For better or worse, the lockdown has forced families across America to spend more time together. Marketers have an opportunity to lean into the way it has reshaped relationships at home. Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken explains.
I have an observatory. It's in the kitchen. On a big wooden table.
Most observatories look at the heavens. Celestial events. Comets. Exploding stars. Deep space. My observatory is for terrestrial events. Changes in American culture. Comets. Exploding stars. Deep space. Well, space.
I sit down at my observatory every morning. It acts like a data aggregator, idea spinner. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, newspapers, magazines, op eds, movie reviewers, AI revelations, newsletters, scandal rags, stock reports, SKU data, ethnographic data, historical data, demographic data, sociological data, mostly anthropological data. The observatory remembers the best parts, some 3.4 gigabytes and counting.
Honestly, it makes my head spin. But I'm salting my coffee with Dramamine. So that's good.
Not so long ago, the observatory began to spit and murmur. This means it's trying to manage data that will not sit tidily in any of our existing categories. It likes things tidy. So do I.
The data, in this case, was American moms behaving in unusual ways. Out of character. Vigorously protesting an accustomed practice called "helicopter parenting." These moms were thinking about a change. Something less solicitous, less patient, less "there for you," when it came to their kids.
Stuff happens in American culture. "Trends," we call them. They come and go. The trick for marketers, planners, strategists and culture creatives is getting there early, figuring out what the "it" is, and finding the streams of data that can tell us the present and future significance of the trend. Hence the observatory on my kitchen table.
Covid-19 captivity versus the American mom
Five months ago, along came Covid-19. Suddenly, mom-ness was up against it. Entire families were confined to quarters. For an indefinite future. Locked down. Americans like their space, man. This was going to be hard. Really hard. And moms were going to have to fix it.
I know this from years of ethnographic study. I have had a cup of coffee in every living room in America. Well, I should say almost every living room in America. I've sat listening to the female head of household reveal how she made this house a home, how she turned a crowd of fractious Americans into a family.
And now a titanic struggle was upon us. Coronavirus captivity versus the American mom.
The conversations were interesting. The people suffering the most were the extroverts, those who find themselves, as George Herbert Mead said all of us do, by interacting with people. These people need people, at work, at Starbucks, at a book club, at a ball game. And these people were jonesing. They were hurting.
There were some moms who were like busboys at a very busy restaurant. All resources were now in play. Resource depletion was coming. Chaos was just around the corner. Sometimes there would be a pause in the conversation, and I could hear weeping.
But usually what I could hear was shouting. In the background. This is American shouting where sharing meets warning, good humor helps get things on the table. Mom was managing this and then some. Mealtime. Binge viewing. Game night. Bread baking. Dog purchase. Dog walking. Dog washing. Dog picking up after. You know, because mom.
As the observatory had indicated, moms were already thinking hard about child rearing and family life. So perhaps they were especially mobilized for this challenge. But then moms are always engaged in a survey of what and who their family is, what their kids need, and what's happening "out there" in American culture. They keep an observatory of their own.
The ‘Covid-19 kitchen’ is convergent
The first finding was simple but surprising. Thanks to mom, the American family rose to the occasion. In fact, my survey respondents believe that 50% of American families are "stronger" for the pandemic. (Only 5% think these families are weaker.) Job done, mom!
The question is "how?" There is a long answer here because moms have a lot of tricks up their sleeve. But some part of the answer is that moms managed to reverse the big bang of the American household. This took place roughly 20 years ago when Americans knocked down the walls between kitchen, dining room and living room to make what they call a "great room." This was designed to change mealtime even as moms struggle to accommodate a diversity of tastes (vegan, paleo, keto, low carb) and a restless, screen centric family. The great room was dispersive.
During Covid-19, moms bent the big bang to their will. Like a superhero, they brought it to one of those slo-mo stops and then made it rush back to a center. They returned their family to a table (kitchen, even dining room) for a single meal and a single conversation. They said to their family "here's what we're eating, if you want sometimes else, you know where the kitchen is. Probably." The great room was dispersive. The Covid-19 kitchen was convergent. Mom put the family back together again.
In all of this, moms got a gift. "I got my daughter back" they told me. Back from college, back from popular culture and the performance culture encouraged by Instagram, back from the constant hustle necessitated with which American kids begin a bid for the college of their choice. Prior to coronavirus, moms have been running a taxi service. They had been darn close to household staff. They were invisible to their kids. Worst, they looked clueless when it came to the things teens cared about. ("TikTok? Tell me again what that is.") Moms now say, "My kids can see me!"
This new connection between mother and daughters builds a bridge between generations. Influence will rush in both directions. Moms will get hipper. Daughters will get more worldly. Moms will get more liberal. Daughters will get a little less. What is "allyship?" How about "anti-racism." Moms and daughters are figuring it out. Currency and wisdom are being exchanged. Relationships are deepening. Connection are being made, then braided, then grounded. Mother/daughter is a new creature in the marketing world. How well do we understand her? What about the family she is building? What about the culture and economy she is refashioning?
Marketers, start your engines.
Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist (Ph.D. from University of Chicago.) He is the author of 12 books including Culturematic, Flock and Flow, and Dark Value. His new book will be published by Simon and Schuster in 2021.