Dettol ads force women to bear burden of invisible threats
- Published: 09 April 2011
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Advertising for products like Dettol antibacterial soap compel us to think about germs and viruses, which are supposedly everywhere. But they also give women, specifically mothers, the role of warding off these omnipresent yet invisible threats to the health of their whole family – and imply they are failures if anyone in the household gets sick, writes Erin Stewart.
10 April 2011
If you’re a feminist looking at Dettol ads which have aired in Australia recently, an article on its positioning of women practically writes itself. Much like ads for any household cleaners, air fresheners, various detergents, even milk, positions women as the guardian of their family. Responsible for all their health and wellbeing.
Dettol well conforms to this category of advertising. One recent ad for the ‘No-touch hand soap system’ features a mother preparing dinner, clearly unaware of all the germs around her. Another 2010 ad features a woman applying hand soap to her daughter and then giving her a hug in what can only be described as a bizarre indication of her maternal character.
Advertisements for other products are similar – Nappy San ads feature mothers who seem to be experiencing some kind of existential breakdown at the character of the stains of the shirts of their sons and husbands.
These are all signs of women who care about their family. Or, in the words on one Dettol ad, women who want to provide ‘superior protection’ for their family.
The first thing to note is that it is obviously disappointing that women continue to be the consumers marketers have in mind for every product that has to do with domesticity, particularly cleaning.
In a way, these ads are a product of the fact that women still are, by and large, those consumers. However, it also works to reproduce this tendency and creates even greater societal expectations on women to be in charge of the domestic realm.
To illustrate the point, what is the mother who spends little time at home supposed to feel when marketers are telling her that in order to be a caring, good person, you need to buy and use this large array of products?
The way ‘good motherhood’ is positioned in relation to consumption and domestic work is absolutely problematic. Essentially, advertisers are working to guilt-trip women into buying stuff. If you don’t buy and use certain products, obviously you don’t care about your family. And indeed, your family are clearly quite helpless if left to their own devices.
Of course consumers are probably by and large clever enough to realise what marketers are up to. But, as soon as health comes into the equation, people do get worried, for good reason.
Why gang up on Dettol? Aren’t advertisers generally to blame for giving undue responsibility to mothers?
The answer is yes, but at the same time, Dettol is in a peculiar category of product. You see, if you don’t use Nappy San, the worst that can happen to you is that your shirts are a bit dirty. Dettol, on the other hand, can save entire families from getting ill. Apparently.
Dettol also has a particular significance for me because it has featured quite prolifically throughout my childhood. When I was young, my siblings and I would often bathe in Dettol baths made by my mother. Apparently it would reduce our propensity towards illness and make us healthier.
Nevermind that every time I go to a swimming pool (alas, without Dettol) I get sick with tonsillitis, thus cutting short my potentially illustrious swimming career, maybe or maybe not as a result of my Dettol-clad upbringing (but certainly, Dettol didn’t do much to ward off my various infections).
Meet germs. There are probably heaps on you right now. Apparently computer keyboards are a special place for them to thrive. In fact, the world generally is quite good at keeping them alive. They’re everywhere. Even, according to Dettol, on your hand soap dispenser. They claim, ‘hands touch some germy stuff and those germs can end up on your soap pump.’
Never mind the fact that once you have washed your hands with soap, presumably whatever germs you picked up from applying that soap would have been washed away.
The thing about germs though is that they are pretty much invisible. Even though there is sure to be very many of them everywhere, we can’t see them without microscopes. So, there are two things that are sure: 1) germs are inevitable; and 2) we can’t see them. As surmised nicely by Dettol themselves, ‘you may not see germs but they are everywhere.’
Things that Dettol also tells us include that germs are yucky and gross and that they cause people to get sick. Also, you can remove 99.9% of them simply by applying some soap or liquid concoction with a particularly distinctive smell.
Mothers (and it is certainly meant to be mothers) are responsible for warding off invisible things called ‘germs’ by using the product. The product has no perceivable effect – you bench tops and your hands all look the same after applying the product, but even though there is no perceivable difference, these germs have been warded off.
The fact that the site of Dettol application looks exactly the same both before and after this application is irrelevant, suddenly mothers have created a mystical ‘safe space’ where her family can thrive and grow (because really, getting your kid to stop bringing home frogs and stopping your husband from going through the garbage is just unrealistic).
But at least you can see stains and dirt and soap scum, and you know if you’ve done your job properly, as a mother, if you can’t see those things.
The type of work Dettol does though compels you to wonder and dwell. Did I clean it well enough? If my son or daughter gets a cold, does that mean that I didn’t clean well enough? How long will this space be safe?
We become afraid of things that we can’t see, things that might not be there, but at the same time things that humans have survived alongside for a very long time prior to the invention of Dettol.
The fear of what’s not there is specifically gendered, and there is no end to the worries.
Dettol makes it nigh on impossible to be a good mother because most people can’t know how germ-ridden their household is. We can see this in a positive light though – at least if ‘good motherhood’ is impossible or otherwise unlikely, then maybe we can break down this notion and realise that kids are going to get tonsillitis and that men can do their own damn cleaning, and it does not mean that the wife and mother of the family isn’t doing her job properly or that she doesn’t care.
She can’t be expected to see everything, after all.
Erin Stewart is an associate editor at the Scavenger.