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Several days ago I noticed, amongst the updates scrolling past in my facebook feed, an image of a confident woman in coveralls casually balancing a safety helmet on her hip. I was intrigued. What modern day Rosy the Riveter was this? On closer inspection I noticed the image was posted by Shell Oil on their sponsored facebook page, linked to a PR-driven article from an online magazine about mothers in the oil industry.

“Moms are an impressive lot. Whether juggling a dirty diaper in one hand and a latte in the other or helping to solve the world’s energy crisis, mothers are uniquely qualified to make a mark on the world around them. Case in point: The Athabasca Oil Sands Project in Alberta, Canada.”

The story by Tiernan McKay is framed as a celebration of working mothers who take the lead in a male-dominated industry in order to save their families from a pending energy crisis. Absent from the article is anything about the current environmental crisis we face due to our dependency on oil. Sure, a shortage of energy sources is a crisis – but so too is the environmental impact of oil consumption and extraction.

When Shell posted it on their page, it quickly garnered over 2000 comments. Many called out Shell for the blatant PR angle. “Any mother who lets them use that status for corporate propaganda,” wrote one, “knowing the mess these companies have left for their children, should hold her head in shame. Now stop spamming my newsfeed.” Irritation that the article was nothing more than PR-driven “mom-washing” arose again and again in the comments.

In the documentary “Toxic Sludge is Good For You: The Public Relations Industry Unspun” author and critic Stuart Ewen argues, “one can’t leave one’s bed without encountering public relations.” As parents we’ve grown accustomed to being advertised to, but in this case motherhood itself is the brand deployed to make an oil company’s questionable tar sands industry look warm and fuzzy.

The logic behind the motherhood brand is simple. Most moms care about the health, happiness and future of their children, and so a “mom-approved” company appears to embrace the same parental values by association.  Mothers are the ultimate celebrity endorsement because almost every mom is famous to at least one person and moms look to each other for guidance and support.

This is nothing new. Moms have long been used in advertising to sell everything from toothpaste to cars – even cigarettes. What’s new is the present-day strategy: PR firms devise campaigns that appear to be grassroots movements or “spontaneous” trend pieces. This kind of marketing is referred to as “Astroturf because of the way it mimics true grassroots movements – legitimate citizen campaigns for clean air, land and water.  Astroturf marketing that uses the mom-brand is particularly insidious because the very products pushed may be harmful to real families.

“Alberta sits upon proven reserves of 170 billion barrels of oil and Shell is working to responsibly extract these reserves — with the help of some very talented and dedicated moms. These women bring unique skill sets to this male-dominated industry, proving that there is no frontier a mom can’t conquer.”

The language suggests empowerment and celebration, and yet this isn’t a sincere celebration of these particular mothers. This new co-optation of female empowerment takes the “mommy wars” to the next scary level, potentially pitting moms against mother earth.

The mothers featured in these ads are not the problem – they’re just parents themselves. And most certainly they’re doing what they think is best for their families. Perhaps they are. But Shell uses those mothers as the face of their public image, appropriating all that is positive in motherhood for their own cynical objectives, and that’s where the problem arises.

The PR experts hired by Shell created a catch-22 for parents who consider oil sands development problematic for their children’s future. If one criticizes Shell, one must be criticizing these no doubt hard-working mothers, because to be critical of a corporation that extols motherhood is to be critical of mothers.

To call for a ban on drilling and environmental devastation in an area whose Boreal Forest is decimated at a rate second only to the Amazon rainforest is to call for the unemployment of single moms. To call out another writer for shilling for Shell is just in-fighting amongst the sisterhood of moms. So Shell stands behind mothers and grandmothers, not to show its support, but rather to stand behind them as human shields.

I was drawn to these images because I love seeing the range of jobs and expertise women have, particularly in male-dominated industries that open new possibilities for women. I’d like to see more of that! But this campaign advances the cause of the oil company’s project in the oil sands far more than it does the lives of women and mothers who work on it. Was the writer compensated in line with the millions of dollars of positive spin she brought the company? Perhaps all moms should be cut a cheque for helping build the mom-brand every day.

In all seriousness, this recent act of blatant public relations and mom-washing by Shell has motivated me to invest in some PR of my own – some Parent Relations. Let’s take back the power, parents! Instead of allowing strong images of mothers and grandmothers to “mom-wash” questionable industries, let’s reclaim motherhood.  

Being a parent can stir up powerful emotions. No wonder Shell is trying to harness the energy source of parent-power! Let’s channel our parent power into civic engagement, into creative and courageous solutions for the crises we face as a species and into holding our political leaders and corporate entities accountable.

Post a picture of you and your family and let others know what kind of world you are trying to create for them—and don’t think for a minute that you are alone in your efforts.

We live in an era where parents are able to share advice and ideas in ways and across distances never before possible. Any mom movement created by an ad campaign pales in comparison to the true parent-power we harness in our communities and with each other. Why? Simple: we have the biggest motivator of all. Not money, not market shares: our kids and their collective futures.

Carly Stasko is a self-titled Imagitator, one who agitates imagination. She is also an artist/writer/educator/producer/public speaker/cancer survivor & parent living in Toronto. Check out her radio stories on CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera and her blog, Imagitate the State. Find more of Carly’s How To Raise a Parent articles here.

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