Why Are All Pregnancy Test Commercials So Damn Cheerful?

photographed by Ashley Armitage; produced by Lorenna Gomez-Sanchez; modeled by Lorlei Black; produced by Megan Madden.
Joy is not among the emotions I’ve experienced while taking a pregnancy test. Clammy terror, yes; stomach-cramping apprehension, yes; ecstatic anticipation, no.
Take my most recent pregnancy scare, for example, an internal nightmare I weathered two summers ago. As a person who writes about sex and reproduction, I am fairly familiar with the signs of early pregnancy — signs that, perversely enough, overlap quite a bit with the hallmarks of PMS. So when the sore breasts, bloating, headaches, and queasiness I’d attributed to my period’s imminent arrival dragged out over five weeks, I started sweating, suspecting that I ranked among the less than 1% of people who gets pregnant with an IUD.
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I vividly remember the sequence of nights spent promising myself that, if I didn’t wake up to blood-spotted sheets, I’d haul myself to a pharmacy and buy some answers; I remember scuttling that deadline for four days, until writing some abortion-adjacent story at work propelled me out of my seat and into the nearest drug store. I remember the mental budgeting to figure out just how quickly I could afford to take care of things if I had to; I remember hashing out, in my head, the script I’d use to tell my (supportive if also skittish) partner, if I told him at all; I remember shaking my way through the rest of my workday before wobbling the 45 minutes home, where I locked myself in my bathroom, peed on two sticks, and collapsed in a pile of full-body relief when both came up negative.
This moment was not my first pregnancy scare, only my most recent: another one came directly from my gynecologist, who misread the hormonal situation laid out on my chart; another came in my late teens, when I still called an aggressively anti-abortion state home. “Exciting” is not a word I could accurately ascribe to any of these experiences, and according to a new survey by Perry Undem research group, most women would tend to agree: Among the 18 to 44-year-old women surveyed, 67% had felt dread or panic in moments they thought they might be pregnant. On average, the women polled spent 2.3 years trying to get pregnant, and nearly 13 years trying to avoid pregnancy.
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Those figures track with the overwhelming majority of anecdotal evidence I’ve amassed from peers during our childbearing years, but they absolutely do not track with the narrative presented in pretty much every pregnancy test commercial I’ve ever seen. Take this 2016 Clearblue spot, in which women — the youngest of whom appear to be in college — loudly celebrate their uniformly unbounded joy at learning they’re expecting, jubilantly embracing partners and friends and family members gathered ‘round to support them. Or this Clearblue commercial, in which a happy couple eagerly anticipates confirmation of a coming baby while tinkly crib music plays in the background. Or this First Response ad, which focuses not on the anxiety-making waiting process but on the bottomless joys of motherhood: doting men kiss convex bellies and gingerly cradle pregnant partners. Heartwarming? Sure. Realistic? Meh.
Some women will have this blissful experience and rightly so: For people who want babies and are prepared to have them, finding out you’ve conceived is probably the best news you can get. Yet fewer U.S. women are having kids than ever before, and in 2018, the idea that every woman will be overjoyed to discover she’s pregnant feels stale. What of the women who really want but never get that positive sign? What of the women who want children but simply can’t afford to have them? What of the women who simply don’t? Over 40 years have passed since the first FDA-approved home pregnancy test hit shelves, and yet in all those decades, advertisers don’t seem to have adjusted their expectation that motherhood is the end-all, be-all for every woman.
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Wanting to know why that is, and what stands in the way of a more modern ad, I brought my complaints to the brands themselves. None of them, however, agreed to an interview; instead, the two that responded to repeated requests for comment — First Response and Clearblue — replied with statements. (E.p.t. could not be reached at all.) Both emphasized that their commercials prize product reliability over storyline.
“While we acknowledge not every woman taking a pregnancy test wants to be pregnant, the Clearblue Digital Pregnancy Test offers clear and accurate digital results that she can depend on during that important moment,” read Clearblue’s emailed statement. “We understand that it is an emotional and meaningful time and we want to provide results women can trust.”
First Response was more forthcoming, explaining that the “brand strives to create an emotional connection and does so through positive storytelling.” Their creative agency, The Joey Company (which did not agree to an interview for this article), considers feedback from consumers, OB/GYNs, and the brand’s research and development team to determine the most resonant approach to selling the product, the statement said. “First Response recognizes that accuracy is paramount when taking a pregnancy test. Regardless of your desired outcome, ‘not knowing’ is the initial source of anxiety.”
For a person who thinks they might be pregnant, whatever their particular circumstances, the waiting is indeed the hardest part. It should be said, too, that the couple-thrilling-at-coming-baby isn’t the only picture pregnancy test ads present, just the dominant one. Readers may be familiar with First Response commercials featuring a woman with long brown hair who, standing in front of a chart, soberly evokes science to ensure viewers that “First Response tells you sooner.” This 2017 e.p.t. commercial features nervous-looking test-takers alongside smiling women, the range of emotions reading as a possible acknowledgement that not all women enjoy the stick-peeing process. The same company’s 2012 spot — entitled “Erase Panic Today” — is clearer about that idea, a woman’s disembodied voice explaining, “I want to be a mom, just not yet,” as the camera zooms in on the product. “Oh! I’m good,” she laughs, as a single line materializes, instead of the oft-dreaded two.
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Yet even that ostensibly more progressive approach fails to disavow the gender stereotypes so often baked into pregnancy test commercials, says Lucy Atkinson, an associate professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising at the University of Texas at Austin. The woman isn’t denying her maternal role; rather, she’s deferring.
“I think if we think about it more deeply — what is this product, what is being advertised — we really start to get a glimpse of what our cultural assumptions are, what we think the roles of women should be, what we value as a culture at large,” Atkinson tells Refinery29. “There’s this cultural expectation that women want to have babies, that they should have babies,” she adds. Showing a woman who’s visibly relieved to find out she isn’t pregnant not only bucks that traditional cultural expectation, it also acknowledges the somehow still-taboo truth that women are out there having sex for pleasure over procreation.
“Probably, the brands or the agencies they work with maybe don’t want to rock the boat in terms of doing something that ... would potentially be associated with a negative reaction,” Kate Pounders, also an associate professor at the Stan Richards School, agrees. Still, she says, “the traditional expectation that every woman wants to be a mom” is growing tired.
Advertisers have long sold women a white-washed, improbably perfect lifestyle in which most viewers don’t see themselves reflected, and as Pounders pointed out, social pressure has lately translated to a shift in the body types, skin tones, and gender roles we see represented on screen. There are the commercials for household cleaning products that feature dads, instead of moms; there are now ads for feminine hygiene products that, because they feature realistic blood in place of sterile blue liquid and reject the inexplicable woman-running-on-beach-in-white-bikini imagery so popular in portraying periods, resonate with menstruators everywhere.
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Both Atkinson and Pounders agreed that the disparity between women’s reality and for-women advertising might have something to do with the industry’s being run predominantly by men — women account for just 11% of creative directors, according to AdWeek — whose male gaze is, whether they intend it or not, evident in the commercials they make. “If the agencies … [are] very homogenous, you’re going to get a message that doesn’t necessarily speak to someone, to their truth, but that’s the way things have been done,” Atkinson says. “There’s no one in that room to say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we should do things a little differently.’”
William O’Barr, a professor in Duke University’s Department of Cultural Anthropology, doesn’t buy it. “I think that’s a really tired, old argument,” he tells Refinery29. The “feminist reading” of a pregnancy test ad, he continues, would hone in on the ways in which commercials objectify women, but regardless of the product it aims to sell, advertising presents an aspirational version of things. “The assumption is all women would aspire for this to be a situation in which they use this pregnancy test,” O’Barr says of the typically optimistic tone.
An advertiser will aim to showcase one experience that’s accessible to everyone and alienates no one: The married couple hoping to get pregnant because “that’s been a lifelong dream and everything is going well for them” might be turned off by an ad that offers a more negative depiction of the pregnancy discovery process, O’Barr says, but someone who might be facing an unwanted pregnancy knows to read herself into the more cheerful ad. That latter camp understands that the product is still for them, even if they’re not feeling comparably excited about outcome.
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“That’s why [advertisers] do it,” O’Barr says. “Now should they do it, that’s a completely different question.”
Regardless of the way a pregnancy test is advertised, though, women know what they’re for and those who can afford the product will buy it, whatever their individual circumstances. But even women who, in one moment, read their positive results with joyful anticipation have likely had moments when that same outcome would have devastated them. It seems reasonable to expect, then, that the target audience would be able to easily read itself into that more anxious scenario. Basic human consideration, meanwhile, holds that the group that most needs comforting in that uncertain period, the group that would most benefit from seeing its experience presented as the norm, is not made up of happily expecting couples and their support systems.
So, manufacturers of pregnancy tests, here is what I propose: A spot that features women of different ages — from teens to 40-somethings — sitting on toilets in settings suggestive of different socioeconomic situations. Maybe some have partners or friends or family around, but all of them nervously eye the clock as those excruciating two minutes tick down, and when the results are finally revealed, we watch a sea of hands-over-mouth gasps, fist pumps, short shouts, involuntary grins, a huge collective sigh of relief at every test coming up negative. After all, a pregnancy scare is called a pregnancy scare for a reason — why are we still pretending otherwise?
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