Obviously it’s not always possible to tell when the dad in an ad is a primary caregiver, but there’s been an increase in dad-centric TV commercials this year, with a move away from the doofus archetype of the past. This echoes the trend for more capable, hands-on fathers in movies and TV shows, but some brands have been slow to recognize that this is what viewers want.
Earlier this year, Huggies launched a series of TV spots that showed moms putting their products to the “dad test” —the implication being that if those big dopes could use ‘em, anyone could. The backlash was swift and vocal, with both moms and dads taking to the brand’s Facebook page to complain that the ads played on out of date stereotypes. Huggies was clearly panicked by the strength of the negative response: they yanked one of the ads, emphasized that they featured real couples rather than a fictionalized idea of what fathers are like, and even rushed to a daddy blogging conference to issue an “our bad”.
What’s interesting is that this criticism didn’t come from the media or the feminist blogosphere but the intended audience, suggesting a real-world shift in attitudes towards stay-at-home dads (and hands-on fathers in general). But while Huggies’ campaign was unimaginative and hackneyed, it’s understandable: for years, the Homer Simpson-esque clueless papa has been a reliable and uncontroversial target for humor. He still features in many ads, like Kroger’s current Christmas commercial, where a woman informs us that her husband helps out at this time of year by doing his own wrapping (just like a grown-up!) — and then we see said wrapping, and it’s atrocious.
Where dads are portrayed positively (or at least not negatively) in ads, it’s still often in a clichéd way. Target’s 2010 Fall coupon booklet featured a couple excited to stock up on shopping for their impending baby, but the woman’s trolley is filled with pink décor and cleaning products, whereas the man’s contains snacks and (blue-colored) toys. Elsewhere, Ubisoft has a dad “teaching” his baby to play the electric guitar, Google Chrome shows a father connecting with his daughter via tech tools, and Suburu’s Emmy award-winning ad has a dad waving his daughter off on her first solo drive in her new car, showing us that from his perspective she’s still a little girl. These commercials all tie being a good father with traditional masculine interests (shredding, technology, cars) and the last promotes a correlation between over-protectiveness and being a good father.
Dads in ads are almost always able-bodied and straight, and primarily white (from my observations, people of color are more likely to appear in a mixed group than solo). But it seems like customers are open to more diversity, and the ad industry is slowly waking up to that fact, with non-gender conformist campaigns winning praise. When conservative pressure group One Million Moms mounted a protest against JC Penney due to their employment of out lesbian Ellen Degeneres as a spokesperson, the company didn’t cave. Instead they doubled down on diversity, launching a Spring catalogue featuring real life gay dads Todd Koch and Cooper Smith and their two kids.
While this felt like a triumph for inclusiveness, it was hardly a humanitarian gesture: JC Penney took a calculated risk that enough of their customers would be impressed (or at least not offended by) their stance on equality for it to not damage their business. Lisa Belkin’s article on the Huggies controversy makes clear that the brand’s attempts to appease fathers were really only a way to appear attractive to their core customers: women. Huggies brand director Aric Melzl told her: “All of this… is targeted at moms. I don’t want there to be any question about who we we’re going after.”
In our capitalist system, businesses are inevitably less interested in encouraging social change than in pushing product, but by responding to the fact that customers want to see more a progressive stance, even if it’s only an act, they’re still creating some positive images that could help to subvert gender stereotypes for a new generation.
But while we (rightly) criticize sexist ads, we still live in a society where women’s contributions are devalued and it’s assumed both men and women will conform to gendered expectations (like that women will be primary caregivers and do the majority of the housework). There are far fewer single and stay-at-home dads in real life than we see in the media, but it would be truly revolutionary if the increase in hands-on fathers in ads, TV shows, and movies translated to a greater number of men taking responsibility for their kids — or at least realizing that sharing childcare is a viable option.