Are Nuclear Families the Only People That Count?

Craig Wynne
University of the District of Columbia
Washington, D.C., USA

According to a 2016 United States Census report, 45.2 percent of Americans age 18 and older were unmarried. Projections from the Pew Research Center also indicate that by 2030, 28% of men will have not married before the age of fifty-four. Similar projections also show 23% of women also will have not wed by that same age. These statistics are important because they show that marriage does not hold the same level of importance in people’s minds as it once did, as many people are marrying later, or in some cases, finding happiness in a life outside of marriage. Yet single people are still marginalized in various cultures.

In her landmark article, “Singles in Society and Science,” Bella DePaulo coins the term singlism to refer to the stigma and stereotypes that single people face, such as being lonely, incomplete, and lacking in social skills. In this article, she defines the “Ideology of Marriage and Family” as the reductive idea that everybody should follow the heteronormative life path of marrying and having children. Her book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, develops an additional yet related concept: matrimania, which she defines as societal obsession with marriage and weddings.

These two phenomena overlap in everyday life, in our laws, and in popular culture. Everyday singlism might include microaggressions from friends, family members, or co-workers such as “why are you still single” and “when are you getting married?” Singlism and matrimania are written into laws around the world. For example, in the United States, a person can leave Social Security benefits to a spouse but not a domestic partner or a sibling. In England, married couples can claim a Married Couple’s Allowance, which helps married people or those in domestic partnerships save money on taxes. In India, as in the United States, certain types of communication between spouses are legally protected. Many classic and contemporary movies, TV shows, and books end with the protagonist coupled in some way, which contributes to the character arc.

Microaggressions can also be subtle; they consist of language that excludes singles. In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, DePaulo discusses how common usage of the word “family” serves to marginalize those who do not form a nuclear family, either by choice or by circumstance.

DePaulo questions such use of the word “family” because it inadvertently marginalizes individuals not belonging to a nuclear family who also might need food, even if the organization being depicted intends to donate food to all people who need it, not just those who are part of a nuclear family. For this reason, it is important to discuss the ramifications of such discourse. Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) examines text to reveal such social inequities and power imbalances (Huckin 95). In what follows, I use CDA to examine a sample of eight advertisements for various pharmaceutical products and show how these images perpetuate inequities with respect to how singles are marginalized in favor of married couples.

I selected a group of eight commercials from two episodes of 60 Minutes, which aired on May 10, 2020, and May 17, 2020, recorded the commercials on my phone and transcribed the voiceover narration and images. I then broke down the images into categories of the marital/familial demographics seen in the commercials:

MWC – Married/Coupled with Children

MWOC – Married/Coupled without Children

SP – Single Parent

SWOC – Single Without Children

In my coding, I considered two limitations: 1) a pair that is shown as coupled does not necessarily imply marriage, particularly given the limits of the narratives being told in thirty to sixty-second advertisements; 2) a man or a woman shown by himself/herself does not imply a single man or woman, but since the narratives were limited in length and depth, those images were given a Single categorization. The same principle applied to a parent with a child if that parent was not seen with a spouse.

I assigned a “singlist” rating to each advertisement: three were ranked as the most singlist, one as the least. These ratings were based on the amount of time the makers spent depicting a couple or family in favor of a single person. For a commercial to qualify as a one, there would have to be: 1) no portrayal of any couple or family; or 2) an equal amount of time spent portraying a couple in proportion to a single person. For a commercial to register as a two, portrayals of singles can be included, but a commercial would have to predominantly focus on the couple. If only one story is being told, the story should focus on a couple or nuclear family to qualify for this rating. To be scored a three, a commercial should focus on multiple couples with no portrayals of singletons.

The advertisements for Dupixent and Entresto scored a one; they are the most inclusive of all familial/relationship structures. The Dupixent ad tells three consecutive stories: 1) a woman running to catch a bus; 2) a man jumping into a pool and swimming with his children, and 3) a mother showing her son how to hit a baseball. One-third of this commercial is devoted to what appears to be a nuclear family, but the other two appear to empower singletons. First off, the mother showing a son how to hit a baseball subverts traditional gender portrayals, and the woman running to catch a bus appears to offer a pro-single message in that none of her fingers sports a wedding ring, and she was spending time with a friend before catching the bus (one limitation is that we don’t get the woman’s story outside of the scene). The ad for Entresto offers a thirty-second portrayal of a mother and daughter taking pictures of birds in nature, which is representative of a positive role model of single parenting.

The advertisements for Biktarvy, Jardiance, Trulicity, Vraylar, and Xeljanz make attempts at being inclusive with respect to race, gender, sexuality, and familial status, but most of their screen time is devoted to the portrayal of a nuclear family. The visuals in the Biktarvy commercial tell several interlocking stories outside of the nuclear family, including that of a Black gay couple eating dinner, a group of women singing karaoke at a bar, and a single man paddling a canoe. However, the last eight seconds of the commercial end with the gay couple eating dinner outside and embracing with a kiss. Moreover, there is one story involving a hetero couple walking a dog. This type of portrayal is certainly progressive with respect to queer relationships and does devote some space to singletons, as per the image of the man in a canoe and the women singing karaoke at a bar. However, the story of the women at the club ends with one of them slow dancing with a man, which implies they might “hook up” at the end of the night. Twelve more seconds are devoted to the story of the hetero couple, and three seconds show a nuclear family around a dinner table. The narrative of the single woman at the club ends with a four-second shot of one of the woman’s implied “hook-ups” with the man. By comparison, eight seconds are devoted to the single man in the canoe.

The Jardiance commercial offers a sixty-second story that shows a father helping his daughter build a rocket for a competition. One of the images shows the two of them in the garage, accompanied by who appears to be the man’s wife. In the Trulicity commercial, a woman talks to the screen before the camera displays a middle-aged white man. The ad then launches into the story of him purchasing an automobile for his daughter, with wife in tow. The Vraylar ad tells the story of a woman struggling with depression. It is implied that after she takes Vraylar, she overcomes her depression and enjoys time with her husband and daughter. The advertisement for Xeljanz tells the story of a woman taking her daughter to work. She wakes up next to her husband, brushes her teeth side-by-side with her daughter, and spends the day with her daughter in her office. Even though it mostly shows the mother/daughter dynamic in the workplace, this commercial was scored a two due to the opening shot of the woman waking up next to her husband.

The advertisement for Verzenio tells three simultaneous stories: an elderly Black couple embracing at a family picnic, a mother and father playing with their children, and a family surrounding a young mother and her newborn at the hospital. The commercial ends with three consecutive close-ups of the nuclear families. It scored a three because it tells three stories that are all based on the nuclear family, and it ends with three shots of such families. No singles are portrayed here.

Ultimately, my purpose is not to condemn advertisers of pharmaceutical products for their emotional appeals in their commercials. However, the messages displayed by advertisers inadvertently exclude those who do not form nuclear families, even though the rate of nuclear families is declining. This fact is important in that as marital rates are expected to continue their decline, so might the consumers of these products. So, advertisers would do well to pay heed to these trends. A report from the advertising agency Wunderman Thompson recognizes singles as a growing market (J. Walter Thompson Intelligence). Further, the report states that single consumers will not support a brand that does not frame their experience as valid. We need to reconsider how we define and present “family” as a word and as a concept. By recognizing the growing population of non-traditional households, rhetoricians can become more attuned to the nexus of bodies and experiences that are often excluded from mainstream discourses.

Works Cited

American Association of Retired People. “How Does Marriage Affect Social Security Benefits?” n.d. Web. 3 June 2020.

Biktarvy. Gilead Sciences. Advertisement. CBS. 17 May 2020.

DePaulo, Bella. “Pandemic Talk: Everyone Is Worried About Couples and Families.” Psychcentral. 9 April 2020. Web. 10 June 2020.

DePaulo, Bella. Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006.

DePaulo, Bella M. and Wendy L. Morris. “Singles in Society and Science.” Psychological Inquiry 16.2&3 (2005): 57-83.

Dupixent. Regeneron. CBS. 17 May 2020.

Entrezto. Novartis. CBS. 10 May 2020. “Married Couple’s Allowance.” Gov.UK. n.d. Web. 3 June 2020.

Halakhani, Namit. “Privileged Communication Between Husband and Wife Under Section 122 of the Indian Evidence Act.” Pleaders Intelligent Legal Solutions. 29 September 2018. Web. 3 June 2020.

Huckin, Thomas. “Critical Discourse Analysis.” TESOL-France 2.2 (1995): 95-111.

Jardiance. Eli Lilly and Company. CBS. 17 May 2020.

J. Walter Thompson Intelligence. “The Single Age.” J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, 26 June 2019. Web. 15 June 2020.

Trulicity. Eli Lilly and Company. CBS. 10 May 2020.

Verzenio. Eli Lilly and Company. CBS. 10 May 2020.

Vraylar. Allergan. CBS. 17 May 2020.

Xeljanz. Pfizer. CBS. 17 May 2020.