Historical Review of Advertising Targeting Mothers: Content Analysis Under Sociological Imagination of Ads in 1920S, 1950S, and 1980S

ABSTRACT - It has been suggested that advertising could be considered the picture album of a society. Embedding advertising in the times in which it is made and interpreting it in that historical context is akin to having the people whose pictures one is watching tell the story. Sociological Imagination is one approach to achieve this. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how historical research of advertising may be conducted under sociological imagination. The paper presents evidence from a larger study to elaborate the procedures and merits of historical research under sociological imagination.


Suraj Commuri, Ahmet Ekici, and Patricia Kennedy (2002) ,"Historical Review of Advertising Targeting Mothers: Content Analysis Under Sociological Imagination of Ads in 1920S, 1950S, and 1980S", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 114-123.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 114-123


Suraj Commuri, University of Missouri-Columbia

Ahmet Ekici, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Patricia Kennedy, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


It has been suggested that advertising could be considered the picture album of a society. Embedding advertising in the times in which it is made and interpreting it in that historical context is akin to having the people whose pictures one is watching tell the story. Sociological Imagination is one approach to achieve this. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how historical research of advertising may be conducted under sociological imagination. The paper presents evidence from a larger study to elaborate the procedures and merits of historical research under sociological imagination.


Belk and Pollay (1985) made an important assertion that advertising could be considered the picture album of a society. Like any picture album, either one can observe the pictures and make a story out of it, or have the people whose picture one is watching, tell the story. While the merits of the former approach have already been examined (Belk and Pollay 1985, Gross and Sheth 1989, Pollay 1985), allowing the objects/people represented in the pictures to tell a story has the additional advantage of being able to relate the pictures to a context. The parallel in the case of advertising would be to embed advertising in the times in which they were made and interpret them in that historical context. Mills’ (1959) sociological imagination is one approach to embed advertising in its time and examin it in this historical context. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how historical research of advertising may be conducted under sociological imagination. The paper presents evidence from an ongoing study to elaborate the procedures and merits of historical research under sociological imagination.


An interest in the history of marketing and advertising has sustained since the early 1980s. Savitt’s (1980) attempt to provide a methodology for historical research in marketing opened up opportunities to analyze marketing from a historical perspective. In a review article, Smith and Lux (1993) argued that historical research in marketing has been largely interested in chronicles, which focus on describing past events (e.g. Megill 1989) and analyses of continuity and trends (e.g. Belk and Pollay 1985; Gross and Sheth 1989) with little attention paid to "explain the causes of change[and] methodological papers on historical research" (p.596, parentheses added).

Advertising has received attention from researchers of both consumers and advertising history. For example, the changes in print advertising during the twentieth century have been investigated in various aspects (e.g., Pollay (1985) investigated whether these changes are a matter of style or substance). Some such historical changes include those in styles, scenes, copy, and advertising’s use of art forms. Social and demographic changes (such as aging population) have also been anticipated and found to affect advertising (Ursic, Ursic, and Ursic 1986).

Other longitudinal studies examined such questions as "does advertising attractively present an ever-escalating image of the good life?" (Belk and Pollay 1985, p.888); "to what extent does the history of advertising display a proliferation of forms manifesting creative productivity?" (Pollay 1985, p.26); changes in advertising themes to reflect an increased concern with time as the United States evolved from an agrarian to an advanced industrial/urban society (Gross and Sheth 1989); the extent to which advertising has affected the language in America (Friedman 1985). Further, by analyzing advertising, Tse, Belk, and Zhou (1989) attempted to infer changes in consumption and cultural values.

Targeting specific groups of consumers is a commonly adopted advertising strategy. However, it can been seen from the above review of literature on historical research on advertising, that though several themes and components of advertising have been traced over the years, the handling of target groups and the changes in the depiction of target groups have not received extensive research attention. One target group that has undergone dramatic changes during this century is women. Women in the US underwent many important metamorphoses and some of the more telling ones have been the rising participation in workforce, growing incidence of graduation from college, and questioning occupational sex segregation. These changes have affected motherhood in a significant way. The nature of mothers in the 80s and the 90s is perhaps very distinct from that of those at the start of the century. It would, therefore, be reasonable to assume that advertising targeted at this segment (mothers) would have kept pace with such changes.

Belkaoui and Belkaoui (1976) content analyzed the portrayal of women in print advertisements and compared the occupational categories of men and women with the depictions of occupations in print advertising between 1970 ad 1972. Their findings indicated that even though women were gaining higher positions in workplaces, not a single woman was portrayed in the print ads as holding an executive position. The authors concluded that advertisements have not kept up with the time. Such historical analyses, while very useful, offer only a partial picture. For example, Belkaoui and Belkaoui’s (1976) criticism that advertising has not kept pace with the times isCperhapsCvalid from a structural point of view. Women have occupied professional occupations in greater numbers in the 70s than in the past and, thus, it may be a valid criticism that advertising is not in tune with this structural shift. However, an analysis under sociological imagination would force the researchers to look beyond the structural variables to review the entire gamut of phenomena that are related to any social characteristic. Such an analysis would reveal, among other things, for instance, that though women have begun to spend increasing amounts of time in paid labor force than before, time spent on household chores neither declined nor have husbands begun to share household responsibility in any significant manner. Even without discussing any other factors, it can be seen that the criticism that advertising "has not kept pace with the time" may not be entirely realistic given certain product categories examined.


Mills (1959) pointed out that to understand a problem, inquiry should be intimately related to the appropriate level of historical reality and "to the meanings of this reality for men and women" (p. 134). Mills argued that research should select a microcosm or a "smaller-scale milieux" and examine it in terms of the macro historical structure. According to Mills, a phenomenon can not be understood for its meaning unless it was grounded in the larger historical context of the time. Thus, any examination of a historical phenomenon remains without meaning unless it were examined in the historical context of the time. In his earlier work, Mills (1951) elaborated some of the dimensions of this context and suggested that it must include the trends of the epoch and the life circumstances of all the people of the time. Mills (1959) referred to this as the sociological imagination. Directing inquiry under the sociological imagination, Mills (1959) suggested that researchers should ask three questionsCwhat is the structure of the particular society; where does this society stand in human history and what mechanics are driving change; what varieties of men and women now prevail in this period. Thus, according to Mills (1959), sociological imagination is the bridge between biography and history; a phenomenon can only be understood across this bridge.


The purpose of the current study is to use the approach of sociological imagination to trace how the profile of a mother in advertising has changed in the twentieth century (more specifically, the three cohorts o 1920-30, 1950-60, and 1980-90). Print advertisements from popular media were content analyzed and shifts in advertising themes and appeals were identified. The findings are then elaborated under sociological imagination. The method used in this study can be described in three parts.

Part One: Gathering and Sorting of Print Ads

Ninety ads from Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal between 1920-30, 1950-60, and 1980-90 that appeared to target (and not necessarily portray) mothers were identified (after a review of every ad in every issue) independently by two of the authors. The reason for picking these discrete cohorts (1920-30, 1950-60, and 1980-90) was that they existed within a highly dynamic historical context and, therefore, they represent contextually different cohorts.

Twenty-one ads (the lowest number of ads that appeared to target mothers in one of the cohorts) from each group were randomly picked for analysis. These sixty-three ads were first content analyzed by two of the authors independently. Then, the content analysis of each ad was discussed jointly. All disagreements were discussed and resolved jointly. At the end of this stage, the key themes in these ads and the trends in the depiction of these themes were identified.

Part Two: Review of Additional Secondary Data

Census and other quantitative data (listed under references), women’s journals/diaries archived as microfilms, and editorial material in leading women’s magazines during the last century were gathered and reviewed with the aim of identifying the following:

a. What was the structural reality of those times?

b. What was the social reality of those times?

c. What were the dominant thoughts and feelings of mothers of those times?

At the end of this stage, thick descriptions of the social and structural characteristics of women in the three cohorts and the trends in these characteristics were identified.

Part Three: Sociological Imagination of Advertising

The various themes identified in the ads (part one above) were reviewed i the context of the secondary data gathered about the cohort (part two above). The focus was on arriving at a rich description of how the trends in advertising themes are related to the broader socio-historical context. At the end of this stage, an integrative map linking the trends in advertising themes with the social/structural characteristics of the times was drawn and the linkages elaborated. To preserve the page limit stipulation, only one such linkage is presented in full detail.


Part One: Content Analysis of Advertising

Key Themes. Advertising targeted at mothers appeared to address several themes over the years. Some of the prominent themes (across cohorts and product categories) are listed in Table 1. Both visual and textual cues were analyzed in arriving at these themes.

Trends Across Cohorts. The advertising themes identified above will be now discussed in further detail with a focus on how these themes have evolved over the cohorts. Only themes that were present in at least two cohorts are discussed here.

Serving food to children: As mentioned earlier, this theme appeared in the 20s and the 50s but not in the 80s. The family size appeared to be smaller in the ads in the 50s than in the 20s and there was less emphasis on the mother in the ads in the 50s. Unlike in the ads in the 20s where the mother was integral to the process (depicted in the visual), the focus appeared to shift to the child (almost exclusively) in the ads in the 50s (Figure 1).

While meal time and snack time were depicted in the 20s, the ads in the 50s appeared to focus predominantly on meal times. Additionally, saving time or optimizing the time required to prepare meals appeared to emerge as a key benefit only in the 50s. Content analysis of the copy revealed a shift from "good for the kids (health)" as a benefit in the 20s to "saves time (for the mother)" as the key benefit in the 50s. There was also a shift in the emphasis of the ad from 'quality of the products’ in the 20s to 'quality of life’ in the 50s.

Family as a Union: While mothers in the 20s were depicted as seeking approval from their husbands, the depiction of families and the relationships between parents and children appeared to be more egalitarian in the ads of the 80s. While the mother was often spoken to in the ads in the 20s, she tended to be the talking head in the 80s (Figure 2). In the 20s mothers appeared to seek approval and recognition through their household chores, but mothers in advertising in the 80s appeared to gain approval even otherwise. Fathers were shown as being actively involved with the children in the ads in the 80s. Such involvement (not just enjoyment) was absent in the ads of the 20s and not prominent in the ads in the 50s.

Infant Care: Infant care as a category appeared in all the three cohorts but with different shades emerging in each cohort. Specifically, while the visual depicted the mother and the child in the 20s, the focus appeared to be largely on the child in the 0s. As mentioned earlier, while an expert (third party) was present in ads in the 20s, there was no such presence in the ads in the 50s and the 80s. Mothers in advertising in the 20s and the 50s were depicted as being knowledgeable about the care they offered their children (the brand playing a supportive role); such a stance appeared to fade in the 80s where there was a greater incidence of the brand being the hero in the advertising.

In terms of caring for the health of the child, while care was predominantly set in the day in the 50s, it appeared to be in the nights in the 80s. This could be because working mothers were a dominant target in the 80s than in the 50s. Care for the boy child appeared to be more conspicuous in the 50s and that for the girl child in the 80s. In addition, such advertising in the 80s also began to appeal to the fathers (for the first time).



Mother’s Pride: Mothers in advertising from the 20s through the 80s were shown as taking pride in the way they were bringing up their children. Fewer children were depicted in the 80s. Mothers in advertising in the 80s were shown as taking pride in how they took care of the physiological (fitness) needs of their children, while mothers in the earlier cohorts (particularly those in the 20s) were depicted as taking pride in the way they presented their children to others. Perhaps consistent with this theme, mothers in the 80s were demonstrated as deriving (inner-directed) contentment from their childcare activities while mothers in advertising in the 20s and 50s were depicted as deriving (outer-directed) pride (Figure 3).

Work: Work, as mentioned earlier, emerged as a theme only in the 50s. In addition, mothers were depicted as participating in part time (or home-based) work in the 50s and full-time work in the 80s. In the 50s, brands appeared to talk to mothers about management of external work (around home) whereas advertising in the 80s appeared to talk about management of home (around external work; Figure 4). Making it up to the kids (because of commitment to work) did not appear to be a theme in the 50s, but became a prominent proposition in the 80s. Additionally, children were depicted as equal partners in the 80s.

Spending Quality Time: As in the case of the earlier theme, smaller family sizes were depicted in the later cohorts. Outdoor activities (as examples of mother spending time with children) were depicted in the 80s, and indoor activities were the norm in the 20s. The relationship between the mother and the child was also depicted as being more egalitarian in the 80s than in the 20s. Visual images connoted greater power distance in the 20s than in the 80s. Depiction of "quality" time in advertising moved from a depiction of what kids 'ought’ to do in the 20s to what children happen to be doing in the later cohorts.









Part Two: Characteristics of Women in Three Cohorts

In this section, we examine occupational, economic, educational, social, and conjugal profiles of women across the three cohorts. Based on census and other qualitative data (listed under references), first profiles of the women in each cohort are reported, and then trends in salient characteristics are discussed. Cohorts have been identified on the basis of entry into the fertility age as this is synonymous with motherhood.

First Cohort: 1920-1930:

This was a time which witnessed what was then referred to as a (first) revolution in morals and manners. Women were beginning to smoke in public and began to wear lipstick. They shed their nineteen yards of clothing in favor of more modern, shorter seven yard versions. Skirts moved up to the knees and women were demanding a right to vote. Sexual attitudes were fast changing (Burnham 1972) and traditional institutions such as the Church predicted a dismal future as morality was deemed to have been waning. These women were also likely to have been born in a hospital in a doctor assisted delivery (against a midwife assisted in the case of their parents) and were married at a time when the nature of the family was changing into a companionate one. These women were not likely to attend college and even if they did, enter a two-year one. Under 4% of the women earned a college degree (NCES 1994). Home economics, music, languages, and education were the subjects of choice and, therefore, career choices revolved around being a teacher or a nurse. These women entered the labor force early (when 19 years of age) and left early (between 21 and 24 years of age) soon after marriage, with a slim possibility of ever returning. Less than one tenth of the mothers were in the labor force. Overall, only 24% of the women ever entered the labor force (Spain and Bianchi 1996). Women experienced extreme occupational sex segregation and most women in the labor force were concentrated in less than ten occupations (Miller 1948) prominent among which were those of household servants, dress makers, agricultural labor. Accordingly, earnings were low and over half of the women headed households were below the poverty level. Women tended to marry by 21 and only eight in 1000 marriages were annulled or ended in divorceCmarriages tended to last and divorce was not a prominent possibility (Saluter 1994).

Second Cohort: 1950-1960:

This was a time when America proudly returned from a war with a vengeance to make up for all the lost times with the family. Men and women were marrying in unprecedented numbers and many an American family dreamt of a house in the suburbs and children. It was also a time of the mechanization of the household and television made its entry into nine out of ten living rooms. Women at this time were more likely to enter college than those in the earlier cohort and seek courses in business skillsCaccountancy, bookkeeping, stenography, and typing. About six percent of the women aged 25 and over earned college degrees (NCES 1994). While women continued to face occupational sex segregation, they made a foray into more service occupations than did the women in the previous cohort. Women were now concentrated in 23 occupations (Miller 1948). Over half of the women in the labor force were married and mothers returned to the labor force in larger numbers (almost fifty percent) after childbearing (Taeuber 1996). Remarriage rates were at an all time high.

Third Cohort: 1980-1990

This was an era that heralded "growth" and "self-realization." The sexual liberation that began during the times of the first cohort perhaps reached its peak during this third cohort when sex was separated from marriage and sexual fulfillment meant an acceptable desire/need. Divorce was no more a stigma and teenage pregnancy and cohabitation were no longer few and far between. "The marriage rate and birth rate are falling. The numbers of one-parent and one-child families are rising. More and more young people are living together without the benefit of marriage. Premarital and extramarital sex no longer raises parental or conjugal eyebrows" (Wattenberg 1984, p.52). This was also an era that heralded economic affluence (but for the recession that was to come during the later part of the decade). Women of this cohort were more likely to attend college. In fact 18% of the women aged 25 and above now earned a college degree (NCES 1994). While study and occupational choices such as education continued to remain popular among women, women were also likely to complete college with a degree in engineering (14% of all engineering degrees were awarded to women) , law (a third of the law degrees earned at bachelors level were awarded to women) and business (US Census 1993). Occupational sex segregationCthough presentCbegan to show signs of diffusion. Median earnings of women moved into five digits (Bennett 1995). These women were likely to enter the labor force later than those in the first cohort, but remain in it longerCoften returning sooner after childbirth; women began to attend to career and motherhood simultaneously. Less than a quarter of the housewives remained at home. Divorce rates climbed to an all time high.

Return to labor force after childbearing. It is evident from above information that while women in the first cohort rarely returned to paid labor force after childbirth, women in the third cohort (if they ever left labor force) were not only more likely to return but were also likely to return sooner. While women in the first cohort lost at least twelve months of paid work during the birth of the first child, two thirds of the women in the second cohort and only a third of the women in the third cohort lost a year or more.

Reduction in the number of agricultural families. Over the three cohorts, there has been a drop in the number of families practicing agriculture. As the number of agricultural families dropped, women participated in occupations that now bore the meaning of "work"Cunlike work on the family farm.

All families, unless very wealthy, are reared on the socialist plan..........Mrs. Churchill (author) and sisters were called upon to help weed garden, to drop corn, to make and mend family clothing.CDiary of C N Churchill, 1909

The roles that women play in keeping households afloat are often ignored Baum et al. (1993) and household work that supplements income or expenditure is not reported unless the work is performed outside the home. The incidence of such 'outside the home’ work grew across the cohorts and began to bear the meaning of "work" for women in the latter cohorts.

Boredom of the suburban life. Families starting with those in the second cohort preferred suburban living and thus were separated from the city. As the baby-boomers grew up, their mothers had more free-time. However, venturing into the city was not frequent because the city was far way and out of reach. Popular media of the time declared that women had been seized with an "eerie restlessness."

Lack of Recognition of Household Work Performed. In addition to rising boredom, women in suburbia who lost their husbands for longer hours each day (due to greater travel time) also received less recognition of the contributions they made to the household. This appears to have prompted women to seek work (and the recognition) outside the home.

All I wanted was to get married and have four children. I love the kids and Bob and my home. There’s no problem you can put a name to. But I’m desperate. I begin to feel I have no personality. I’m a server of food and a bed-maker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I? Quote recorded in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963)

This was in sharp contrast to the beliefs among women in the earlier cohorts that a girl ought to perform household chores and this had no need to be questioned. Depiction in advertising of women as being predominantly occupied with household chores and child care was thus not considered out of the line.

Economic Realignment. The economic realignment away from manufacturing and toward servics had an influence on the participation of women in paid workforce. At least two consequences of this realignment can be hypothesized. First, service sector opened up jobs (Spain and Bianchi 1996) for which women were already trained/qualified/socially seen as being apt for. Women saw a gainful opportunity and found an incentive to return to employment. Second, a move away from manufacturing also meant that the husbands either started losing their jobs or were not able to earn any more than they already did. This placed a pressure on the wives to contribute to the family budgetCa need particularly pressing after childbirth.

Rising Divorce Rates and Number of Women-headed Households. The fact that divorce was not an acceptable issue during the first cohort and that the place of a woman was in the house is evident in the following excerpt from an editorial comment in a women’s magazine published in 1905.

What is being the result (of the changing attitude about divorce among some women)? Easy divorces, which is a bane to the nation and a menace to the home. Finally they will cause the downfall of the nation itself. For the prosperity of a nation is measured by its number of comfortable homes [.......] the most honorable and desirable task which a woman can set before herself is to be a good housekeeper" Editorial Excerpts, Modern Housekeeping, Vol. XXII, No. 5

Young and Doherty’s analysis of help-seeking in women’s magazines has identified that the proportion of problems dealing with marital relations increased nearly eight fold between the first and third cohorts (Young and Doherty 1978). With the rise in divorce rates and women gaining custody of children in nine out of ten cases, the number of women-headed households grew. Some of the salient trends were an increase in single person and one parent families, doubling of unmarried couple households, and an overall increase in the number of births among teenage mothers.

"Growth" and "Self Realization." Over the years, fewer women were willing to allow family and its demands to come in the way of seeking independent paths. For example, unlike women in earlier cohorts who gave up labor force participation (after marriage/childbearing), women in later cohorts were less willing to make this compromise. Incidentally, both men and women were equally influenced by this mood.

A comparison of myths and taboos in popular fiction indicated that while courtship taboos in the 50s included foreigners and divorced men, women thereafter were portrayed as taking more risks, living independently, and in varied professions. Another example is the mushrooming of popular omen’s literature such as HUES. The editorial claims,

See, like you, we’ve seen too many women’s magazines suggest that we have to be 5’8'’ and 151 pounds in order to be beautiful. At HUES, we uphold the beauty of all women’s voices, attitudes, and flavors. HUES is a place where women can finally tell the world who we are, instead of being told who to be.

Similarly, the rise of the feminist movement made many women reconsider their life goals. Playing the role of a housewife was now termed "falling prey to exploitation." The following sentiments express how some women perceived the changing role of women as a result of the rising women’s liberation movement in the early 1900s.

In those days, life, in its entirety, meant love, home, husband and children. Today, with manyChappily not the majorityCit means rushing about the streets crying votes for women and desecrating the tomb of Washington. "Recollections" by Ellen Biddle

Yet, there was a rising proportion of women who believed that women should seek employment opportunities on par with men and there should not be any reason why women should be the ones who give up their jobs to raise a family. The women’s liberation movement also pressed for equal pay for women which now made employment more lucrative for women.

I want to live in a world where my having children doesn’t leave people assuming I don’t, or didn’t want a career (and) telling me I’ve achieved my destiny and fulfilled my God-given biological role as nurturer, care-giver and mother. How happy I must be!BDiary of Sidra M.S. Vitale (1997)

An additional trigger for the rising sense on independence could have been the second World War. It brought women into the work force in unprecedented numbers and into occupations that were traditionally out of reach of women. This not only introduced many women to full-time employment but also prompted women in larger numbers to consider employment on a long term basis, thus cherishing the sense of independence that came along.



Emergence of the Companionate Family. Over the three cohorts, the very nature of the family and the expectations from it have undergone significant changes. When women in the second cohort entered marriage, the American family was already evolving into a companionate one. "Along with providing economic security and a stable environment for children, family life was now expected to provide romance, sexual fulfillment, companionship, and emotional satisfaction" (Mintz and Kellogg 1988). As Sohoni (1993) claimed, "there is a structural and spiritual difference between the family of the 1950s and that of the 1980s and 1990s."

Emergence of Youth. The 50s saw the emergence of youth as an independent and distinct segment that shared little with their families. Though younger consumers’ unique consumption patterns were reconized before the 50s (Hollander and Germain 1992), the uniqueness of the preferences in music, literature, and movies (and thus their psychographic uniqueness) did not become salient until the 50s. Youth were, in many ways, beginning to speak their own language (Hart 1982). This created a barrier to socialization. This led to young girls growing into women with role definitions that were different from those in earlier cohorts.

Declining Birth Rates. The emergence of abortion, contraception, and the overall reduction in birth rate gave more control to women. Women were able to decide when they wanted children, how many, and when they did not want a child. This allowed women to be able to plan their lives with greater control which, in turn, allowed women to seek and make long-term commitments to other spheres of their lives. Though contraception (in its legally acceptable format) is a recent phenomenon, its effect on birth control began much earlier. During the depression, the birth control industry grew rapidly despite the legal restrictions and the medical ban. Such control over childbirth also led to smaller family sizes.

Changing Education Patterns. Over the years, women began to earn degrees in disciplines that paved the way to higher paying and long-term careers, rather than to lower paying occupations (as teaching or nursing) which women in earlier cohorts occupied.

Further, when women trained to be lawyers and engineers (to mention two such disciplines), even when they left the labor force during childbirth, they returned sooner than in earlier cohorts, because of greater opportunity costs.

Delayed Marriages. Women have, in each of the three cohorts, married at a later age than women in the preceding cohorts. This offered women time to consolidate a career before considering marriage/childbirth. More years of education and smaller family size distinguished between women with high versus low work attachment; women with high work attachment married at a significantly later age than those with moderate or low work attachment.

Part Three: Sociological Imagination of Advertising

At this stage, the trends observed in the advertising themes were integrated with the key social/structural characteristics of the times, in order to gain a substantive understanding of how advertising has targeted mothers over the three cohorts. In order to remain within the page-limit stipulations, detailed description of this integration will be offered only in the case of one advertising theme (depiction of working mother).

It may be recalled that this theme emerged in the 50s. Further, in the 50s, mothers were depicted as participating in part-time work and the brand was depicted as allowing the mother to manage her work around the demands of home. By the 80s, mothers were depicted as participating in full-time employment and the brand facilitating management of the home (timesaving) around the demands of work. Finally, working mothers and children were depicted as equal partners in the 80s, a phenomenon not common in the earlier cohorts. Similarly, as discussed in the previous section of the paper, women demonstrated/experienced several salient socio-structural shifts across the three cohorts.

Integrating these two sets of data, an integrative map depicted in Figure 5 may be drawn. The map represents possible relationships between the shifts in socio-structural characteristics and the manner in which depiction of working mother has changed across the three cohorts. The key difference between the sociological imagination approach depicted in the integrative diagram and a simple content analysis is that in addition to observing that the depiction of the working mother rose since the 50s, one is able to appreciate the reasons for such a rise and situate these reasons in the context of the times. Such a socio-structurally situated analysis allows the historical researcher to fully appreciate the nuances of the depiction of the working mother. For example, the integrative map reveals that while increased job opportunities (especially in the services sector) appeared to be the key reason for the emergence of the depiction of "working mother" in the 50s, there were other salient reasons. Since 50s, women pursued higher (career enhancing) educational options. Further, the average age of women at the first marriage rose, and women chose to take sorter maternity leaves and returned to their jobs sooner. All these socio-structural changes led to thedepiction of woman as "working mothers."

More subtle trends can also be accounted for through sociological imagination. For example, one trend in the depiction of working mother was part-time employment in the 50s versus full-time in 80s, and management of work in the 50s versus management of home in the 0s. We observed, based on the previous two analyses, that the trends in these depictions resulted from the shifts in education, divorce rates, economic realignment, boredom with the suburban life, women’s age at the first marriage, and lack of recognition of their contribution to the household, as explained earlier.

Finally, in the 80s, declining birth rates elevated children’s status in the family. Parallel to this shift, children were viewed as more "equals," and youth emerged as a discrete segment in the population. Further, the key function of the family has become "companionship" as families become more economically secure. All these shifts in the socio-structural characteristics have led to depiction of working mothers as being egalitarian with their children. Children have become the "equal partners" in the ads of 80s.


Social phenomena are interconnected. Reviewing any one of them only highlights our interest in the phenomenon rather than describing the phenomenon. It is only the landscape when examined in as broad a sense as possible that provides a comprehensive perspective. The integrative map in Figure 5, while attempting to plot such a landscape, serves several, related, purposes. First, needless to say, any statement about how advertising themes have evolved is useful information in itself. However, in the absence of the broader historical context, the significance of such shifts may remain undermined. Second, the integrative map allows one to fully appreciate the fact that what affects the trends in advertising is not one or two phenomena but a complex of such phenomena. The relationships among the socio-structural characteristics themselves have not been pointed out in Figure 5; yet, one is aware that many of these phenomena are themselves related to each other. Such relationships, when elaborated, further underline the fact that trends in advertising are embedded in a complex of socio-structural phenomena. Third, situating advertising in its socio-structural context provides (names and) faces to advertising. It allows us to understand and truly appreciate advertising as the picture album of society (Belk and Pollay 1985). This approach to understanding the sociological imagination of advertising allows us to grasp the dynamism, relevance, and the context that characterize any historical phenomena such as advertising. Thus, it can be seen that reviewing advertising under sociological imagination has several merits that extend its usefulness beyond conventional content analysis. The purpose of this paper has been to expose such merits and provide a template that may be useful in conducting such investigations. As mentioned earlier, findings reported in this paper are part of an ongoing study of a comprehensive review of advertising during the last century using sociological imagination. Trends concerning one target group (mothers) have been described here and though a longer list of socio-structural characteristics of the times have been discussed, only one trend has been integrated in the illustrative example (Figure 5). Even in this limited perspective, the richness of the examination is evident. A comprehensive exercise will relate all phenomena to all themes to depict the web that characterizes a social phenomenon.

The key departure of an investigation under sociological imagination from traditional content analysis is in its extensive investigation of the secondary data pertaining to the target group of interest. A traditional content analysis reviews advertising pertained to a time period or an issue/target grou and investigates the characteristics of such advertising. In an investigation under sociological imagination, this is merely the first step. The research should also review the socio-structural characteristics as they pertain to the target group-time period intersection in just as much detail. The researcher then bridges these two sets of information to fully understand the phenomenon of interest. This is sociological imagination.


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Suraj Commuri, University of Missouri-Columbia
Ahmet Ekici, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Patricia Kennedy, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29 | 2002

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