The commercialization of everyday life usually gives me a headache, but I guess I can always take a Tylenol. After all, as Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who directed Tylenol’s recent #HowWeFamily advertising spots, put it, the “family brand” is “helping to dispel the fears around difference,” to “get people to understand diversity” by introducing them to a wide range of families in videos that show that “at the end of the day, no matter the gender of the parents, the color of the family’s skin, the religion that they come from, the background that they come from, all of these families have the same concerns. They want what’s best for their kid, they want to care for each other and create a home that’s safe and happy.” And sometimes, of course, they need a decent painkiller.
The Tylenol spots—of immigrant families, of mixed-race families, adoptive families, gay-parent families, military families, step-families, stay-at-home dad/working-mom families, and so on—are charming, well produced, and surprisingly rich and moving. The parents, some of whom are also celebrities, are appealing and articulate, the kids are cute, and the politics are unapologetically liberal. The introductory video takes direct aim at old notions of what and who makes a family, offering the company’s “modern take on the Norman Rockwell family.” It’s an easy target, but still.
“When were you first considered a family? When you fell in love? When you got married? When you had kids?” a kind woman’s voice asks over soft music and images of straight couples holding hands, getting married, holding kids. Then, over similar images of same-sex couples and mixed-race families: “When did you first fight to be considered a family? When you fell in love? When you got married? When you had kids? Family isn’t defined by who you love, but how.” (Pause, then: “Tylenol.”) Many of the participants challenge the idea of a “normal” family, while also asserting that, as one of them puts it, “We are, at heart, all the same.”
That people have families in a wide variety of ways, throughout history and across cultures, is well established if also still widely ignored. These Tylenol images, along with TV shows like Modern Family, are part of an ongoing demotion of the ideology of One True Family (married, heterosexual man and woman with kids), and an emerging celebration of family diversity, in popular culture —even as the legal system lags behind. That’s great, and certainly better than the stigma, discrimination, and sanctimony which nontraditional families still routinely face.
Still, it strikes me as significant that the Tylenol campaign, like the similar family representations that have been popping up, downplays the ways these families move differently through the world, glosses over the origins of the new kinds of families, like my own, that they celebrate, and focuses on only particular forms of non-traditional family. One might wonder, for instance, about the experiences of the white parent of kids of color in the face of racism, immigrant families in the midst of Trump-driven nativism, same-sex parents whose children participate in a fiercely heterosexist culture. One might wonder, too, why we don’t get sunny videos about women who chose to be, or have found themselves as, single mothers, or about multi-parent-by-design families, or #HowWeFamilyWithoutMoney. One might wonder about the birth families, egg and sperm donors, surrogates, and ex-spouses whose lives, labor, and emotions were part of the family creation process but who are invisible in #HowWeFamily. One might wonder about those marginalized members of our broader family—in the communal membership sense of “family” long used by queer people—who can’t, don’t, or don’t want to benefit from the respectability garnered by participation in conventional marriage and family institutions. One might wonder, that is, whether the demolition of the idea that there is a single “normal” family requires the erasure of the ways social inequality shapes family creation and family life.
We really shouldn’t expect advertising to show that to us, of course. That’s not Tylenol’s job. Sometimes corporate actions contribute to progressive social change—in this case, when their branding interests are served by presenting non-traditional families as symbols of liberal tolerance—and oftentimes not. But we should wonder, and we should talk, about the less comfortable, less pretty inequities that are an inherent part of family-making old and new. That family diversity has become a corporate marketing tool can be flattering to some of us. But buyer beware.
Joshua Gamson (@joshgamson) is Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco and a Fellow at the Stanford Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences. His most recent book is Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship.