Picture it: A dad strolls down Main Street. His wide-eyed, 10-month-old daughter, perched in her stroller, giggles and coos. It’s a fall day—not too hot, not too cold. Yet a stranger stops the dad, asking if he thinks that baby could use a hat. No, she couldn’t, he replies, mustering a perfunctory smile. Dad keeps walking but is stopped by yet another passerby who urges him to return home at once, as it is much too cold out for a baby. Then, still another concerned citizen sidles up to serve up a scolding.
Having reached the end of his tether, the dad briefly entertains telling this latest busybody to butt out—but he stops himself. Little ears are listening, after all. Instead, he reassures the concerned (meddling?) lady that his baby is in good hands. This, even though nobody on Main Street—or Madison Avenue—seems to believe him.
When it comes to their talents and abilities at raising children, or handling virtually anything having to do with the household, dads are feeling a lack of respect. A report this past March from PR firm Edelman and The Parenting Group, publisher of Parenting and Babytalk, found that 66 percent of fathers think there is an “anti-dad societal bias.” Among dads with children under the age of 2, that number spikes to 82 percent.
One need to look no further than a controversial diaper ad to see their point.
When Huggies’ “Dad Test” campaign, featuring flummoxed fathers attempting to care for their newborns, hit the airwaves, dads decided enough was enough. The backlash was swift, and a wave of negative reaction stained the brand’s Facebook page like spit-up on a cashmere cardigan. One faction of fathers even teamed with Change.org to petition Huggies parent Kimberly-Clark Corp. to stop running ads portraying dads as incompetent.
It is clear that the fathers of today want the world to know they have moved beyond the stereotypical image of the “doofus dad.” They want to be seen as nap time ninjas, professional purveyors of PB&J and diaper-wielding demigods—ones who also happen to shop for those diapers.
Huggies executives listened and attempted to clean up the mess by withdrawing the dad-bashing ads. What’s more, brand representatives trekked to the Dad 2.0 Conference in Austin, Texas, this past March. Jeremy Adam Smith, author of The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family, was also at the gathering and met with Huggies reps there. “If they are hoping to sell diapers to dads, that was that group to talk to: dads who write, who blog about fatherhood,” he says. “What struck me was they really didn’t know—it just hadn’t occurred to them” that the ads would be offensive.
Not everyone believes Huggies’ full-court-press PR play was the right move, however. “I’m surprised that they caved,” says Hayes Roth, CMO at Landor Associates, a brand consulting and design firm. “[Huggies] had this golden opportunity. Instead of withdrawing [the ads] and rushing down [to the conference] to apologize, why didn’t they do something with social media, [such as] ask people to vote: ‘Do you like the ads or do you find them offensive?’ Start a dialogue.”
The fact is, a dialogue was started—and as evidenced by this story, it is still going on. But beyond protesting stereotypes, the next obvious question seems to be: How does the dad of today want to see himself portrayed in ads? After all, the image of the modern father as some sort of superman—one hand on the push mower, the other on the baby carriage—would seem merely a stereotype of a different stripe.
“Advertising is a form of art. Art is only good as long as it reflects the truth—especially our kind of art, where we are trying to do art that persuades,” says Bruce Jacobson, associate creative director at Y&R New York. “The best ads come up with that kernel of truth that is going to resonate with the person seeing it.”
So what is the truth of the modern dad? Says Smith: “More men are saying being an involved caregiver, even if you are the breadwinner, makes life more meaningful—which sounds warm and fuzzy, but also has very specific implications for the economy and the marketplace.”