Mark Ritson: Brands boycotting Mumsnet have a deluded view of consumers

Marketers were reportedly upset that their ads appeared next to expletives on Mumsnet, but that’s how real people talk and it pales in comparison to terrorist content as a risk to brands online.

Mumsnet swearing
There can be little doubt that Mumsnet is a marketing and media phenomenon. Founded only 17 years ago, the site now attracts in excess of 10 million users a year and continues to maintain a double-digit annual growth rate. Aside from its sheer scale, the Mumsnet audience is also a tasty prospect for marketers because of its demographic and behavioural uniformity.

In an age of fragmented media and markets that fail to follow the traditional demographic stereotypes, Mumsnet is that rarest of things – a site that is predominantly occupied by a single specific type of consumer: mums. While a small proportion of the visitors to the site are male, the rest of its user base is the marketing equivalent of gold dust.

Almost 80% of its users are women, mostly mothers, aged between 26 and 45. These are the target consumers often too busy to consume other media as they juggle jobs, family commitments and children. Yet this is the audience that Mumsnet has built its business around. These women use the site to share experiences, provide advice and generally behave like an old-fashioned online community.

But there is a growing problem with this community. Browse the site for barely a minute and its becomes readily apparent: the first F-bomb is usually only three or four clicks in. And the bombs keep dropping. And dropping with such frequency and vehemence that Mumsnet begins to take on an almost Tarantino-like vibe. Posts like ‘Is this totally fucked?’ and ‘Can we talk about spunk’ are commonplace.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – The National Lottery found out the hard way how moronic consumers can be

Most users appear comfortable dropping Anglo Saxon epithets into seemingly every possible conversation. An apparently harmless debate about married life detours into: “Fuck off you stupid prick of a husband, who is now giving me the silent treatment because I dared to go to a final wedding dress fitting with my only sister, for whom I am chief bridesmaid.”

A discussion of parenting begins with the disarming header: ‘To be so fucked off with my toddler’s behaviour’.

Regular readers of this column will know that I take a very dim view of swearing. But, when the time is right, I do feel a decent application of a well-placed and very occasional bit of the Anglo Saxon lexicon has its place in the lyrical wonderland we all know as the English language.

Unfortunately for Mumsnet I don’t have any ad budget and, worse still, the companies that do are increasingly unhappy with the fruity vernacular that pervades Mumsnet. Big advertisers like Bulgari, the National Trust and price comparison site are among the big brands reconsidering their presence on Mumsnet, according to a report in The Times.

At first sight this does all rather make sense. I can see why a majestic luxury brand like Bulgari might flinch if an ad for its iconic fragrance Jasmin Noir appears alongside a post from a mum who wants to put up ‘No wanking’ signs above her toilet to stop her teenage progeny from masturbating repeatedly in the downstairs loo. And it’s understandable that the National Trust, which advertises on Mumsnet to raise funds for some of Britain’s most iconic stately homes, might bridle at the thought of their logo appearing next to a graphic and rather salacious description of “crotch bling”.

Brands reconsidering their presence on Mumsnet appear comfortable inserting TV ads into programmes with foul language, sexual context and violence.

But crotch bling and teenage ejaculate are just two of the many millions of crosses that marketers must now bear in the brave and grave new era of programmatic buying. As the digital proportion of advertising becomes ever greater, the dependence on programmatic will only increase. That means the era of carefully matching not only the audience target but also the title and specific content placement of advertising is likely to become a thing of the past.

The careful pre-selection of media channels to match our message and brand position has been replaced by post-hoc recriminations when our much vaunted brand and hot new digital display ads start popping up in all the wrong places. Thanks to programmatic, marketers are now much more likely to concern themselves with inappropriate media placements and content risks; but only after the branded horse has long since bolted from the media buying stable.

Mumsnet is hardly a jihadi cell

That said, I’m not even sure that Mumsnet poses any brand risk. More likely, the recent brand safety saga has just got marketing directors worried – or ‘shitting their pants’ as a Mumsnet user might put it – and made them overly sensitive to any digital media transgression.

There is a world of difference between your ad appearing next to a digital video for jihadi recruitment – and paying that organisation a small slice of the media action for the privilege – and a placement next to the plaintive, frustrated pleas of an exhausted mother asking others for advice on how to get her useless “fuckwitt” [sic] husband to pull his weight in the kitchen, albeit using metaphors that would make a deep sea fisherman blush.

Most of the brands currently reconsidering their presence on Mumsnet because of the language issue appear to be more than comfortable inserting their TV ads into programmes that contain just as much foul language, along with sexual context and violence to boot. Have we perhaps become too sensitive about brand safety and digital media?

READ MORE: Facebook, Sky and Virgin Media look to tackle brand safety issues

And, in reality, is any of the industrial language on Mumsnet even a bad thing? I suspect this is how many, perhaps most, mothers communicate with each other – especially after three hours’ sleep and a row with a husband who does not get it. Maybe Mumsnet has a realistic, vibrant and entirely representative community of British mums, and it is the brands that consider the site a brand risk which have the real marketing issue.

Have they built their brand strategies around an unrealistic, non-representative vision of female consumers, who lose their baby weight immediately, smile adoringly at their two perfect children every eight seconds and never lose their temper with the handsome, supportive dreamboat they are lucky enough to be married to?

This may be inappropriately introspective on my part, but I hear the women on Mumsnet and I immediately encounter women that I know. Then I look at the slightly malnourished, idealised customers pictured with the latest Bulgari bag, or vigorously raking the leaves alongside their labrador and perfectly coiffured son in an ad for the National Trust, and I don’t recognise a soul.

Perhaps these brands are right to depart from Mumsnet and spend their money elsewhere. The good news is that the Mumsnet team also have a site for older consumers called Gransnet that is also growing like the clappers. And that lot hardly ever talk about wanking or crotch bling. Trade a bit of lifetime value for brand safety and everybody can be happy.

Professor Mark Ritson will be teaching the next class on the Marketing Week Mini MBA in Marketing from September 2017. To find out how it could make you a more confident, more effective and more inspired marketer, and to book your place, click here.

Hide Comments7 Show Comments
  • Pete Austin 23 Aug 2017 at 3:52 pm

    Really, National Trust? Your supposed rationale is preserving memories of the “old days”, when you may remember there was total separation between editorial and advertising in publishing.

    Deluded doesn’t come close to describing your wish to censor literally millions of women. The users of Mumsnet are clearly not offended by swearing, in context, and that’s the only thing that should matter here.

  • Pete Austin 23 Aug 2017 at 3:54 pm

    Really, National Trust? Your supposed rationale is preserving memories of the “old days”, when you may remember there was total separation between editorial and advertising in publishing. Deluded doesn’t come close. The users of Mumsnet are clearly not offended by swearing, in context, and that’s the only thing that should matter here.

  • Devon Dalton 23 Aug 2017 at 3:57 pm

    I actually don’t think brands are wrong to reconsider their place in Mumsnet. While there are a lot of women who discuss their issues in such a colourful way, not all mums do. And if the running theme for Mumsnet is profanity, then its clearly favoured by a particular demographic. Whether a brand feels that they can relate to that demographic or not is a fundamental marketing question that is frequently being asked. Similar big-league brands are happy to advertise for sexually-explicit and violent TV shows because they either believe their brand correlates somehow with some element of the TV show, recognise that there is a large variety in audience demographic, or want to ride on the coat tails of the TV’s popularity and contribution to pop culture. If Mumsnet ticks none of those boxes (or any other relevant boxes) for them, they’d be daft not to look elsewhere for advertising space

    • Lee Grunnell 23 Aug 2017 at 7:52 pm

      “And if the running theme for Mumsnet is profanity, then its clearly favoured by a particular demographic” – ooh, contentious! Please explain Devon!

  • Jason Chastain 23 Aug 2017 at 6:44 pm

    Those concerned with language on Mumsnet seem to have it backwards. There are no prudes going to Mumsnet in the hopes of catching a family brand on an offensive site. In fact I find the whole “content danger” to brands a bit blown out of proportion. Who is going to Jihadi vids just hoping to catch a mainstream brand ad there and report it gleefully? “Oh no! My breakfast cereal had an ad that popped up next to a radical imam video.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out they didn’t deliberately place the ad there. Would I boycott them for the mistake? No, I wouldn’t care one bit. They are overthinking it, and assuming the public cares, that the public thinks these things matter, that the public gives a damn enough to even give it conscious thought. They don’t. Only marketers echo this issue at all. Joe Public just tells me he hates commercials…except the occasional funny one. So an ad that appears there will reach moms who curse…but also buy products. Who cares?

  • Lindsey Fish 24 Aug 2017 at 2:00 am

    Hmmmm interesting, It’s hard being a mother and a place to vent is needed. But personally I’ve never been a mumsnetter nor do I know anybody who is and by the sounds of it I don’t want to be :/) Dont forget Mumsnet launched 17 years ago and a lot has changed, maybe mumsnet passed me by as I had my first child only 3 years ago, I’d have only been 17 myself when Mumsnet launched. I’d be interested to see how many mums are new and how many longstanding users. Which may explain the language, mums may feel they own the joint, like nobody else is watching and have been venting for years and slowly topics vented have exploded into the ins and outs of teenage bodily fluids and crappy other halves.

    Mumsnet is still an obvious choice for marketers but is it really just a lazy option? I myself run a flexible work and business show and I’m betting only a small % of our 4500 visitors this year will be active mumsnetters. I myself do not advertise on Mumsnet to attract our audience which many would consider crazy, but that’s because we really don’t need too, there’s plenty more fish in the sea and it will be interesting to see where these brands next place their budget.

  • John Bell 24 Aug 2017 at 10:39 am

    no mention of Mrs Ritson on this one, very peculiar

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