Mad World: Let's Fix Dinner!

Kelsey Wallace
View profile »

Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

Advertisements for dinner-related items are almost always loaded with gender weirdness. The doting mom cooks for her nuclear family, and they love her for it–thanks to the help of whatever fantastic instant food item is being showcased. This is such a well-worn commercial trope that we often don’t notice it unless it is absent, which is (sort of) the case with the latest campaign from Stouffer’s: Let’s Fix Dinner.

This ad campaign, which includes several commercial spots as well as an interactive website complete with a quasi-reality show, focuses on six families who are facing various challenges that are keeping them from eating dinner together. We meet a recently-divorced mom, parents who work multiple jobs to make ends meet, a family with special needs children, a parent who just returned from the military, a couple with a newly-empty nest, and so on. While many of the tired “dinnertime” tropes are present in this campaign (including the one that glorifies high sodium, high fat, processed foodstuffs), I have to admit that I am struck by the honesty of the ads. I was surprised to see Bill Beehner, the man who has been working overseas in Iraq, admit that he feels he doesn’t know his daughter anymore. The single mom, Stacey McCleary, is shown struggling to explain to her daughters that they will no longer be seeing their dad every day. Shit gets real in these commercials, folks! Another interesting aspect of this campaign is its focus on family dinnertime in general, as opposed to a focus on Stouffer’s (not that they don’t include their logo and plug their products a whole bunch of times). They include statistics about families benefitting from eating dinner together, and the six families in the spots have all pledged to sit down and eat together five times a week. (BTW, I am assuming these are real families based on the wording of the campaign. If it turns out they are actors I’ll be kinda pissed because they have convinced me to be sympathetic to their respective dinner plights.) Considering the media-saturated environment we exist in currently, I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing more and more multi-platform educational advertising campaigns that go beyond the “buy this product and have a fantasy life!” message and actually attempt to keep it real. True, at heart this is still a commercial that is trying to get us to buy processed cheese in a pan. Still, the Stouffer’s Let’s Fix Dinner campaign is one of the only I’ve seen in recent memory that actually depicts its target demographic in its ads. Instead of a dreamworld where everyone’s hair is perfect and kids are always smiley, these ads show real people with serious problems. Let’s face it–not only does that nuclear family we typically see in dinnertime commercials not actually exist, but if they did exist they probably wouldn’t be eating instant mashed potatoes. Families who are in the market for quick dinner ideas are often those where both parents work, or where a single parent is raising the kids, or where special needs are prioritized over homemade pasta with organic vegetables. I’m not advocating for Stouffer’s for dinner every night by any means, but I do find the ads refreshing–something you can rarely say about frozen mac and cheese. So what do you think? Are you feeling this potential new direction for dinnertime ads? Or do they have you yearning for the fantasy depiction of the nuclear fam? OH_Logo.jpg

This project was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH’s grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

19 Comments Have Been Posted

Awesome Post

I just wanted to say that out of all of the articles that I have ever read on this website and in your magazine, this is by far the best and fairest opinion piece you at Bitch Media have ever produced. I am going to write up this article on my website as well as hope that I might be able to interview Kelsey on my radio program. Love this kind of writing!

Bret Bernhoft

Blech, really Bitch?

It's still terrible, sodium laden, processed food being marketed primarily to women as a way to show their love for their families. No thanks.

A little more complicated than that, perhaps?

Anonymous Bitch,

You're right that Stouffer's products are sodium-laden and processed. However, one of the things I find refreshing about this campaign is that I don't think it is marketing the products primarily to women as a way to show their love for their families. The spots show men and children making dinner (as well as women, yes) and they show families fixing non-Stouffer's items as well (chopping tomatoes, making salad, etc.). Also, they show the reasons why these families want to eat dinner together (to rebuild relationships after time spent apart, to work on language skills, and so on) in a much more nuanced way than your typical dinnertime commercial.

In addition, something that is left out of many conversations about healthy eating is that most people can't afford it–either because of time, money, or both. While Stouffer's isn't the healthiest option out there, the families shown in these ads are representative of the majority of the population that doesn't have access to organic vegetables or lasagna made from scratch. That doesn't mean we should give Stouffer's a pass for all of the preservatives in their food, but it is worth considering.

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

<i>Ask me about our <a href="">Comments Policy</a>!</i>

Even with everything you're saying about healthy food

I don't think you can deny that this is marketed primarily toward women, the men are in a couple of clips here and there in the beginning, but most of the discussion about how eating dinner together has "changed" their families is by women, and done in a highly emotionally manipulative way. I am so tired of food=love in our society. This is schmaltzy and patronizing and I'm sort of shocked Bitch is endorsing it.

Point taken.

Anonymous Bitch,

Yes, this is still a commercial, and it still relies on some tired tropes to sell a product (something I tried to point out in my post). However, my goal here was to critique Let's Fix Dinner as a dinnertime ad campaign, which means comparing it to other ads for similar products. To me, this ad campaign is better than many other similar campaigns, for reasons I've stated already.

I would like to point out also that Bitch is in no way endorsing Stouffer's, so there is no need for shock. I myself do not speak for the entire organization, nor am I even endorsing Stouffer's personally (I do like the mac and cheese, but that's irrelevant here).

We may have to agree to disagree at some point, but I don't think that promoting the concept of family members eating dinner together is manipulative or patronizing. Even the anti-Stouffer himself, Michael Pollan, publicly encourages families to eat dinner together (though he does it in a way that I find classist and <a href="">se...). Also, as I said in my last comment, I find the reasons that the families in these ads want to eat dinner together to be far more nuanced than just "food=love."

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

<i>Ask me about our <a href="">Comments Policy</a>!</i>

As you've described it

As you've described it sounds like Stouffers (who make a mean mac-n-cheese) have taken the popular elements of those old International Coffees commercials (serialized exploits of compelling characters) and given them real resonance. I think it's excellent marketing as it both spells out exactly who they view as their target audience (an inclusive group of folks with various dinnertime needs united in their desire to eat together) and gives the first legitimate push back/critique of popular food movements (organic, local, unprocessed) by offering up some sly commentary by speaking directly to the folks those movements aren't targeting.

Similar to what Target's done, it seems these cats are really getting how powerful it can be to see one's plight/self reflected in advertising. I suspect this will be a great success for them, strengthening their base, but probably not having the McD's McCafe impact of poaching consumers. Either way it seems they've learned some valuable lessons.

This was a fabulous post. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis and for helping me sort through things I've observed in commercials I've viewed lately. There does seem to be a "change" in the air!

Maybe this has been covered elsewhere in this column, but do you think Mad Men is been responsible for advertising shunning slick ad campaigns in favor of these folksy ones or just a reflection of economy related values?

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Power or Exploitation?

I agree that Stouffer's seems to get the power of seeing oneself in advertising; however, the motivation behind this style of advertising is questionable. Is Stouffer's merely exploiting the current trends in healthier, family-based meals in order to associate its products with healthier, family-oriented food choices? The logical outcome is that the consumer, when faced with the frozen food display, chooses Stouffer's because that company appears to care about families, and, if the company cares about families, then it must also care enough to produce healthier foods than other companies.

I'd be curious to know,

I'd be curious to know, assuming the families are real people, if and how they've been compensated for their participation. Although the ads aren't overtly self-promoting, the company does stand to profit. On the hand, I feel that same sense that unpaid real people as more genuine than actors. On the other hand, would it be ok for a large corporation to profit by presenting real families facing harsh economic realities when those families don't really benefit economically from their participation?

There is a decent chance

There is a decent chance that they are real families, and they are almost certainly getting paid. Some family friends of my parents were a "Stouffers family" in a fairly long-running lasagna commercial. It paid for a good portion of their kids' college educations.

I hope so!

Assuming these are real families (which I think they are), I would most certainly hope that they're being compensated just as professional actors would be. I agree with you, JordanB, that if that isn't the case then it would be unethical of Stouffer's to profit from the campaign. The families must be getting paid though, right? Or am I just naive when it comes to the world of reality-based dinnertime commercials?

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

<i>Ask me about our <a href="">Comments Policy</a>!</i>

I have less faith...

You're a lot more gracious and trusting than I am, Kelsey! I saw one of these ads and was like, "Oh, great, another fake 'family' that I'm supposed to relate to because they're not a perfect TV-ad family with Pepsodent smiles and no spinach in their teeth." It's not like I'm dying to relate to people selling me frozen dinners, but recent ads about real-folks folks with real-folks problems -- like those responsibility-focused Liberty Mutual "Marlowe Family" ads, directed by suspected douchebag Harmony Korine -- feel like calculated pandering by giant corporations suckering me into believing that they actually give a shit about the effects of the recession on actual people. So now I'm instantly suspicious of anything that looks like them. That's right, I have been tainted by advertising! Imagine that.

However, I've always enjoyed Stouffer's french-bread frozen pizza, and I can't see any reason to stop now.

I honestly don’t know a

I honestly don’t know a whole lot about how these types of things work, but I do wonder. I know I respond to the "authenticity" created by real people and for that reason I thought it might be worth looking at the production side of the commercial in a critical light. I don't think it's naïve to think these people are getting paid, though, Kelsey.

I share a lot of your skepticsm, amychumley, that corporations are using real people to manipulate me into having an emotional connection to their brand. I am heartened, though, to hear from lbob that Stouffer’s has a history of compensating families well for their participation. The latter doesn’t necessarily erase the former concern, but if we are looking at how the commercial was produced, it's important to me to know the families benefited in a tangible way.

food IS love

food IS love.

while there are certainly many sexist, racist and classist issues underpinning food issues, that is the basic premise- when you are able to share food with someone it is a way of sharing love and all that comes along with that: nurturing, caring, promoting health and wellness. if you cook the food, prepare the food for someone, and share that time together, that is a space to create love. though the ads show mostly women and focuses on their emotions during the project, is it not predominantly women that shoulder this daily burden? is this bonding expressed by the mothers the 'reality' behind most families' lives? i imagine it is.

my father

My father cooked every single meal for us growing up (and still today!). All the holidays...all prepared and organized by my father. My partner (a male) also does all the cooking in our house. You can't say "behind most families' lives" because that's a gross generalization based on what we're shown in commercials and on TV. It's 2010, not 1910 and women do not bare the burden of cooking in "most" families.

Gender and cooking


You are right that food is often prepared by different members of different families. I know several families where men or children or women (or a combination of all family members) prepare the meals. Delicious!

However, it's hard to ignore that women are still primarily held culturally responsible for the way in which their families eat, especially if they have children. This is a social norm that, unfortunately, has been around since before 1910 and still exists today. (Again, not to say that it rings true in all families, but women do bare the cultural burden if not the literal one.)

While personal experiences like yours are valuable, they do not erase social norms and expectations.

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

<i>Ask me about our <a href="">Comments Policy</a>!</i>


Every single time I hear the last few seconds of these commercials I get furious. The bit where one mother says something about "making it happen" with the blatantly judging tone towards all those other 'bad' mothers out there who just don't want it bad enough to make it happen.

Sure, it's a nice image to associate with the brand - that of the whole family sitting down for dinner. But they completely destroy the message in the first part of the ads (where people acknowledge reality) by telling us how horrible we are for not putting enough effort into getting the family together.

Ummm excuse me

There is nowhere in this commercial that implies WHAT you serve for dinner makes any difference.

So the gripes against how Stouffer's make their popular, easy-to-prepare meals seem more than a little mean-spirited.

The point is 'Fixing Dinner'. The meeting, not the menu.


poor bill

IT's funny how the commercial never mentions how poor Bill is a dead beat dad with his 2 other kids

Add new comment