Advertisements for dinner-related items are almost always loaded with gender weirdness. The doting mom cooks for her nuclear family, and they love her for it–thanks to the help of whatever fantastic instant food item is being showcased. This is such a well-worn commercial trope that we often don't notice it unless it is absent, which is (sort of) the case with the latest campaign from Stouffer's: Let's Fix Dinner.
This ad campaign, which includes several commercial spots as well as an interactive website complete with a quasi-reality show, focuses on six families who are facing various challenges that are keeping them from eating dinner together. We meet a recently-divorced mom, parents who work multiple jobs to make ends meet, a family with special needs children, a parent who just returned from the military, a couple with a newly-empty nest, and so on. While many of the tired "dinnertime" tropes are present in this campaign (including the one that glorifies high sodium, high fat, processed foodstuffs), I have to admit that I am struck by the honesty of the ads. I was surprised to see Bill Beehner, the man who has been working overseas in Iraq, admit that he feels he doesn't know his daughter anymore. The single mom, Stacey McCleary, is shown struggling to explain to her daughters that they will no longer be seeing their dad every day. Shit gets real in these commercials, folks! Another interesting aspect of this campaign is its focus on family dinnertime in general, as opposed to a focus on Stouffer's (not that they don't include their logo and plug their products a whole bunch of times). They include statistics about families benefitting from eating dinner together, and the six families in the spots have all pledged to sit down and eat together five times a week. (BTW, I am assuming these are real families based on the wording of the campaign. If it turns out they are actors I'll be kinda pissed because they have convinced me to be sympathetic to their respective dinner plights.) Considering the media-saturated environment we exist in currently, I wouldn't be surprised if we start seeing more and more multi-platform educational advertising campaigns that go beyond the "buy this product and have a fantasy life!" message and actually attempt to keep it real. True, at heart this is still a commercial that is trying to get us to buy processed cheese in a pan. Still, the Stouffer's Let's Fix Dinner campaign is one of the only I've seen in recent memory that actually depicts its target demographic in its ads. Instead of a dreamworld where everyone's hair is perfect and kids are always smiley, these ads show real people with serious problems. Let's face it–not only does that nuclear family we typically see in dinnertime commercials not actually exist, but if they did exist they probably wouldn't be eating instant mashed potatoes. Families who are in the market for quick dinner ideas are often those where both parents work, or where a single parent is raising the kids, or where special needs are prioritized over homemade pasta with organic vegetables. I'm not advocating for Stouffer's for dinner every night by any means, but I do find the ads refreshing–something you can rarely say about frozen mac and cheese. So what do you think? Are you feeling this potential new direction for dinnertime ads? Or do they have you yearning for the fantasy depiction of the nuclear fam?
This project was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH's grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.