Does anything good ever come from the University of Phoenix? Their latest 1 minute ad features a working mom going back to school after being inspired by Rosie the Riveter. While it obviously seems like this should be a positive rallying cry for working moms, it totally misses the point.
Besides the fact that it’s a little too cheery and neatly-packed, it’s also an important reminder that major for-profit institutions don’t usually have people’s best interests at heart. They have money on the brain, and probably in their hearts too— and they try to make money by speaking to our anxieties and hopes.
This one is quite an example. The animated clip is set aptly to a cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams,” showing a mom working at a factory–and how she became inspired to change her life. The agency that worked with the university to create the ad, 180LA, used the famous World War II icon to illustrate that change is necessary, even if it is scary. University of Phoenix CMO Joan Blackwood stated that working moms need to continually work on their skills if they don’t want to be “obsolete,” which is find and dandy if that actually meant something:
“The pace of change in today’s ever-changing workplace is unparalleled—it requires new competencies to be developed, skills to be fine-tuned and, in some cases, complete professional reinvention. At University of Phoenix, we know you are only obsolete if you decide not to take action on the change that happens around us.”
Of course, the ad not only simplifies how complicated it is for working moms to work out a schedule to go back to school or switch careers—it’s also deceitful, considering the university is under some serious fire.
In 2015, the Defense Department “temporarily suspended the company from accessing federal funding for those service members or recruiting on location after the FTC announced that it had begun an investigation focused on alleged ‘deceptive marketing practices,'” according to Ad Week.
You see, the school actually isn’t an accredited institution, which means that many students have been misled, like Penny Schoenke, a single-mom (the demographic this very ad is for), who was led to believe she was in an accredited social work program, according to Fox6:
“Schoenke thought she was enrolled in a program that would enable her to become a licensed social worker in the state of Wisconsin upon graduation. But $30,000 in student loans later, she started getting suspicious. Schoenke, required to do an internship as part of her degree program, kept getting turned away by potential employers who told her that she wasn’t enrolled in an accredited social work degree program.”
But that’s not it. The university was also “submitting false student aid information in order to receive federal funding it was not entitled to,” according to a former employee who spoke to Consumerist. That’s a pretty big deal. The article went on to say:
“The suit claims that school executives, including the director of enrollment, were aware of the fraudulent practice, and even boasted about taking their families on vacations and other outings using the funds.”
OK, you might say. But the message is empowering! Yet even that has its issues. This fun little ditty isn’t actually reality for most working moms (or women in general), because of those things like classism and racism and sexism. According to CBS, for instance, the rate of American women working outside the home has decreased recently:
“In 2000, about 74 percent of American women held jobs outside the home. That has declined to 70 percent today. By comparison, the share of working women has increased in Germany, Canada and Japan — each country enjoys a larger share of working women than does the U.S.
By the EPI researchers’ estimates, if American women had the same labor force participation rate as in Germany, where about 79 percent of women work outside the home, it would boost U.S. GDP by 3.4 percent, adding $600 billion in extra economic activity. “
In general, marketing feminism for gain is something that has been entirely too prevalent these days–and it happens from Ivanka Trump to Sheryl Sandberg to Lena Dunham–whose intentions go from well-meaning to indifferent. In Sarah Jaffe’s article “Feminism for Sale,” at New Republic she talks about Andi Zeisler’s book about “marketplace feminism,” which is the co-optation of feminist symbols like Rosie the Riveter for financial gain.
Under marketplace feminism, feminism is a commodity to be purchased, an identity to proclaim and print on a T-shirt, a litmus test to be applied to other commodities, rather than a collective social movement that aims to change the structures of a sexist society. The problem with marketplace feminism is simple: marketplace feminism is good for capitalism, but what is good for capitalism is not necessarily good for women.”
It’s easy to sell someone an “easy” education, a career change, a book with comforting-sounding advice with quips about leaning in, ill-used Toni Morrison quotes (hi, Ivanka), and ways to become a #LADYBOSS at your job. But real change is a lot harder.
Why is it that women and moms are being treated like infantilized adults that need “positive inspiring messages”? Feminism is more than a brand, it’s about making real change.
While we do need a rally cry and daily positive reinforcement, we actually need affordable higher education, childcare and family leave, the policies that truly make it easier for working moms to prepare for their futures.