Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Having a Baby Changes Everything

Johnson & Johnson, venerable purveyors of everything from dental floss to prosthetic shoulder blades, recently let loose a barrage of print and TV ads featuring the tag line "having a baby changes everything." Each TV spot's voice-over is of the format

"{A(x)}, so who'd have ever thought that {B(x)}. Having a baby changes everything."

where A={statement of frivolous, vain, or egocentric pre-baby attitude toward subject x}, and B={statement of laudable, nurturing, and mature post-baby attitude toward subject x}. The print ads' texts run somewhat longer, but present extended riffs on essentially the same themes.

What I find fascinating about this campaign is that the ads make no specific claims about particular Johnson & Johnson products. Nor do they suggest that the use of Johnson & Johnson products will enhance the everything-changingness of your baby-having. Bottles of Johnson's Baby Wash show up in a few of the print ads and one of the TV spots, but generally appear in the background or out of focus. The company logo is understated in both print and broadcast versions, and the company name is not spoken aloud on TV.

These choices puzzled me at first, because they didn't suggest any clear reason why one should prefer Johnson's nourishing milk wash over, say, Gerber's, or why babies absolutely cannot live without lavender chamomile soap. After all, such messages of brand superiority and want-equals-need feature prominently in most succesful advertising.

But then it struck me: the ads are not promoting Johnson baby care products; they are promoting babies. Johnson & Johnson enjoys such a lion's share of the industry that advertising to lure marginal customers away from competitors is less profitable than telling consumers to get busy and make more babies. Probably 90% or more of births inspired by the "changes everything" campaign will result in babies who are washed, shampooed, balmed, swabbed, and de-diaper-rashed with Johnson products.

For all the warm fuzziness of this campaign, I have to question its social and ethical implications. At an abstract level, the profit-motivated encouragement of human reproduction instills in me a Kantian unease. Is not the (even indirect) creation of human beings as a means to economic ends an affront to human dignity?

Moreover, having a baby certainly "changes everything," but I dare say the change isn’t always for the better. If you don’t believe me, try spending an afternoon at the family law clinic where I volunteer. In its unqualified promotion of childbearing, I fear the campaign does not discriminate between targets for whom the change would be a life-affirming miracle, and those for whom it would prove an unmitigated disaster.

Indeed, the ads may encourage the latter group disproportionately. People who are emotionally, socially, and financially ready for parenthood probably don’t want to change that much about their lives, other than the absence of children. But tell people whose lives could use a lot of alteration that “having a baby changes everything,” and they are liable to conclude that they can change everything by having a baby. Want to find love, find a purpose, save a marriage, get married, get respect, get your own Section Eight voucher? Having a baby changes everything!

And then, of course, there's the overpopulation thing. But since the "change everything" babies will be funding my Social Security checks, I’ll shut up now.

Did I mention that Mrs. P. & I are expecting a baby?


  1. Oh, it gets worse once you start receiving their mailings. They've been watching you and will send you targeted marketing of a similarly vague nature at timed intervals.

    They get particularly huffy about how 'breastfeeding is best' but 'have a look at these items we also happen to offer which fill a similar need.'

  2. Congratulations on the impending little prepuce. Need I ask if, should the little one be a boy, you will be, uh, well, taking the little prepuce?



  3. Thanks!

    Just found out that we're having a girl, so dodged that bullet for the time being. My half-Jew sensibilities have some difficulties deciding whether it's an important link with our cultural past or a ritual sexual mutilation that ought to be illegal.


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