A new diaper commercial caught our eye this week.
The Pampers Pure ad opens with John Legend changing his daughter’s diaper, smiling and singing a song. A toy piano accompaniment joins in as other dads are seen wrangling toddlers and tenderly changing diapers. The lyrics rhyme their children’s “stinky booty” with dad’s “diaper duty.” Beatboxing replaces one dad’s lyrics. Each dad is expressing love and having fun during this everyday act of care for their baby. The commercial ends with a message from Pampers, thanking fathers for “making every moment special.” In a variation of this ad, as Legend sings, the camera pans out to reveal a chorus of 10 more singing dads with infants strapped to their chests—a not-so-subtle metaphor for the fanfare and social applause men receive for merely changing a diaper.
Watching this commercial reminded us of a series of diaper ads in 2012 that made headlines for invoking a very different message about fatherhood. Huggies had promised to put their product through the “toughest test imaginable” by leaving fathers alone with their babies for five whole days. In one TV spot, upbeat music plays while moms literally hand over babies to their fathers. The dads struggle to entertain, feed, and keep their babies clean. Changing diapers causes looks of befuddlement, intimidation, and disgust.
Each of these ads conveys different meanings of fatherhood and men’s relationships to their children, yet both are consistent with conventional meanings of gender and family. The Huggies ad frames fathers as babysitters to their own children, positioning women as primary parents who are rarely given a day off. The ad also pokes fun at fathers as clueless, comical, bumbling oafs when it comes to the most basic care needs of their children. When it was released, the Huggies ad received swift backlash from fathers groups who wanted their contributions to family labor recognized and taken seriously. Trying to sell diapers as so good that they even pass the “dad test” seriously missed that mark.
John Legend’s Pampers Care commercial, by contrast, conveys fathers as competently and casually caring for their children’s diaper needs. Dads in Pampers’ universe are equal partners who share diaper duty with their off-screen wives. But dads’ diaper duty remains active, fun, and silly. Dads are shown tickling their children; holding their children’s feet; kicking their legs to the tune; and pulling a toddler across the bed as he tries to crawl away. A similar diaper ad for this year’s Super Bowl from the Honest Company noted that it was “the only day a year parents are hoping for a blowout #GoRams.” As a dad bounced a blonde-headed toddler on his lap while making funny cheering sounds, the ad’s tagline promised that the new Honest diaper “survives all his wiggles & jiggles.”
Now consider yet another diaper commercial, this one for Pampers Swaddlers, marketed as the softest diapers available of the Pampers line. A doctor places a tiny, crying newborn on her astonished mother’s bare chest immediately after delivery as the mother embraces the vulnerable baby. The loving, feminine voiceover proclaims, “From the first loving touch, everything that touches your baby should be this comforting.” Their product is “the #1 choice of hospitals,” “two times softer,” and “wraps your baby in our most premium protection.”
The gendered messages are clear: Diapers must merely “survive” fathering, but they need to reflect the depth of motherly love. Diapers ads are selling the idea that parents should buy the best diapers so moms can provide the most comfort and best care for their babies—almost as an extension of the maternal body itself—and, you know, just in case Dad needs to “babysit” and things get rowdy.
At first glance, the diaper commercials targeting men signal how far we’ve come in making the gendered division of early childcare labor more equal. We should expect to see more commercials like this as men take on a greater share of diapering and other duties. But dad-focused diaper ads show diapering as fun play rather than part of the more laborious aspects of early childcare. The reality is that women deal with most of the figurative and literal shit of childrearing.
And the diapers they need to do so aren’t cheap. The average monthly diaper bill for one kid runs close to $80, more than 11 hours pay for a minimum-wage job. This is a major reason why one in three mothers in the United States struggle with diaper need, lacking enough diapers to keep a baby dry, comfortable, and healthy. It’s also why many of those mothers must use what are called “diaper-stretching” strategies to get diapers to last longer. Creating makeshift diapers out of paper towels, t-shirts, and duct tape, hanging wet diapers to dry for reuse, and urging kids not to drink that extra cup of water or milk are all things mothers across the country are doing to diaper their children.
Diapering is not just gendered; it reflects vast and often hidden economic inequalities that make providing the basic essentials of early childcare nearly impossible for poor parents—especially mothers in poverty. Mothers are not only doing the bulk of physical diaper labor required for wiping, cleaning, and fastening. They are also performing most of the mental and emotional labor when families must save, sacrifice, and innovate to stretch limited diaper supplies.
Knowing that provides more context to those dads play/mothers care diaper ad messages. If soft, dry diapers are a reflection of maternal love, then what message does that send to poor mothers who can’t afford enough diapers to keep their children comfortable? What are we selling to those women who do whatever they can, even going without food for themselves, to ensure their children have diapers as soft as a tender motherly touch? Is it any wonder that diaper need is one of the strongest predictors of maternal stress, anxiety, and depression? Perhaps we could use more diaper ads that don’t make women feel that they fail as parents when they can’t afford diapers that prove a mother’s love.
Diapering dads is an important cultural message we all need to see and hear. And many fathers are doing their fair share. But we need to dispose of the idea that to make diapering seem manly, it needs to be fun, a game, or a way Dad gives Mom an occasional “break” from the kids. The “toughest test imaginable” for diapers is not fathers’ presumed incompetence regarding childcare. It’s whether we can seriously rethink the gender stereotypes of diapering and care labor more generally. We’ll pass this test when mothers no longer do most of the shitty work of diapering and managing diaper need.