FROM THE FRYING PAN INTO THE FIRE
An advertisement for Quaker Oats cereal in an issue of Working Mother magazine provides a small window on the interplay between consumption and the application of the idea of efficiency to private time in modem America.1 In the ad, a mother, dressed in a business suit, affectionately hugs her smiling son. Beneath the image, we read: “Instant Quaker Oatmeal, for moms who have a lot of love but not a lot of time.” The ad continues with a short story: “Nicky is a very picky eater. With Instant Quaker Oatmeal, I can give him a terrific hot breakfast in just 90 seconds. And I don’t have to spend any time coaxing him to eat it!”
The ad then presents “facts” about mother and child: “Sherry Greenberg, with Nicky, age four and a half, Hometown: New York City, New York, Occupation: Music teacher, f avorite Flavor: Apples and Cinnamon.” The designers of this ad, we could imagine, want us to feel we’ve been let in on an ordinary moment in a middle-class American morning. 3 n this ordinary’ moment, Sherry’ Greenberg is living according to a closely scheduled, rapidly paced “adult” time, while Nicky is living according to a more dawdling, slowly paced “child” time. So the mother faces a dilemma. To meet her work deadline, she must get Nicky on “adult” time. But to be a good mother it is desirable to give her child a hot breakfast—“hot” being associated with devotion and love. To cook the hot breakfast, though, Sherry’ needs time. The ad suggests that it is the cereal itself that solves the problem. It conveys love because it is hot, but it permits efficiency because it’s quickly made. The cereal would seem to reconcile an image of American motherhood of the 1950s with the female work role of 2000 and beyond.
The cereal also allows Sherry to avoid the unpleasant task of struggling with her child over scarce time. In the ad, Nicky’s slow pace is implicitly attributed to his character (“Nicky is a very picky eater”) and not to the fact that he is being harnessed to an accelerating pace of adult work time or protesting an adult speed-up by staging a “slowdown." By permitting the mother to avoid a fight with her son over time, the ad brilliantly evokes a common problem and proposes a commodity as a solution.
Attached to the culture of time shown in the ad is a key but hidden social
logic. This modem working mother is portrayed as resembling Frederick Taylor, the famed efficiency expert of modem industry. The principle of efficiency is not located, here, at work in the person of the owner, the foreman, or the worker. S t is located in the worker-as-mother. We do not see a boss pressing the worker for more efficiency at the office. Instead, we see a mother pressing her son to eat more efficiently at home. This efficiencyseeking is transferred from man to woman, from workplace to home, and from adult to child. Nicky becomes his own task master, quickly gobbling his breakfast himself because it is so delicious. Frederick Taylor has leapt the fence from factory to home, adult to child, and jumped, it seems, into the cereal box itself. Frederick Taylor has become a commodity. It provides efficiency. Thus, the market reinforces the idea of efficiency twice—once at a locus of production, where the worker is pressed to work efficiently, and again, as a supplier of consumer goods, where it promises to deliver the very efficiency it also demands.
Quaker Oats cereal may be a paradigm for a growing variety of goods and services—frozen dinners, computer shopping services, cell phones,2 and the like—that claim to save time for busy working parents. They often save time at home. But the ethic of “saving time” raises the question of what we want to save time for.-‘ In the case above, the photo of the happy mother and
child suggests that the mother is rushing her son through breakfast, not to race out to an all-absorbing job at a dot-com company, but to teach a few piano lessons. The picture doesn’t challenge our idea of the primacy’, even sacredness, of Nicky’s home. So we don’t much notice the sly insinuation of Frederick Taylor into the scene.