Moms Are Always the Go-To Parent, Even On Packaging
by Dieline Author on 05/12/2023 | 4 Minute Read
Now that we've all lived through a pandemic, getting sick looks plenty different.
Because now, whenever you have a fever or a tickle in the throat, your brain immediately says COVID and you break out the kinda-maybe-sorta accurate at-home testing kit. Luckily for my six-year-old daughter and myself, the most recent illness wasn’t COVID, but it did require a trip to the local pharmacy to pick up some antibiotics.
As we waited in line between the aisles of medication, I glanced over at the children's section. Branding and packaging have been my lifeblood for years, but I never thought my six-year-old daughter would open my eyes to a stark reality. Every piece of packaging for the over-the-counter fever medication, thermometer packaging, snot removal, and saline spray— from photographs to illustrations—showed the mother administering the medicine to their child. My six-year-old asked, verbatim, "Do daddies not give medicine?"
As I poured over the kids section, I could see what she so brilliantly observed—the go-to parent on all this packaging was always the female—aka, "mom."So why do brands opt for Mom imagery on packaging? Showcasing motherly figures on infant and child packaging could symbolize sentiments of nurturing and caring, both of which are universally valued traits. It could also appeal to consumers who respect traditional family structures or may feel nostalgic for a bygone era. But with this generation rethinking gender roles (and with 105 gender identities), does this need to be showcased on the packaging and branded so specifically?
COVID-19 was a nightmare for everyone. Families with small children, in particular, were impacted when it came to being home and trying to live a "normal" life—working from home, Zoom-schooling, and having zero child care was a precarious juggling act. Around one-third of mothers left the workforce because the genuine struggle to hold it all down during the pandemic was virtually impossible. Also, mothers are almost always the default parent that needs to put their life on hold to care for the household.
Of course, the times are a changin' in the modern household, and statistically speaking,millennial Dads are more involved than any previous generation. They are stepping up and taking an active role in child-rearing, household chores, cooking, and other tasks previous generations considered women's work. Huggies even highlighted this in their packaging in 2019, showcasing a Dad on the box—because, believe it or not, Dad does change diapers. Of course, why did the brand have to make a red, black, and white box a la Dude Wipes with more "masculine" colors, or why it needed to be gender-specific?
There's also the issue of race on many of the children's medicines. A quick scan of the aisle revealed that many of the moms portrayed on the packaging were white and that inclusion might not be the highest of priorities when it comes to visual assets. Traditionally, in branding, the image of a matronly white woman conveyed "trust," because if she's using it, then the brand surely must be reputable. After the death of George Floyd, heritage brands with overtly racist imagery, like Aunt Jemima, redesigned their visual identity and brand names in favor of something more modern and, well, less racist. Regardless, these images on packaging still symbolize this long tradition and do not align with contemporary society.
In my humble design opinion, no. It's easy to showcase a traditional female mother figure on the packaging, but it's more challenging to solve what image, if any, needs to be on the outer packaging. If anything, the real challenge is making medicine more palatable for kids. And, as any parent or caregiver knows, giving medication to a child or infant can be a nearly impossible task, no matter how much bubblegum or cherry flavor you can cram into cough syrup.
A need to evoke trust and reassurance on the packaging should be present, but adding the mother figure reinforces traditional gender roles and sexist assumptions. It also needs to reflect the diversity of modern families, and yes, fathers in photo or illustration form can and should be on the outer packaging.
With my child developing a point of view on the world where her millennial dad administers medication to her and takes an active role in her life, the idea of med-moms on the outer packaging feels offputting and backwards. With almost half of the opposite-sex marriages in the US, women now earn at least as much or more than their husbands. Nearly one-third of wives make roughly the same salary as their husbands, creating more of an equal partnership in the home. When I posted about my pharmacy adventure on Instagram, the outrage and replies to my story were mostly questions about "How is this still happening?" It could be that my group of followers is specific to my own bubble, but this type of packaging doesn't sit well with most modern parents.
Some brands are steering away from the traditional motherly images like Hylands Natural, which showcases genderless lion mascots, a perfect solution that's appealing to parents or caregivers (of all gender identities) and children alike. Good ol’ Mucinex utilizes their monster icon on the packaging with no sign of a human figure whatsoever. Dimetapp uses a cute illustration of a smiling grape that captures a third of the front packaging; they also use images of kids with colds. All of these are great alternatives, and they often appeal to the kids themselves.
The fact remains that solutions already exist on the shelf for our modern, evolving world. And I get it—redesigns are almost always tricky with heritage brands. But is it that much of a risk visualizing a contemporary outlook on what today's world genuinely looks like, something that eschews the stereotypical loving Mom as the defacto nurturer in chief for something that genuinely mirrors the world we live in?