The Age of the 'Alpha Mom'
A new wave of advertising is showing women in control
Madison Avenue has created a new kind of mother to reflect the latest work-family trends. Dubbed "alpha moms," they project independence, balance, and competence at both work and home, in contrast to past images of harried working moms and über-domestic stay-at-home moms.
"Alpha moms are women who are in control of their own destiny. She sometimes works and sometimes doesn't... The idea is that you can be good at both [motherhood and career] now," says Kristi Bridges, creative director of the Sawtooth Group, a marketing firm in Woodbridge, N.J.
The Leo Burnett advertising agency first noticed the group in 1999. It labeled them "mothers of invention," after their reliance on hands-on husbands, flexible work schedules, and new technology to successfully combine motherhood and work. At the time, they made up about one quarter of mothers; the agency says the percentage is probably significantly higher today.
Marketers are paying more attention to mothers partly because they're earning more money: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that between 1973 and 2003, working wives' contributions to family income grew from 26 percent to 35 percent, and almost one third of women outearn their husbands. According to the Minnesota Population Center, the average mother with a college degree earned $34,344 in 2005, compared with $17,520 (in 2005 dollars) in 1980.
Maria Bailey, coauthor of Trillion Dollar Moms and chief executive of BSM Media, a marketing firm that specializes in reaching mothers, calculates that U.S. mothers spend $2.1 trillion a year. Isabel Kallman founded Alpha Mom TV to cater to the demographic after tiring of seeing images of perfect mothers in the media. Online videos feature discussions on fashionable maternity wear, breastfeeding, and involving men in child care and housework. "Every mom can be an alpha mom in her own way," explains Kallman.
A recent television ad for Ford's Lincoln MKX exemplifies the image: It features a woman in a bikini top and surfing shorts stepping out of the sports utility vehicle with her surfboard while male surfers stop to stare. "My dream was always to catch the perfect wave. Then I realized, I caught three," the woman says, as her three daughters step out of the car to join her on the beach. The target customer for the Lincoln MKX, which has extra safety features and space, is a woman in her mid-40s who runs a busy life, balancing her family, career, and personal life, says Mike Richards, Lincoln's general marketing manager.
Politicians are also trying to woo alpha moms, much as Bill Clinton appealed to "soccer moms" in the 1990s. Bailey cofounded the MomVote.com website after several 2008 presidential candidates asked for her help in reaching contemporary mothers.
This story appears in the September 3, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.