, it grew into a full-fledged movement, with Anna and her friends writing to prominent personalities in the US to demand that the day be declared a national holiday. By 1911, it had spread to every state in the country. Finally, in 1914, then US President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May to be celebrated as Mother's Day. The celebrations quickly spread beyond national borders and into other countries. Mother’s Day, however, is different in various countries today but more than 50 countries celebrate it as an ode to moms.
Interestingly, British florists, Bloom and Wild are commonly credited with starting the opt-out trend in 2019. Since then, brands including OpenTable, Away, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and Etsy have followed suit, intending to be more cognizant about how people experience Mother’s Day differently. Some companies have since expanded their opt-out option to include Father’s and Valentine’s Days too. This purported corporate empathy too, though, has had mixed responses.
Many people have expressed gratitude, saying the opportunity to avoid unpleasant messaging makes them think highly of the brand. Others have said that with the increasing number of companies participating in the trend, it means the opt-out messages themselves bombard customers with undesirable communication. It is surely a tricky turf. Because younger generations have invariably shown interest in supporting brands that align with their values, the opt-out messages have become more and more appealing to companies.
Mother’s Day is not important to most brands’ bottom lines any way; so it’s easy for them to risk potentially losing a little business for the benefit of being viewed as ‘considerate’. Brands and agencies need to think about this seriously. A lot of brands today need to see empathy as a key part of their personality and what better way to be empathetic than to ask your customer base if they want to not get ads and messages about a topic that they’re sensitive about?
There is a parallel debate going on with regards to brands advertising on Mother’s Day and the 'motherhood penalty' of lower lifetime earnings and fewer opportunities, largely because of bias and assumptions about their capacity for and dedication to their paid work at these very companies. Many companies are likely to get hurt if this debate reaches higher din and noise levels.
Back to ‘opt-out’. But a bit different. In 2003, a New York Times headline coined the term 'opt out' to describe a Lisa Belkin article about highly educated, high-achieving women who, overwhelmed by the demands of the workplace and parenting, decided to downscale or jettison their careers for a time, seemingly convinced that they could get back on a professional track when they needed or wanted to. But it didn’t always happen. In India too this is abundantly true. Mother’s Day, sociologists insist, should not be just about flowers or chocolates or cakes or advertising love – it should, at a corporate level be about getting moms back to work as equals, with flexibility as that opt-out option whenever needed.
Perhaps these are voices and echoes from far off lands. Not relevant to our markets. In India today, clients and brands with no real connect to moms or motherhood are doing their version of maa tujhe salaam just to be a part of the moment.
Mostly tear-jerkers, overloaded with nostalgia and sacrifice. One can perhaps understand why Biba or TTK Prestige need to salute moms – they have both put out communication over the weekend besides tens of other mother-facing brands, but why on earth is Rajnigandha Silver Pearls getting teary-eyed on Mother’s Day is beyond my comprehension.
Mother’s Day will come again in a year. Brands have a year to reflect till then on whether Mom is a good stimulus to sales or the desired soft stroke required for hard-nosed companies to appear more humane and compassionate. To me, all advertisers must have the opt-out option – universalisation of brand messaging is not always the best solution. Think about it.
Sandeep Goyal is the managing director of Rediffusion.