Maybelline's Mindy Kaling And The 'Ma'am' Question

This recent commercial for Maybelline New York stars the genius comedian, writer, director and lifestyle maven Mindy Kaling.

Open on a heavily trafficked street with horns, taxis, and general urban hubbub.  We see Mindy strolling along as her glam, flawlessly made-up and 40something self.

A mild-mannered 20something guy with round granny glasses, a red-haired “just in from Wisconsin” kinda dude, now accidently bumps (or as New Yorkers used to say, “bunks”) into her on the sidewalk.

 “Excuse me, ma’am,” he says.

In both the 15- and 30-second versions, the offended and quick-witted Kaling responds, “Ma’am? Oh, I assume you were raised to call everyone ma’am?”



He answers honestly, with a Mindy-defeating, “No, I guess, everyone your age?”

“Everyone my age!” she snaps. “How old do you think I am?

By this time, she realizes that she’s asked for it. She takes a beat. “You know what, don’t answer that, but take it from me, it’s not very old!”

The concept and writing are fresh and funny, while clearly hitting a nerve. Mindy looks lit-up and gorgeous, and it turns out that she’s not the only one who is upset over this “ma’am” thing.

The spot popped up on my screen just as one of my friends had posted on social media she had just gotten called “young lady," and that she found it refreshing compared with “ma’am”!

“I’m no ma’am!” she said.

I so disagreed about the “young lady” part. I feel that for women in their late 50s and 60s having trouble facing their own mortality and still feeling young inside (ahem!), being called “young lady” is excruciatingly patronizing. It’s like the person is so aware of your advanced age that he thinks it’s cute to give you a little lift by turning the tables.

On the other (slightly veiny) hand, “ma’am” does acknowledge an age promotion from “miss.” And even women in their 20s and 30s complain about being mistaken for a “ma’am,” as if they’re being seen as some sort of matron.

As Mindy infers, for some areas in the South, using “ma’am” is just showing good manners. It’s used as a term of respect, along with “sir.” 

And it sure beats “hey, lady.”

But in the age-free aging department, Kaling’s promoting Maybelline’s Instant Eraser Treatment Makeup.  And let’s face it, we could all use some liquid eraser treatment. The spot, directed by Lizzy Born and created by Gotham NY, has punch.

Of course, Maybelline is a venerable (i.e., old) drugstore brand. It’s been around since 1915, when, with his chemistry set, the founder figured out a way to remake the Vaseline and ash combination his sister was stirring up to darken her lashes. In the process, he invented mascara and named the brand after that sister with the quaint Mabel-plus moniker.

And though it’s cheaper than many other brands, I’ve never met a makeup artist who didn’t use it.

Fast-forward to today, when Maybelline is Maybelline New York and owned by L’Oreal, a mother brand with more cachet.

I believe this is the first funny spot that Maybelline New York has made. With so much competition from younger and cooler brands and their influencers, the tone is attention-getting and fun. It deftly hits on a sensitive spot that women of all ages deal with and are working on.

And as for that problematic, apostrophized four-letter word: In the future, please call me madam.

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