The Burdens of Fatherhood

Why do Americans buy Dad such cheap, boring Father's Day presents?

According to the 2010 Census, there are 70.1 million fathers in the United States. And this weekend, the majority of them will undergo a highly curious annual rite. Under the beaming gaze of their progeny, they will tear the wrapping paper off some of the dullest gifts in America. No offense to the brands that make socks, neckties, or mugs inscribed with golf jokes, but Father’s Day confirms one of marketing’s sadder truths: When it comes to gift giving, Mom rakes in flowers, perfume, and jewelry, while Dad gets…whatever he gets.

Thanks to marketers’ penchant for measuring everything, there’s proof of this paternal neglect. While Americans spent an estimated $16 billion on Mother’s Day gifts this May, they’re expected to spend only $11 billion on Father’s Day. Mothers received 139 million greeting cards; it’s expected dads will receive 94 million. And while the average Mother’s Day present cost $140.73, most people admit they’ll drop less than 100 bucks on dad—often shopping in a discount store and usually buying a “practical” gift. Automotive stuff and gardening tools rank among the top 10.

“We’ve noticed this trend,” says Kathy Grannis of the National Retail Federation. “In recent years we could blame the economy. But even before the downturn, retailers noticed that Father’s Day gifts were smaller.”

Yet exactly how Father’s Day gifts arrived at this diminished state is open to dispute. Emily Valentine, with marketing firm CRT/tanaka, says it’s because brands simply pay less attention to men. “Moms get more coddling—from retailers and the media,” she says. Julia Beardwood of brand strategy firm Beardwood&Co proffers a kind of retail-oedipal theory: “Mom gets indulgent gifts because you were a pain in the butt as a child and she deserves something for what she had to put up with—including childbirth.” Sharon Banfield of market research firm PriceGrabber suggests the answer’s simpler: kids have already blown all their money on Mother’s Day. “The six [intervening] weeks leave little room to set aside funds,” she says.

But marketers like Gregg S. Lipman of branding consultancy CBX blame males themselves. Dad gets a lame-ass practical present because, directly or indirectly, he asked for one. “Men tend to want practical gifts,” Lipman says, adding that “there’s still a strong cultural bias against men receiving gifts because men prefer to earn everything.”

If Lipman’s right, fathers might not even mind paying for their own presents—and, sadly, many do. According to AT&T, Father’s Day has historically seen the highest volume of one special kind of phone call—the kind placed collect.