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Mary Vavrus

Branding people, such as "Soccer Mom" and "NASCAR Dad," perpetuates outdated ideas about gender roles, says U researcher Mary Vavrus.

Brand aids

U professor says the line between advertising and reporting is becoming more difficult to decipher

June 15, 2007

When we think of brands, Mary Vavrus says, we tend to think of objects that can be bought and sold: Bic pens, Pontiac minivans, Brooks Brothers ties, Kenmore washing machines. Successful brands create an aura around everything from sneakers to light bulbs. And that, in turn, can translate into big bucks for the companies hawking them.

But a few years ago, Vavrus, an associate professor of communication studies, began noticing a different kind of branding emerging in the United States, one that targets people rather than objects. With the introduction of phrases like "Soccer Moms" and "NASCAR Dads" into the news coverage of recent presidential elections, she says, the people who ostensibly constitute certain voting blocs have become as branded as the hamburgers they eat and the shoes they wear.

Like traditional brand names, Soccer Moms and NASCAR Dads have opened up powerful marketing opportunities for the corporations that manufacture the products they want associated with these people and for the networks on which those corporations advertise. That new trend--and its implication for the ways we think about gender--is the subject of Vavrus's forthcoming book, Gendered Brands: Identity and the New Terrain of Media Politics

When the media report on NASCAR Dads and Soccer Moms, Vavrus says, they show actual images of consumption: the soccer mom standing by her mini-van after practice, the NASCAR Dad wearing a Home Depot t-shirt and talking on a Nextel phone. Shown under the guise of news reporting, those images have become an additional form of free advertising for corporations and represent the further commercialization of everyday life.

Vavrus is part of a group of scholars who are concerned about the effect of commercialized news media on American society. Network news that is beholden to the commercial interests of its parent companies becomes an unreliable source of information, she says, as its reporters begin to pursue stories based on product placement opportunities rather than intrinsic newsworthiness.

Successful brands create an aura around everything from sneakers to light bulbs. And that, in turn, can translate into big bucks for the companies hawking them.

During the 2004 political campaign, for example, it became difficult to discern the relevance of stories on NASCAR Dads. "Early on, these news stories resolved that these guys were going to vote Republican," Vavrus says. "But stories on NASCAR Dads continued throughout the campaign season as if they were a swing voting bloc." The newsworthiness of this voting bloc quickly became much more manufactured than real, more a way to please advertisers than to inform the public.

The result of this branding is "a hyper-capitalistic way of seeing the world," Vavrus says. "It's not democratic. It's privileging the voice of corporations, who then frame what goes in the news."

Branding Gender

Of special concern to Vavrus is how branding people for financial gain perpetuates outdated ideas about gender roles. The "Soccer Mom" and "NASCAR Dad" monikers don't simply give the media the opportunity to promote programming and products; they also perpetuate myths about the domestic and political interests of men and women.

By focusing on Soccer Moms, Vavrus says, the news media represent women in ways that limit them. "The Soccer Moms are home with their kids. The kids are the focus of their lives, as are the products they use to cart their kids around and make dinner for them," she explains. As a result, "story after story frames these women in terms of their consumerism and not in terms of their political power or interests."

That, Vavrus says, is dangerous. "These news organizations cover women in politics through a lens that encourages traditional femininity and consumerism rather than encouraging them to really change the power structure," she says.

The political interests of NASCAR Dads, meanwhile, have nothing to do with their children. "Their paternity is virtually absent," Vavrus says, an absence that invokes outdated models of parenting that emphasize the mother as caregiver and the father as a more detached authority figure whose interests lie outside of the home.

Reforming Media

Vavrus would like her book to help readers recognize the powerful role of a capitalist economy in shaping the news they see and in delivering and reinforcing messages about gender especially in an age of corporate media consolidation and global media saturation.

"The relationship between media corporations and their advertisers is the most important one to understand if you want to understand what we do and don't see-and why-in the mainstream media," she says. "I hope the book makes a contribution to the burgeoning media reform movement, which works to increase media literacy and change media policy."

Vavrus's most recent book is Postfeminist News: Political Women in Media Culture (State University of New York Press, 2002).