“Pornographic” Diaper Commercials? c.1985

In March of 1985, Women Against Pornography, eh-hem, WAPs, awarded Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Huggies, a Plastic Pig (also known as a “zap”) for their diaper commercials because the WAPs found them provocative, even pornographic— which says a lot about the WAPs and the kind of watch list its members should be on.

WAP WAP WAP

Women Against Pornography was founded in 1976 in New York City. They began as a feminist group opposing porn (and sex shops and sex work) because they felt that sex degraded women. Their focus shifted with trends, first towards civil rights and then sex trafficking.

However, many feminists did not support the WAPs because they weren’t sex-positive. Within the group, the heterosexual members were at odds with the lesbian members who felt that heterosexual sex itself was degrading to women. Civil rights groups weren’t fans either because the WAPs were promoting censorship and much of the WAP activism had negative consequences for sex workers, which included minorities.

Sounds like the WAPs would be right at home on Twitter today… but I would suggest a different acronym. (wap-wap-wap-that’s-some-copyright-infringement)

Bonus WAP fact: In 1988, WAP tried to raise funds to support Jayne Stamen, who arranged the fatal beating of her husband, with a hammer, after he allegedly looked at pornography (a Huggies commercial?). The WAPs failed to even raise bail money. Jayne Stamen was found guilty and sentenced “up to” 32 years in prison (maximum sentence) but she was released on parole in 2003.

Getting Zapped

Considering all of 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.”

Betty Grable demonstrates a Cheesecake Pose, 1943. Wikipedia.

If you, like me, had no idea what a “cheesecake pose” is, Bettie Grable (to the right) demonstrates. Thank you, Wikipedia. Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seems like a justifiable pose when selling a diaper: viewers see how it fits baby’s bottom and that the baby is happy wearing it.

Disposable diaper advertising has always emphasised two points: first, your baby can wear their own waste for extended periods without risks to your clothes or furniture, and secondly, it’s comfortable for your baby to wear for those extended periods. Showing both how well the diaper fits on the body and a happy baby are bare minimum diaper ad fodder.

The Commercial

Now, I did my darndest to find the 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 need to have run sometime in 1984.

Huggies “rocker” print ad, 1985

During 1984-5, the Huggies commercials I’ve found were a series featuring toddlers with professions (like a rocker, a cheerleader, or an aspiring advertising executive). They all begin with the toddler sitting on the floor acting sad because they’re in a leaky competitor’s diaper. Yet, once they’re in a Huggies brand diaper they are happy, even dancing around. None of them seems very beauty-contestant-y but who knows, the WAPs seem to have a loose grip on reality.

Still from awards show commercial, allegedly aired in 1987

However, I found an ad that featured an award show theme (for someone not paying, attention it looks beauty-contestant-y) but the uploader claims it aired in 1987. On a child molestation scale of totally innocent to Shirley Temple’s Bright Eyes choreography, the award show commercial, in my opinion, ranks slightly higher than the previously mentioned cheerleader ad. But they’re both pretty innocuous. What do you think? 

Recent Diaper Advertising

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. The most risque of textiles. The ad was protraying the toddler as a fashionable celebrity, walking to his high-end car wearing his demin-look diaper as outerwear, with members of the public (all looking like sophisticated young European fashion models) admired him. Is that sexualizing toddlers?

If yes, then I have more questions. One of the risks of sexualized children in advertising is that children watch the ads and absorb the messaging. But do toddlers watch diaper ads? Babies and toddlers aren’t the ones diaper companies are advertising to, therefore, we need to ask if sexualizing toddlers in diaper advertising influences parents to purchase diapers? If not, is the accusation that the ad producers see toddlers as sexy? What about the parents-on-set for the toddler models in these diaper ads? Are they complicit in the sexual objectification of their own children? I don’t really have answers- I don’t agree with WAPS or the people who are outraged by demin-look diapers- but I want to understand, so I pose those questions.

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 advertisement for a slip-on diaper. At the time, the ‘thigh gap’ was the persona non grata of social media “body positivity” and it was perfectly acceptable to tell women with a thigh gap that they needed to eat a cupcake. With regards to spittingpigeon’s accusation, unlike with the WAPs in the 1980s, Huggies responded. Spokesperson Terry Balluck made a statement assuring people that the image of the toddler had not been altered. Meanwhile, Reddit commenters on the original post had already said that their own normal-weight toddlers had thigh gaps too. 

The Industry

Are diaper ads pornographic? Absolutely not.

Are diaper ads sexualizing children? I don’t think so, but I suspect that it’s subjective: I don’t find diapers, children, or cheesecake pose remotely sexy, but clearly, WAP members did.

With that said, fashion advertising at large is highly sexualized and it seems that diaper manufacturers have shifted from marketing endless technological innovations to marketing their products as a means of self-expression. First with baby and child-themed designs, then licensed characters, and in the 2010s diaper ads try to appeal to adult style through products like 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 lurking child molesters they fear might think. I’m uncomfortable with the WAPs implications that the way someone is dressed or posed (like a beauty contestant in a cheesecake pose) is an invitation for sexual attention- it absolutely is not- unless the attention is consented to and children cannot consent. But it is true that paedophiles in positions of authority have made child actors and models act out scenes, which the children do not understand, for the sexual gratification of paedophiles, for example, the Baby Burlesque films, which are a whole other bag of badgers.

Personally, I see nothing “porngraphic” in the mid-80s Huggies ads that I’ve watched, nor do I believe that Huggies added a thigh gap to the 2015 pull-ups ad. What I do see are groups and individuals, without reference to reality, leveraging controversial topics and combining them with the public’s concern about children’s welfare to get attention and gain power.


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Sources:

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.

Thigh Gap post on Reddit.

Trott, William C. 1 March 1985. “Porno Ads.” UPI (united press international).

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