Mumsnet’s role in the Madeleine McCann advert affair has shown the muscle of parenting forums, says Harriet Lane
Sometimes, I wonder how my mother managed: she only had Dr Spock.
Advancing through pregnancy and motherhood, I’ve had thousands of unknown advisers from whom I’ve picked up tips about breast-feeding and nappies and where to find 100 per cent cotton school gingham dresses, as well as lots of stuff that isn’t really related to motherhood: how to stop my washing machine smelling, how to make Malaysian chicken curry. This is what happens when you develop a Mumsnet habit.
You land on the site accidentally, when you Google “antenatal yoga”: years later, as your children graduate from potties to iPods, you’re still there, snorting with indignation or pleasure, knowing that you should be doing something more conventionally constructive.
Online parenting sites are enjoying a boom. UK versions such as bad-mothersclub, netmums and babycentre, not to mention The Times’s own Alpha Mummy blog, are full of energetic communities of parents sharing jokes and pooling information. But Mumsnet is the daddy.
Founded seven years ago, it shuns those flashing cutie-pie icons that clog up other message boards, and its 300,000 monthly users will not tolerate txtspk or sloppy grammar. People will forever be spatting about Crocs, In The Night Garden, independent schools and Gordon Brown. But beneath the disagreements, there is an understanding that parenting is not an exact science, and we’re all making it up as we go along.
I’m a paid-up subscriber to the slackers’ school of motherhood. My children, 5 and 2, potter in a kitchen crammed with knives and bubbling pans while I sort laundry upstairs.
But on one matter, I am exceedingly vigilant. As much as I can, I protect my children from stories that I know will distress them. As my daughter is 5, we’ll make do with bedtime stories that amuse, reassure or help to make sense of the world around her: Topsy and Tim Learn to Swim, Five Dolls in a House, Charlotte’s Web. My husband and I did not tell her about Madeleine McCann.
Our daughter understands that she mustn’t wander off in the street or open the door to strangers. That’s all she needs to know, for now. Anyway, what lesson can any child draw from the McCanns’ tragedy? That bad people may take them from their beds while they sleep? So we have distracted her from posters, hidden papers, switched off the radio, avoided TV news.
On Sunday, because it was raining, I took my daughter to the cinema. It was only her third trip: Shrek the Third was a U, and the critics all agreed on its overwhelming, stultifying blandness. Perfect. My daughter was sitting up straight, mouth full of popcorn, when the lights went down. As we watched the ads for computer games and people-carriers, I could feel her vaccuuming it all up: the dark, the volume, the extraordinary size of the pictures.
Then the screen was filled with a child’s face. There was absolutely nothing I could do. My daughter stopped eating as the story of Madeleine McCann’s abduction was relayed. The word “snatched” was used. My daughter looked up at me, astonished. “Who snatched that little girl?” she asked.
The Find Madeleine ad finished. An ad for a processed cheese began. Over the clamour, I did my best to explain. A little girl had got lost.
Everyone was looking for her. Her parents missed her very much. I said it was very sad and everybody hoped she would come home soon. Then Shrek started. It wasn’t scary at all. Afterwards, my daughter didn’t mention the little girl. But at midnight she appeared in our room, sobbing, saying that she’d had a nightmare (an unusual event). The following morning, she asked me: “Have the police found the little girl yet?”
What could I do to stop this ad? Not much, probably. I couldn’t blame the McCanns for wanting it to run everywhere: they have a daughter to find, a campaign to fund. No, the buck stopped with the advertising regulators and the cinemas who allowed it to run before a U feature. According to recent surveys, British children are among the most anxious and unhappy in the world; small wonder when multiplexes and the British Board of Film Classification feel entitled to pitch the tragedy casually into auditoriums of kids. So I e-mailed Odeon HQ and submitted a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority (which advises that ads should be socially responsible, and not cause serious or widespread offence or harm).
Then I took my case to the place where I knew it would get proper attention: Mumsnet. As I’d expected, someone was in the same boat. Several people, in fact. The thread grew and grew. Within a few hours, hundreds of posters had added their opinions. Almost all felt as I did.
People posted links to the ASA website, and to the sites of cinemas running the ad in U or PG screenings. People who’d planned to take their children to the movie said that they’d boycott to avoid the promo.
I forwarded links to the thread – to Odeon, and also to Paramount Pictures, who distributed the film. I began to hope that the ad might be pulled before the weekend but the ASA explained that should the complaint be upheld, it would still take more than a week to get the ad out of cinemas. An hour later, a friend in a newsroom rang to say that Odeon was withdrawing the ad from all U and PG screenings. Other chains immediately followed suit.
All in all, it’s a little victory for parents who wish to take responsibility for telling, or not telling, their own children about the worst, most freakish sort of reality. It’s a little victory for the muscle of Mumsnet. And yes, it is also good to know that talking to a bunch of strangers on the internet can sometimes be amazingly constructive.