Does the dutiful, cheerful "little housewife" still exist? Is she living idyllically in her suburban split-level home, chauffering the children, shopping , cooking, and critically eyeing the state of her laundry or the shine on her kitchen floor?
Most advertisers apparently think so, since they continue blithely to beam commercials out to that vast target group known as "housewives, aged 18-49."
And yes, the homemaker still does exist, but she now constitutes but 36 percent of women in the United States, declares Rena Bartos, a senior vice-president and director of communications development at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York and perhaps advertising's best-known expert on the women's market.
According to Mrs. Bartos, many homemakers within that 36 percent consider themselves atypical, and they plan later to work outside the home. She explains further that 50 percent of US women have joined the work force, and many of the remaining 14 percent are in school or retired.
Traditional housewives are now a minority group.
Paradoxically, she says that marketing leaders who pride themselves on knowing what's what seem to have been looking the other way during the last 10 years.
Mrs. Bartos, a trained sociologist and researcher, began in 1972 to study in depth this woman's market and to track the social changes and trends that were affecting the marketing of products and ideas. She analyzed all her company's data resources and began to seek answers to some pertinent questions of her own, which she also fed into the company computer.
One day, she says, "I saw a new picture of women consumers emerging. I saw, first, that women change as consumers as they move through different stages of their lives, and that the presence or absence of a husband and children are key factors to their marketing behavior. It was clear that things change dramatically for a woman when she marries, when she goes back to work, when her children leave home, and when she becomes single again through widowhood or divorce."
Mrs. Bartos then saw that the women's market fell naturally into four distinct segments, in each of which the women have different motivations, are committed to different life styles, favor different products, and shop differently.
Working women, she found, could be classified as committed career types or as "just-a-job" workers who seek jobs out of economic necessity, desire for independence, or to add interest to their lives.
Homemakers, her research showed, could be divided into those who plan to remain at home and those who plan to find jobs later, most often after young children are in school.
Mrs. Bartos and her computer have come up with a few telling generalizations about each of these four groups:
Career women are the best-educated, the most style-conscious, and the heaviest users of magazines and newspapers, and they listen most to radio. They are the most likely to plan ahead, to be cautious, and to be brand-loyal when they market.
The career woman is the most affluent, puts the most mileage on her car, and travels the most. She often has her own passport and is now perceived as being a very important travel customer.
Career types have the strongest and most positive self-images and see themselves as more broad-minded, self-assured, efficient, and independent than the women in the other groups. They do, however, admit to being impulse buyers.
The just-a-job working women claim to be "experimental" when they shop and not particularly loyal to brand names. They are more likely to try new products and new brands when they go marketing. In all ways, they are closest to the "norm."
The planning-to-work housewife is the youngest of the four groups, and she echoes many of the same self perceptions as the career woman. She is intelligent and aware and well educated. She is the most active user of all media and the most active consumer. She expects more help with the children from her husband, and also watches the most TV.
The more traditional homemaker tends to think of herself as kind, refined, and reserved, and not as brave or dominating. In general, she is the oldest and has the lowest level of education. She is an economy-minded shopper who rarely buys on impulse and thinks of herself as more easily persuaded than the others do.
Mrs. Bartos found husbands of working women to be far more likely to help around the house than are husbands of homemakers. The stay-at-home women are the least likely to expect to receive help from husbands and children, she says.
The tone of wives has shifted generally, Mrs. Bartos discovered, to a sense of partnership and family teamwork, and this is particularly true of working wives.
Women in all the categories have far more voice in the way families spend their money than they did a generation ago, according to her studies.
Mrs. Bartos says that social change in women's lives is not reflected in most of the advertising we see today. Ads continue to portray women as traditional housewives and mothers, shoppers, cleaners, and family cooks and to minimize their roles in the business and professional world and in community affairs.
However, more and more manufacturers and advertisers are beginning to take this more diverse women's market seriously. Some have moved from daytime to prime-time slots on TV and radio to reach more of the working women. Many are updating their images of women in their commercials.
A recent study made by Mrs. Bartos indicates that women in all four categories approve of advertising that presents such contemporary points of view as a young father diapering his baby, a middle-aged woman dressing up to go back to work, and a young woman asking all the right questions when she goes to purchase a new car. Traditional household commercials that depict women as sex objects or household drudges were criticized by respondents.
Rena Bartos says she only records and reports change, she doesn't bring it about. But she is too modest. When she talks and writes, people pay attention, the kind of people who can effect change.