Elastic Mothers at a Crossroad: A Qualitative and Semiotic Analysis of Motherhood in Advertising in Toronto and São Paulo

Maria Collier de Mendonça


This paper presents the key findings of my doctoral research, which argued that advertising reproduces and reinforces culturally constructed maternal ideals. To do so, I investigated three research issues: first, what meanings are associated with being a mother today; second, what maternal ideals are predominant within advertising messages and imagery; and third, how mothers and pregnant women negotiate these advertising signs. My theoretical-methodological framework includes semiotic and psychoanalytic concepts and qualitative research with mothers and pregnant women. The Canadian research corpus includes advertisements, published from 2010 to 2013 in Parents Canada, Canadian Family and Today’s Parent magazines. The Brazilian research corpus includes advertisements, published from 2006 to 2013, in Pais e Filhos and Crescer magazines. I interviewed pregnant women and mothers with children up to eight years of age in Toronto and in São Paulo, to explore how they perceive themselves as mothers and what they think about these advertisements. The advertising analysis aims at identifying thematic groups of advertisements with similar characteristics (maternal representations, images, messages, sales appeals and cultural ideals). I begin this paper by highlighting contextual similarities and differences related to being a mother today in São Paulo and in Toronto. Next, I present key findings obtained from the semiotic analysis of Brazilian and Canadian advertising. To do so, I introduce main ideas from different scholars, which inspired my work. Then, I summarize the thematic groups of advertisements mapped in Brazil, followed by a more detailed analysis of the Canadian advertising. Finally, I conclude by summing up the most important findings obtained in Canada, in contrast to Brazil.

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We are grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for its ongoing support of the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement.