Transcript (and then some)
In March of 1985, Women Against Pornography, eh-hem, WAPs, awarded Kimberly-Clark the makers of Huggies a Plastic Pig aka as a “zap” for their diaper commercials which the WAPs found provocative, even pornographic…. which… says A LOT about their group.
Women Against Pornography was founded in 1976, in NYC. They began as a feminist group opposing porn (and sex shops and sex work) because they felt that it degraded women. Their focus shifted with trends to be about civil rights and then about stopping sex trafficking. However, many feminists did not like the WAPS because they weren’t sex-positive and within the group, the heterosexual members were at odds with the lesbian members who felt that het-sex itself was degrading to women. And the civil rights groups weren’t fans either because what they were trying to do was in fact censorship and much of the WAP activism had negative consequences to sex workers, which included minorities. Sounds like the WAPs would be right at home on Twitter today, but maybe with a different acronym?
Bonus WAP fact: In 1988, WAP tried to raise funds to support Jayne Stamen, who arranged the fatal beating of her husband after he allegedly looked at pornography, however they failed to even raise bail money. She was charged with manslaughter.
So considering the above, it’s not really that surprising that the companies didn’t care or even respond to the criticism of their ads, Huggies included. The allegations included that the children were “parading around like beauty queens” with “provocative poses” and UPI reported that the objections were due to “little girls in objectifying cheesecake poses which ignore the prevalence and seriousness of child molestation.”
If you, like me, had no idea what a cheesecake pose is, here is an example. Thank you Wikipedia. Perhaps I am mistaken but it seems like a justifiable pose when selling a diaper; see how it fits, see baby is happy. The two major themes of disposable diaper advertising has always been of leakproof wearable toilets: your baby can sit in their own waste for extended periods without risks to your clothes or furniture AND it’s so comfortable for baby to wear too. Showing both how well the diaper fits on the body and a happy baby are bare minimum diaper ad fodder.
Now, I did my darndest to find THEE commercial in question. The awards ceremony organizer Frances Patai, received more than 500 nominations for awards (good and bad) prior to March of 1985, so my guess is that the ad would needed to have run sometime in 1984. During both 1984-5 the Huggies commercials I’ve found were a series of toddlers with professions (like rocker, or cheerleader, or aspiring advertising executive). They all begin with the toddler sitting on the floor acting sad because they’re in a leaky diaper but once they’re in a Huggies diaper they are happy, dancing around. It doesn’t really seem very “beauty contestant-y” but who knows, the WAPs seem to have a loose grip on reality in this area.
HOWEVER, I did find an ad that featured an award show theme but the uploader claims it aired in 1987. On the child molestation scale of totally innocent and Shirley Temple choreography– the award show version, in my opinion, ranks slightly higher than the cheerleader ad. But only a tiny bit. But what do you think?
This may have been the first time a diaper commercial was accused of being pornographic but it certainly wasn’t the last. In 2014, A Huggies ad that ran in Israel caused some outrage that it was too sexually suggestive because the diaper material was made to look like denim. Is this sexualizing toddlers? If yes then– more questions: One of the risks of sexualized children in advertising is that they then watch the ads– but do toddlers watch diaper ads? And if babies and toddlers aren’t the ones being advertised too– we need to ask if sexualizing toddlers influence parents to purchase Huggies diapers? Or is the accusation that the ad producers are paedophiles? What about the parents-on-set for the toddler models, are they complicit in the sexual objectification of their own children? I don’t really have answers, only questions.
And then in October of 2015, a reddit user, spittingpigeon, a mom of an 11-month-old from California named Melody, accused Huggies of photoshopping a ‘thigh gap’ onto a toddler in an ad for a slip-on diaper. Unlike in the 1980s, in 2015 Huggies spokesperson Terry Balluck had to make a statement assuring people that the image of the toddler had not been altered. Reddit commenters on the original post had already said that their own normal-weight toddlers had thigh gaps too.
So are diaper ads sexualizing children? I don’t know. Are they pornographic? Absolutely not. But fashion advertising at large is highly sexualized and it seems that diaper manufacturers have shifted from endless technological innovations to treating their products as a means of self-expression, first with baby and child themed designs, then licensed characters, and now it does seem that they are trying to appeal to adult style through products like the denim look diapers and pull-ups. What are the intentions of all involved? Certainly the infants and children are not trying to be sexy or provocative, whatever WAPs or the child molesters they fear might think. I’m also uncomfortable with the WAPs implications that they way someone is dressed or posed (like a beauty contestant/ cheesecake pose) is an invitation for sexual attention– it’s absolutely not– unless consented to and children cannot consent. But it is also true that pedophiles in positions of authority have forced child actors and models to act out scenes for the gratification of themselves or other pedophiles, just look at the Baby Burlesque films– which is a whole other bag of badgers.
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Anders, Marjorie. 2 March 1985. “Women Against Pornography Zap Degrading Ads, Praise Others.” AP (Archive).
Bronstein, Carolyn. “Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976-1986.” Cambridge University Press. “Huggies Diaper of the Year”
Donaldson James, Susan. 30 May 2014. “Some Call Huggies Diapers Ad in Israel Sexually Suggestive.” ABC News.
Richards, Kimberley. 27 Oct 2015. “Huggies Denies Accusations of ‘Thigh Gap’ Photoshop in Diaper Ad.” Huffington Post.
Trott, William C. 1 March 1985. “Porno Ads.” UPI (united press international).
Proficient nerd on most things baby/ culture/ history/book related. Disability advocate. Has a penchant for photography, languages, and panics when low on chocolate rations. Will embarrass self in any social situation to point out or pet other people's dogs. Habitual stumbler and tea drinker. People watcher, pizza slayer.