The Demise of the Doofus Dad in Ads

A backlash against the bumbling father figure is paving the way for the Superdad

Naturally, there are as many varieties of the modern American dad as there are of, well, the modern American mom. Some dads (and moms) are primary caretakers, others aren’t. Some work outside the home, others do not. The garden-variety parent, regardless of gender, suffers from sleep deprivation, wrangles pickups for play dates and hopelessly dodges pointy little plastic things strewn across the kitchen floor that, when stepped on, hurt like all hell. (The evolution of the dad, and mom, in marketing messages extends to same-sex couples as well. Consider the dustup earlier this year when JCPenney was threatened with a boycott by a group called One Million Moms for including a lesbian couple and their kids in its catalog. The retailer responded by creating a Father’s Day-focused ad featuring real-life same-sex couple Todd Koch and Cooper Smith playing with their children, Claire and Mason. “What makes Dad so cool?” went the copy. “He’s the swim coach, tent maker, best friend, bike fixer and hug giver—all rolled into one. Or two.”)

And dad is no longer just the fixer—he’s also every bit the consumer. According to a Yahoo survey of 1,000 dads last year, the influence of dads in deciding which consumer goods are brought into the home is growing, with 57 percent of those polled saying they are the primary decision maker, another 37 percent indicating they share the responsibility with a partner.

But even with dads participating in domestic life much more than their fathers ever did, many marketers still struggle to figure out how to reach them. What’s certain is that advertisers cannot rely on what’s worked in the past. Just think about those commercials for laundry detergent in the 1970s. Where was dad? Nowhere—and for good reason. He wasn’t the target audience. Mom was the caretaker, and she, it was understood, made household purchase decisions.

If dad was seen at all, he was a prop—coming home from work to admire the fruits of the missus slaving away, or else as some bumbling, hapless character. Archaic as that sounds, it was a smart marketing strategy. “The image of male domestic incompetence has long been an effective selling tool because the marketing target was women, who liked that image or at least identified with it,” explains Donald N.S. Unger, a lecturer at MIT and author of Men Can: The Changing Image and Reality of Fatherhood in America. “When patriarchal power was more monolithic, those ads had the character of making fun of the powerful.”

But as the family dynamic has changed, with more women becoming educated and entering the workforce and men sharing more of the load at home, the doofus dad—an increasingly extinct figure in the culture—nonetheless has remained a fixture in some ad campaigns. Same goes for prime-time TV. (Consider Ty Burrell’s hapless Phil Dunphy on ABC’s hit Modern Family, or Will Arnett’s clueless Chris Brinkley on NBC sitcom Up All Night.) A turning point was the recent global economic meltdown, dubbed the “mancession” because of the perception that men lost jobs at a faster rate than women. As a result, more dads suddenly found themselves at home with the kids, and along with a shift in the family structure came a shift in society’s view on dads.

“The economic landscape, where women under 30 make more than men, has made serious inroads in the domestic sphere in recent years,” says Unger. “Younger people are rewriting their domestic scripts along looser, more personalized, more functionalist lines, forming domestic arrangements that fit their beliefs and circumstances rather than traditional patterns.”

All that meant that marketers were forced to rethink the images they were putting out there. “If it’s something that people recognize about himself or herself, then they are willing to grin and bear it, but not if they recognize it’s a stereotype that is somewhat insulting,” says Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys, a brand consultancy whose clients include Procter & Gamble, Papa John’s Pizza and the U.S. Army. “Gender becomes less the issue, and authentic and engaging portrayal becomes the mandate.”

As Huggies learned, the stereotype of the incompetent parent isn’t likely to resonate with dads—or for that matter, moms. “A female physician, attorney or business exec whose domestic deal is that she’s the breadwinner and her husband is the homemaker is much less likely to find the doofus dad image funny,” says Unger. “That would suggest that her children are not safe with their father, that she had been irresponsible in ceding them to his care.”

Continue to next page →