You don’t get much less aspirational than the harassed mum character in the Fiat 500L advert. Stepping over the tide of kiddie-trash that sweeps over any family carpet, she raps out a readily identifiable tale – one based on extensive focus group interviews with mothers. Her “babes” are her two children, her “bitches” are her dogs, and her “hoes”‚ well, it’s just a hose. She’s got the episiotomy scar and the yoghurt-smeared laptop. Her life is a war of attrition against domestic havoc, and her only escape is a book club, which she joined just so she could drink wine. There are only a few shots of the car, and no information at all about what it does, but the message is obvious: if this is your life, then this is your car.
And presumably plenty of people see their life in the video, given that it’s clocked up over 2m views on YouTube. In one respect, this assault of the familiar represents an escape of sorts from the relentlessly bloody upscale tone of the average car ad‚ whimsical youngsters scampering about town to a sickly-twee indie pop soundtrack, or the achingly clever brand-building of the Honda ads. Screw “the power of dreams”: the Fiat ad is very much aimed at someone who’d appreciate the power of eight hours’ sleep uninterrupted by a child who needs a wee/a glass of water/reassurance that the Lightning McQueen poster on their wall hasn’t come to life and started giving them funny looks.
But in another way, it’s a version of the self-defeating humblebrag that can give motherhood its special nightmarish quality. Being impregnated doesn’t have to be the first stage in a complicated, decades-long process of martyrdom, but plenty of people take it that way anyway. Torn perineums, cracked nipples and black bags under your eyes aren’t just the acceptable price of generating new life: they become the marks of your commitment to maternity. The playground plaints about how busy you are aren’t necessarily designed to inspire pity or aid, so much as a deep and awestruck admiration in your listener for just how much you do. Because the more hectically overworked your are, the logic goes, the better a mother you must be.
Dads don’t seem to have the same impulse for competitive misery. In fact, fathers often get a version of the glass elevator, whereby their simple maleness elevates minor parental actions to achievements of heroic wonder. Things like doing the school run, making the packed lunches or washing the school shirts – the kind of entry-level parenting without which your children would be naked, hungry and not even at school – can win coos of applause and admiring remarks about how good it is that he “helps”. If you’re a mum who does this stuff with grinding regularity and no public applause, then this might well piss you off. The chaps have every right to feel mightily insulted too: if providing basic care for their children gets them petted like a dog walking on its hind legs, just how low must our paternal expectations be?
But ads aren’t pitched to the utopian future society we might become‚ a future where women don’t embrace a packhorse destiny and a man is allowed to change a nappy without someone organising a chorus line to do a high-kicking routine in praise of his masculine virtue. Ads are designed to sell to us as we are now, with all our flaws and susceptibilities and right now, the Fiat 500L mum is right for us: in her photogenically haggard way, there’s something aspirational to her after all. She might not have it all, but she does it all, and that’s a badge of honour. As the chorus goes, “You’re in the motherhood/And you’re in for good.” But if no one wanted to be in the motherhood, no one would buy the car that shows the world you belong there. Fiat knows that telling other people we’re doing too much is what mums really do best.