About AEF | Newsletter | Site Map | Legal | Advanced Search
Print Version

The Dumbo Dad Ad Fad

Advertisers have always had a treasure chest of All-American iconography to draw from, and few are as durable—one might even say sacred—as those of Life with Father. Take, for instance, the 1962 State Mutual of America ad with the photo of dad showing his little boy how to line up his tin soldiers ("Some fathers make good generals, too," oozed the copy). There's the classic 1950s ad from Lionel model trains showing father and son bonding at trackside below the confident caption: "One of the best ways men get to know each other." As recently as 1994, an ad for the Krugerrand called "Generation to Generation" pictured a proud father about to give one of the famed solid-gold coins to his college-graduate son. "Maybe someday," mused dad, "he'll show it to his kid when he's trying to get him to do his homework."

What a touching thought. Let's fast-forward to someday . . .

It's exactly a decade later, 2004, and a new TV spot for Verizon DSL brings viewers into the family den during homework hour. There's dad (who probably cashed in that Krugerrand to get the house down payment) looking over the shoulder of his young daughter as she sits before a computer. In just a moment, dad will surely lean forward with his pencil to explain that confounding trigonometry problem.

But no. Unfortunately for the little girl, dad is a gaping moron. He stares saucer-eyed at the screen in utter helplessness while his progeny—tearing across the Web with her mouse—wears a look of untrammeled disgust. "Leave her alone," barks mom, who arrives just in time to ward off the dolt she married.

So much for father knowing best. Maybe Robert Young was bound to turn into Homer Simpson eventually, but nowhere is there starker evidence of just how far fathers have fallen in popular esteem than your average piece of major-brand marketing. While recent years still bear traces of the American dad of the Norman Rockwell era (the ad showing a gray-haired patriarch dispensing advice to his son over a tumbler of Dewar's, for example), increasingly common are spots like the contentious trio from Fidelity Investments via Arnold, Boston, which show fathers acting, more or less, like frat boy assholes. In "Kid's Toy," a bored father in a doctor's waiting room becomes entranced by a simple children's toy while real children look on in pity. "Ping-Pong" shows a father utterly demolishing his doe-eyed daughter in a game of table tennis in the garage, then gloating over his victory by pointing his finger at her and laughing.

It's common marketing wisdom that ads which play to emotions can really get the job done, even when those emotions are shock and anger. But at a time when many bemoan the erosion of the family unit and social scientists can clinically prove the critical role of fathers in childhood development, one can't help but wonder: Is it such a good idea to make dad look like a total jerk? Shouldn't marketers know better?

Setting up dad as the punch line is easy in a world where taboos have vanished and entertainment sells everything. But in that same world—one in which traditional gender roles are mutating and men are doing more domestic duties than ever—some say that advertisers who flip the bird at dad are, in effect, doing it at tomorrow's core customer.

Scott Mires, founder and creative director of San Diego ad shop Mires+Ball, points out that inside the average American home "there's been a shift in shared responsibility" that's increasingly putting fathers in the role of "understanding what brands their kids like." In other words, more and more, it's dad who's pushing the shopping cart these days, not mom.

So you wanna insult him? Brands that "leave out men as a whole category," Mires said, "are really missing a big opportunity."

Mister Mom

The psychology behind poke-fun-at-dad marketing is easy enough to understand. After all, virtually since the invention of the United States, dad's been the breadwinner and mom's been the shopper. For the baby- boomer generation (whose fathers imbued in them a fiscal conservatism forged in the Great Depression). it only made sense to treat dad like the tightwad and mom as the spender, and focus most all marketing efforts on the lady of the house.

Back in the old days, ads that focused on dad focused on the handful of things a guy would buy for himself: a shaving razor, perhaps, and of course the family car. In those spots, dad was king, and he was a damn smart guy, too. He was, for instance, the man in a 1970 print ad for Mercedes who said people thought he was crazy for paying more than $8,000 for a car. The photograph in the ad pictures a woman driving the car in a bad storm with two children tucked into the back seat. "But when my wife and kids are out there on a day like today," echoes the sage patriarch, "that car is the best investment I ever made."

That ad almost still coaxes an emotional sigh. But in truth, the domestic model it represents is roughly as accurate as a Leave it to Beaver episode. While statistically, mothers still assume the heavier childcare burden, fathers have slipped out of their tasseled loafers to be more mom-like than ever before. According to a University of Michigan study, while fathers in the 1970s spent only a third as much time as their wives in child-rearing duties, that time had risen to 43% by the time of the college's 1999 report. In 2007, when Waterbury, Conn.-based Harrison Group asked men about the time they spent sharing household work with their wives, 56% of them said they split it right down the middle. Perhaps most telling of all: When Monster.com recently asked dads if they'd be a stay-at-home parent if money were no object, 70% of them said they would.

Yet dumping on dads persists. A Pizza Hut spot from BBDO, New York, portrays a proud male who's just "prepared" dinner for his family—by ordering in from the Hut ("Who says I can't cook?" proclaims goofy dad). T-Mobile's ad "26" stars a father whose life skills do not include the ability to multiply 5 times 5. And a spot for the iRobot Roomba vacuum features a wife complaining that her house is a mess because "my husband is a jackass." (Full disclosure: The wife only nods toward the donkey's ass when referring to her husband.)

So, what gives? What were the account creatives thinking when they decided to poke a finger in dad's eye? Well, don't expect them to tell you. Arnold declined to comment about the Fidelity campaign. BBDO and Pizza Hut also declined to comment for this story.

Some argue that marketers, ever desperate for a laugh, are simply taking the path of least resistance. "Lazy ad agencies love gags," said Mark Tungate, author of the upcoming book Branded Male: Marketing to Men. "Slapstick is the easier form of humor, and men are the safest victims. It's acceptable to slam Justin Timberlake in the balls, but adland would never dream of beating on a woman." (Tungate, who's based in Paris, added that dumbo-dad marketing tactics are hardly the sole possession of American advertisers. "I can assure you that men are the butt of most of the jokes on this side of the pond, too," he said.)

Others claim that a kind of reverse psychology is in play. "Part of branding is storytelling, and a good story has someone playing the fool to make [someone else] look good by comparison," said Jim Twitchell, a marketing professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and author of Where Men Hide, an analysis of male camaraderie. "So whoever makes the women or the kid look smart is the doofus."

Making Dad Mad

Others are clearly of the opinion that the doofus title belongs with the brand, not the man. One of them is Rose Cameron, svp and planning director at Leo Burnett, Chicago, who maintains that "when advertisers push portrayals of men as buffoons, they really anger men—who already are not on strong footing."

Another of them is Glenn Sacks.

The newspaper columnist, talk show host blogger and commentator led a 2004 grassroots campaign to get Verizon to yank its "Homework" spot off the air. He succeeded, too. In fact, Sacks' effort got ink from 300 publications nationwide.

For its part, Verizon claimed that "Homework" had simply finished its scheduled run. Sacks' response: Yeah, sure. "We clearly had an impact," he said. "Because a Verizon pr person asked me to take down the page [on my blog] about that campaign. I told her, 'We're keeping it up there.' "Last year, Sacks joined with FathersAndHusbands.org in a grassroots effort to persuade carmaker Volvo against keeping its advertising account with Arnold during a review because of the agency's portrayal of men in the Fidelity ads. More than 3,000 people supported that campaign by contacting Volvo. (Incidentally, RSCG's Volvo ad "Rosi," a European campaign, is one that Sacks lauds for being "touching" for its portrayal of a sensitive father.) In response, the carmaker sent a letter to Sacks promising to run family-friendly commercials. Volvo ultimately kept Arnold.

"It's not my summer job in life to find ads and pretend to be offended by them," said Sacks. "Some ads are funny, and I don't rip apart every ad that shows a guy in a less-than-flattering way. I don't think there's anything wrong with poking fun at men. But it's getting real old when you see so much of that over and over."

It's getting real old for the men, too. In 2005, Leo Burnett released its "Man Study," which had interviewed more than 2,000 men from 13 countries about their self-perception and their societal roles. When it came to images of the male in advertising, 79% of respondents said those media portrayals were out of touch with reality.

"Unfortunately I think a lot of ads are directed at ourselves, the marketing community, rather than the consumer," said Burnett's Cameron. "Also, one of the great markers [society] looks to about the intelligence of a woman is her choice of husband. So if advertisers position men as idiots in the husband scenario, then you're commenting on her smarts. Women have told us, 'If you want to get on my good side, you do not show my husband as the idiot.'"

Lighten Up, Dude

Just as the 1990s gave us political correctness that invariably led to the extremes of referring to pets as "animal companions" and their obese owners as "people of mass," the early 21st century has given us the male as the new victim. So argue those who believe that the current anti-father accusers need to seriously lighten up.

Stuart D'Rozario, executive creative director of Barrie, D'Rozario, Murphy in Minneapolis, said that whatever furor exists over dads in ads, it's overblown. "Advertisers are always looking for insights into homes and families and the advertising that gets created may end up being about the dad," he said. "Often a lighthearted look at things is often better than a serious interpretation. Jokes about dad not being a good cook are pretty normal stuff."

It's probably also important to remember that while men might be taking over more household chores, women remain Demo Target No. 1 for many marketers—and that's just statistical sense. And, says this crowd, if making them laugh by poking fun at their men will do the job, what's the harm?

"The people who say women are the prospects for these ads are right," offered Marketing to Women author Marti Barletta, who heads up consultancy TrendSight Group in Winnetka, Ill. "You target your ads to people who buy 85-95% of your products. Besides, men are not that bothered by the goofy dads they see in ads. The way those ads make fun of somebody is most in line with the male sense of humor. If an advertiser was being offensive to men by putting someone down so another can have power, I would have a problem with that. But the majority of men are not offended."

Tungate concurs that most men aren't—or at least shouldn't be—offended. But as far as that put-down thing Barletta mentioned, it's part of the psychological machinations that make the ads work. Marketers, he argues, are not out to offend men; they're simply using one male figure as a shill in order to appeal to other males.

"Look at this in context," he said. "Advertising is a male-dominated industry [and] they realize that there is nothing to be gained by offending women. They do, however, understand male psychology. When we see a man acting the fool on screen, we are not identifying with him. We are thinking: 'I'm so much cooler than that [guy].' "

Dear Old Dad Redux?

As marketers and marketing bloggers debate the wisdom of dumbo-dad imagery, at least one ad is returning to the days of Ward Cleaver. Well, at least of Pete Rose. There's a new Aqua Velva man in town. In the in-house "Men Get It" spots, he's a father playing catch with his son, in the family backyard, no less.

Red Lobster, a unit of Darden Restaurants, is currently co-sponsoring Spike TV's True Dad series, which featured a father-son fishing spot that's a veritable throwback to the Andy Griffith Show. In it, the pair land a swell fish, only to find that neither has the slightest idea how to clean or cook it. Far from being a dad's-too-inept-to-cook joke, the vignette is a winning—if sentimental—guy moment, one that's resolved when the fishermen decide to head for the nearest "fresh fish expert," Red Lobster.

"Dads are an important target for us," said Red Lobster marketing media manager Karen Soots. "We wanted to portray [them] in a positive light."

For the time being, spots like these are in the minority, and Tungate said men should learn to take unflattering advertising images in stride. After all, he pointed out, it's more or less their turn.

"One day, women will be happy to be sent up, too," he said. "But right now, they're still smarting from all the times they were made to strip in aircrafts, sprawl over car hoods or compare different types of detergent. We've had it our way forever, and we still get paid more. We can take a little ribbing."


Mike Beirne, Brandweek. March 3, 2008

Copyright © 2008 Nielsen Business Media, Inc.. All rights reserved.