Life’s just not fair. Despite tripling the share of housework they do over the past three decades and doubling the portion of childcare they provide, dads still got snubbed in Procter & Gamble’s recent Olympic salute to moms. As women know, advertising stereotypes die hard. Even P&G still markets to the unraveling myth that mom is the cleaner-upper-in-chief, play-date doyen and, now, deliverer of Olympic dreams. Adding insult to misandry, even dad’s historic handle on his tribe’s athletic ambitions has slipped from his inept fingers.
Remarkably, the best thing that can happen to dad in contemporary advertising is to be left out of it. He is everywhere depicted as a dunderhead, layabout and clueless interloper in modern familial life. Turning paterfamilias into a punch line is, to some degree, simple payback, a kind of penance for mom’s historic advertising role as a witless, domestic obsessive. Having been depicted for so long as a cartoon in the kitchen, women might rightfully smile at TV dads whose apparent ambitions end at a beer and a toolbox. Some, however, have taken to the blogosphere to fiercely denouce the onetime Lord of the Manor’s new career as the Butt of the Joke. Regrettably, their marital loyalty, charming though it is, overlooks tectonic cultural shifts on television that occurred 20 years ago.
Cultural anthropologists might speculate that the decisive moment occurred when Married With Children’s Al Bundy outlasted Cliff Huxtable of The Cosby Show. In addition to replacing the Huxtables, America’s single most functional family (demanding careers, charming, ambitious children and a balanced, buoyant marital relationship), with the embittered back and forth of the Bundys, it led to the virtual extinction of competent and caring dads on television. Homer Simpson, Family Guy’s Peter Griffin and the brutish Tony Soprano have sat at the head of the table since.
In the end, this tale of patricide is less a lament than the description of a powerful opportunity for brands and agencies that market to families with kids.
Agencies reflexively adopt the cultural vibe that exists in television programming and lean on its archetypes; failed fathers being only the most recent. They’ve jumped on “daddy dumbest” with a vengeance. There is, somewhere, a brand (food, automotive, telephony, apparel) about to go into creative development that could profit handsomely from pushing past the common smirk and actually capturing the new realities of contemporary familial life: the more balanced spousal partnership, the bending but unbroken behaviors that define mom and dad, the fresh and funny relationships that the new familial landscape creates. Doing so could secure for them an iconic place in the culture and a lasting place in the heart of every parent in the country. Not a bad place for a brand to start.
Kevin B. O’Neill is an associate professor at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. He was formerly the president and chief creative officer at New York ad agencies including Lord Geller Federico Einstein, Lintas and Warwick Baker O’Neill. He is also a dad.