I’ve been calling out dad-bias in commercials for years now, and really wanted to put the nail in the coffin. So I watched, noted and rated 140 commercials in 2013 that featured fathers as main characters. And if I was looking for a fight…man, I couldn’t have done it at a worse time. There, I said it.
A popular conversation among dad bloggers is the treatment of fathers in the media, specifically, dads in commercials. Dad bloggers often sit around in their secret online societies and discuss exactly how bad dads look in commercials. Most of the time, you’ll hear a resounding “fathers are made to look like idiots!” And being a guy who’s flamed many a brand that poked fun at dads (and also congratulated a couple), I wanted to really commit time and effort into seeing exactly how many commercials I could find that treated dads poorly. I really wanted to hold up my list of commercials to the world and say “SEE?! Look at how commercials treat dads! We should riot!”
And then my results actually surprised me.
First of all, there’s no bait-and-switch here. Let me be clear: I’m telling you right now that by my own ranking system, far less than half of the commercials were actually rated as having a bad image of fathers. And I’ve got a reasonable guess as to why.
The Back Story
2012 was a rough year. I’ve already linked to a couple of the articles that I’d written, criticizing brands for anti-dad behaviors and imagery. But our quick naughty list for 2012 went something like this: Sears, Clorox, Huggies, Hyundai, Oscar Mayer, Triaminic, Toyota and Doritos. Some of the commercials weren’t without contest; ask one guy if it’s anti-dad and he’ll say “yes”, ask another and he’ll shrug it off.
But check this out – 82% of men whose oldest kid is less than 2 years old believe an anti-dad societal bias exists, according to a 2012 Parenting Group and Edelman survey. BTW, the average for that belief among all dads is 66%.
“It’s important to pay attention to ads, because they’re everywhere,” notes Doug French, Co-founder of XY Media Group. “They dominate (and supposedly mirror) our culture, and they’re powerful enough to overturn negative stereotypes, or entrench them.” XY Media Group is a consultancy that connects brands with today’s men, and the parent company of the Dad 2.0 Summit. They make sure that brands are hearing the growing voice of modern fathers.
So, in 2012, after some brands failed, they started listening. Then brands did something that would impact the future: they talked to dad bloggers; Kimberly-Clark talked to dad bloggers (for Huggies). Clorox talked to dad bloggers. Oscar Mayer read some angry tweets and went back to sleep. But I digress. The point is, brands were listening.
“73% of men feel they are inadequately portrayed in advertising,” said Rob Candelino in a presentation at the 2013 Dad 2.0 Summit. Candelino, the Vice President of skincare division at Unilever, knows something about listening to men and fathers. That’s why his team – the one behind Dove Men+Care – has been enthusiastically found at the heart of the conversation about dads and commercials, including being the title sponsor at the Dad 2.0 Summit, a conference with the goal of, among other things, “an open conversation about the commercial power of dads online.”
Candelino’s not alone. When Huggies dissed dads, they listened to the feedback online, then took to the phones to see what dads really wanted. Huggies overlord Kimberly-Clark sent representatives to the Dad 2.0 Summit as well, and got in on the conversation about dads. The result was wonderful: Huggies made more commercials the involved loving, intelligent dads that solved problems, not just relied on wives to wipe up their mess.
So in many ways, 2012 was a tough year for dads in commercials, but it yielded results. And if you ask me, which you didn’t, the results are tangible and were reflected in my project.
My goal was to come up with a way to rate any commercial I saw in 2013 that had a father in it. This is harder than you think. I created some rules:
- I’d rate a commercial 1-5, 1 being indisputably “bad”, 5 being indisputably “good”, 3 being “neutral”. 2 and 4 are “mostly bad” and “mostly good” respectively.
- The commercial had to be new to 2013 (to ensure I was capturing brands’ message to fathers for that year)
- The commercial had to be an English-language, American commercial aired on national television. This means no web commercials.
- The commercial had to be for a company that does business in a majority of the United States so that I knew it wasn’t a regional, local, mom-and-pop commercial.
- The commercial had to feature a dad in a major role. Initially I would accept any image of a dad, but montage style commercials began to flub the project.
- The commercial had to be something I’d seen on television. More on this below.
- I had to be able to find the commercial online somewhere, so I could list them for you.
I ended up with 200 commercials in my notes. By the time I’d applied my rules to them, I was whittled down to 140. It was important for me to only use commercials that I’d seen on television. This way, it would be a “natural” cycle of commercials, and not simply me finding as many commercials online as I could. This way, the commercials that I viewed would be most likely viewed by everyone else. The other important thing about this is that some brands only featured fathers once over the course of a year, and others more than three times. Clearly, if a brand created multiple commercials for national television featuring dads, it’s a safe bet that they want to sell something to dads. Or, if we’re being cynical, a company could feature dumb dads multiple times, but with smart mothers saving the day in a bid to get mom’s money. It happens.
It was also important to me to rate the commercials solely on the treatment of the dad’s character in the commercial. It doesn’t matter if I like or dislike the actual commercial or brand; the rating reflects the general feeling I got about fatherhood after watching the commercial.
I already told you this, but for a guy looking to nail the dad-bias in commercials to Madison Avenue’s door, this sure was a bad year to try. Of the 140 commercials I noted in 2013 with fathers in a major role, over half of them fell into my 3-4-5 ratings. In fact, 121 of 140 commercials fell within that threshold of neutral-to-good! That’s 86.42857%! In fact, only 19 total commercials fell into my 1-2 ratings:
By the numbers, it broke down like this:
- Rated 1 (bad): 4 commercials
- Rated 2 (mostly bad): 14 commercials
- Rated 3 (neutral): 28 commercials
- Rated 4 (mostly good): 37 commercials
- Rated 5 (good): 57 commercials
These stats surprised me. I expected there to be a rubber band effect from all of the great work dads have done in complaining about the dumb dad images, but didn’t expect it to work this well. Initially, the ratio was a lot closer to 50% each good and bad commercials. I really thought Christmas – a season that loves to lampoon the shopping dad – would tilt the scales toward the bad. But as the year went on, the neutral rating category got bigger and bigger, and the good 4- and 5-rating commercials eclipsed the bad.
Matt Schneider, co-founder of the NYC Dads Group offered me an explanation. “We are seeing progress in the way brands portray dads in commercials. At the very least, savvy marketers recognize moms and dads are turned off by the ‘dad as doofus’ stereotype and are showing dads as active participants in family life,” Schneider told me. “In the best cases, brands like Volkswagen and Dove Men+Care are highlighting the importance men are placing on their role as fathers in spots that pull at our heartstrings.”
And it’s not just that old image of the “traditional” family – husband, wife, 2.5 kids – that marketers need to pay attention to in the sphere of fatherhood. According to Pew Research, the number of single father households has increased “about ninefold since 1960.” That’s significant. In fact, men make up 24% of single parent households. As well, non-marital births and divorce rates are up, which gives you an increasing number of single dads. And Pew Research’s elephant in the room: “single fathers are more likely than single mothers to be living with a cohabiting partner (41% versus 16%)” This is (I’m guessing) Pew’s stuffy way of saying “gay dads.”
Let’s transition now into which industries mentioned dads in their commercials. After a month of collecting commercials, my assumption was that I’d see a lot of car companies talking to dads. Aside from that, I didn’t know what I’d find. Here was the breakdown:
I should note that as with most of my observations, the industries listed here were named and grouped by me, so there might be a couple of blurred lines between things like “Service” (DirecTV, Overstock.com, Expedia, etc.) and Tech (Verizon Wireless, Microsoft, etc.). Also, “Baby Products” were separated out because I thought there’d be far more of them, while “Household” contains a whole range of stuff, from Post-Its to paper towels.
Looking at the chart, you might not be shocked to find that, yes, the Auto industry is talking to dads. But by and large, the biggest grouping was “Food/Beverage” – which contained everything from fast food commercials (Wendy’s) to snacks (Little Debbie) to meals and ingredients (Cheerios, Doritos, Hamburger Helper). Maybe in future iterations of this project (SPOILER ALERT!), I can separate out sub-industries.
So, why is it significant that the food industry talks to dads? A study by Harris Interactive in 2012 revealed that 55% of men pack lunches regularly for their kids, versus 43% of women. And a 2011 Yahoo study found that 51% of men considered themselves the primary grocery shopper.
Jim Lin, VP, Digital Strategy at Ketchum PR and long time dad blogger at Busy Dad Blog offered this bit of wisdom: “Dads today are much more invested in the conversation and fulfillment of household duties, whether it be within the walls of the home, the confines of their communities, or the vastness of the internet. And because it’s conversation that often represents the first step in the transaction, brands that invite dads into it will see an impact that extends into the very last one.”
Coincidentally, that Yahoo study found men to be more brand-loyal than women and less focused on promotions. They also do more research when choosing a brand. “Statistically, dads still don’t make the bulk of purchases for most household products,” Lin added. “However, in today’s evolving environment, where everything from roles, conversation and influence is experiencing an unprecedented shift, to discount dads just because the money doesn’t leave their hands last in the transaction is a mistake.”
Let’s talk standouts. It’s should be no surprise that I’m going to mention Dove Men+Care. Not because they pay me to mention them (they don’t, though they’ve sent me some wonderful scented body wash in the past), but because they’re consistently marketing with fathers in mind. For example, here’s a Dove Men+Care commercial from 2013 starring Dwayne Wade (who is no stranger to fatherhood issues):
What I particularly love to see in a commercial featuring a dad is touch. Our country has such an issue seeing men with a loving touch for fear that they’ll be called soft (or worse). It’s wonderful to see a dad hugging his children, as is common in the Dove Men+Care “Real Moments” commercials with Wade and Jay Bilas, even if it’s a part of horseplay. The more we show images like that, the more society will consider men as loving parents. I know, sounds too simple to be true, but it is. Bet me and lose.
“In 2013 Dove Men+Care continued to celebrate the ‘Real Moments’ that matter in men’s lives,” Unilever’s Rob Candelino offered. “We are committed to representing men authentically, and we know that 99% of men feel a greater sense of fulfillment when they spend time with their children. While Dwyane Wade and Jay Bilas are typically recognized as sporting icons, our campaign portrayed never-before-seen moments of them as fathers to show where real men truly place priority — caring for their family.”
But real men don’t just want to identify with athletes and celebrities. Sometimes featuring fathers in a commercial is best when the father’s presence isn’t lauded or made overly-special. For example, a spot from Huggies really nailed it:
What you saw: a family taking care of their babies. What you didn’t see: dad trying to get out of diaper duty, mom nagging dad for doing something wrong, and no voiceovers proclaiming that their product is so simple that even dad can use it.
Not everybody gets it though…
Thanks, Robitussin. That scowl from mom that sent dad out of the room really learnt ‘im. But sometimes mom-scorn doesn’t need to be present to make a bad commercial. Here’s another jewel:
See…it’s “funny” because dad’s basically a bigger hungrier child. This commercial actually helped mold one of my rating rules – if dad tricks or steals food from his child, the score is immediately neutral or less, depending on other factors in the commercial.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there’s another class of commercials that irk dads: the ones that completely erase dad from the equation.
“Saying that ‘choosy moms choose Jif’ and thanking only moms for pushing their kids toward Olympic dreams sends the message that it’s normal for men to not perform equal parenting duties,” Michelle Garcia said in her recent op-ed “Why Dumb Ads Hurt Moms and Dads” about the mistake of omitting fathers from ads. The mention of the Olympic dreams comes just a couple of weeks after Procter & Gamble re-upped their olympic bid for moms, leaving dads completely out of the equation. Again. (For further reading on the P&G issue, check out another wonderful dad blogger, Chris Routly, in his dissection of the issue at Daddy Doctrines.)
“I don’t tend to get upset when I see a product focus only on moms in a commercial,” Ask Your Dad Blog‘s John Kinnear told me when I came knocking for insight into dad commercials. “I work in marketing, so I understand the idea behind targeting certain demographics. The problem is making sure you’re aiming at the right target(s), and not failing by omission. I’m not going to stop buying a product just because they only market to moms, but I’m naturally inclined to purchase one that includes all types of parents. Including smart, adept, involved dads can only help.”
Coincidentally, J.M Smucker’s Jif commercials appeared twice on my list and both earned solid scores of 4. A great image of fatherhood, but – dang – they’re never going to live that dad-omitting motto down.
I really do feel for the guys that make commercials (don’t tell ‘em I said that though). My scores (which you’ll be able to see in their entirety below) are qualitative. Basically, whatever I felt at the moment, I scored. Some commercials got different scores later when I rewatched them. That’s what’s tough about a project like this. And that’s why in future iterations of this project, I’m enlisting the help of others so that I can have more of a consensus of “good” and “bad”.
I know, I know. You came here for blood. Me too! In previous years, this project would have been a slam dunk. Without a doubt, dads have looked far worse in commercials in years leading up to 2013. But hey, maybe I was soft. Maybe I missed something. That’s why you should watch these commercials and rate them yourself. See if I’m crazy. Are they worse than I rated them? Click the pic below to view the PDF and rate the commercials yourself!
Doug French gave me a glimmer of hope moving forward: “I think we’re seeing a lot fewer dads portrayed as the extra child in the family. And if we’re trying to help our kids embrace a more enlightened idea of masculinity and fatherhood, every bit helps.”
Thanks to all that helped me with this project, including those who offered quotes. And a big thanks to iSpot.tv for their growing database of commercials. Stay tuned next year for an analysis of 2014’s commercials, scored with the help of a wider panel of judges!