Kelsey O’Hagan first heard about the Gerber Photo Search from a nurse at a doctor’s appointment for her now-12-month-old son, Everett.
“She said, ‘Oh my God, you have to submit him; he’s so cute, he’s got such a good personality, and you could win $25,000,’” said O’Hagan, a 30-year-old stay-at-home mother from Methuen, Massachusetts. As part of the application process to be the baby food company’s new “spokesbaby,” she sent in a photo and a video of Everett, taken in April.
“I knew he wasn’t going to win — not because I don’t believe in him, but I just had a gut feeling that it was impossible,” she said.
Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times
Her instinct was correct. On May 4, Gerber announced the winner of its 12th annual Gerber Photo Search: Isa Slish, an 8-month-old beauty with clear blue eyes, long eyelashes and a charming smile.
On the “Today” show, Isa, who was born without a femur or a fibula in her right leg, a condition known as congenital limb difference, delighted the hosts while her mother, Melissa, said that the money would be “set aside” for her daughter’s surgeries.
Isa prevailed over more than 225,000 entries submitted since Gerber announced the contest one month earlier, on April 4.
Maybe it was the speed of the announcement (previous contests have taken two to five months) or the fact that many of this year’s cohort of eligible “babies” — a term used loosely — were born in a world shaped by COVID-19, but this year’s announcement elicited more than a few grumbles online. This often happens, but this year the response on social media channels like Instagram had a much sharper edge than usual.
A Contest That’s Come a Long Way, Baby
The original Gerber baby, a 94-year-old charcoal drawing of Ann Turner Cook, who died Friday at 95, carries a certain cachet in the parenting world, but the current Gerber Photo Search, which was introduced in 2010, is much younger.
The contest, said Shannon Frieser, a representative from Gerber, “enabled us to learn more about the hopes, dreams, challenges and diversities of babies and families from many different backgrounds.”
Over the last decade, the number of entries has also varied widely, from 110,000 in 2017 to 544,000 in 2019. The winners have reflected the experiences of children from around the country, including an adoptee, a child with Down syndrome and a “miracle baby “Born to a mother unsure of how her cancer treatment would affect her ability to conceive.
The prize money has ranged from $25,000 to $50,000, and the two most recent winners have also been named the “Chief Growing Officer,” a job that appears to require showing off Gerber foods on social media.
The Not-So-Cute Backlash
On Instagram, the comments on this year’s winner had an edge. The most insensitive comments were deleted, but two arguments, in particular, remained: How was the contest decided so quickly, and why don’t toddlers ever win? And with that pushback, the comments section devolved into meta discussions of pointed criticism and defensive justifications.
But there was also frustration underlying the comments. “They chose the winner, and she’s adorable, but I thought it would be cool if even on their stories they posted the runner-up or the top three or whatever,” as proof that other babies were considered, O’Hagan said.
She recalled a response to her own comment on the Gerber Instagram that said her son never had a chance and that Gerber had already picked a winner before the contest began.
The response, which she said was swiftly deleted, claimed that Gerber worked with an agency for the contest. (Gerber’s response: “Gerber does not use an agency to select the Photo Search Winner. Our team of judges is composed of Gerber employees.”)
Brittney, a 23-year-old stay-at-home mother of two from Sikeston, Missouri, shared the frustration. “This year I was just pretty disappointed,” she said. “And I noticed a lot of other moms were as well. It’s not that the baby that they picked is a problem. She’s a gorgeous little girl.
“It gets a little fishy every year,” she added, because “I know Gerber had to at least collect hundreds of thousands of pictures and videos, and it did not take them long to pick a winner.” She requested to be identified by only her given name out of concern for her children’s privacy.
Gerber said in a written statement to The New York Times: “Each year, the Gerber spokesbaby is chosen by a diverse panel of Gerber employees who ensure all submissions are thoroughly reviewed. With more than 225,000 submissions this year, we expanded our panel of judges who carefully reviewed all entries to identify children from birth to 4 years old who best demonstrated a shining personality and expressiveness. It’s important to us that we gave each submission the fair chance it deserves. Rest assured — we did not miss a single smile.”
Kevin Wagner, a 24-year-old father from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, entered the contest because people would say “You look like the Gerber baby!” to his 2-year-old daughter. “That’s what really got us in trying to do this, right, to shoot our shot.”
But he was let down as well. Babies have an advantage, said Wagner, who works as a mover. “That way they can test the baby foods,” he said. “They haven’t really picked a 2-year-old, 3-year-old, when it goes up to 4. It says it’s a cute baby contest, not a sad story contest,” he said.
In 2011, the contest’s first winner, Mercy Townsend, was 2 years old, though each winner since has been under 1. Gerber said in a statement that, “All babies are considered equally in Gerber Photo Search and we hope to have another toddler spokesbaby in the future.”
A Difficult Time to Parent
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every parent entering the Gerber Photo Search. Brittney, for instance, gave birth wearing a mask. And the frustrations of pandemic parenting continue: a child care crisis; women leaving the workforce in droves; the fact that children under 5 are still ineligible to get vaccinated.
And now, the massive formula shortage — a slow-motion disaster starting with a recall in February and aggravated the pandemic-related supply-chain issues — is the current stressor, and Brittney, along with other moms, are driving hours to different stores just to try to find a can of formula.
“With the formula recall, I feel like that’s when a lot of parents got desperate,” she said, “for the money from the Gerber search,” adding that the problem was broader.
“For formula, diapers and wipes, it was difficult when people were hoarding toilet paper and even the older generation was hoarding baby wipes. It’s a dangerous situation, and you have these angry moms. The pandemic has really affected parents more than anything else. It’s affected them hard.”
The outpouring of emotion online made it clear that a contest with a slim chance of victory is also a pivot point for frustrated pandemic parents to share a little bit of their story. They have worked and suffered with very little institutional help, and they want to be seen and acknowledged for their efforts.
When O’Hagan’s son was born in June, instead of going home with her when she was discharged, he had to spend three days being taken care of in the neonatal nursery for further testing and monitoring. She went to visit and asked whether there was any possibility of getting a room so she could stay with him. The nurse said no, she said, citing new pandemic protocols.
It was hard, she said, to go through that as a new parent, but Everett has been doing better since. “We don’t go out and socialize a whole lot. We’ll see a handful of people that we know. It’s a different life. There’s a lot of emotion.”
© 2022 The New York Times Company