Father Knows Best

The advertising industry has reacted to a recent protest of Arnold Worldwide’s TV commercials by the fathers’ rights movement with great hostility. The campaign, targeting anti-male TV commercials, now seeks to convince Volvo to reject Arnold’s bid for its pending $150 million advertising contract. We oppose Arnold because of its track record of denigrating men and fathers, particularly in its recent Fidelity TV commercials. The ad industry has protested loudly, but the industry doth protest too much.

In 2004, we organized a similar campaign against a Verizon ad that featured a father being humiliated in front of his daughter. Over 2,000 protesters contacted Verizon, the story made 300 newspapers, and the ad stopped running a few weeks later.

Many in the advertising industry have accused me of being a humorless zealot with no appreciation for their clever ads. But if these advertising professionals really believe that it’s all just a harmless joke, why don’t they allow women in on all the fun? And when and if we can turn on the TV and see women routinely being portrayed as lousy, irresponsible mothers, will that be funny? Will we still be laughing when commercials tell us that women aren’t as smart as men? Or aren’t as mature? Will it still be funny when women are always wrong and their husbands must continually correct them?

There is a justifiable consensus in our society that it’s harmful to depict the African-American community as a cesspool riddled with criminals, drug addicts and ne’er-do-wells. We agree that it’s harmful to portray women as being incapable of being scientists or mathematicians. Yet these same principles are not applied to men, the last politically acceptable group to portray in a negative light.

Advertising professionals tell me that this is as it should be, since men are privileged and make up the majority of CEOs, politicians and power brokers. Yet when we say men are “privileged,” we are only looking up.

If we look at the bottom of our society—the homeless, the imprisoned, the suicide victims, those who die young, the school dropouts—most there are male, too. While some critics have told me to “stop whining” and to “be a man,” I’ve rarely heard the phrase “be a man” connected to anything that was in a man’s best interests to do.

We certainly don’t seek to cut out all ads that poke fun at men. What we want instead is balance. Everybody should get a roll in the barrel. The industry assures us that there’s no problem with current practices, but if this is true, why have several thousand men and women joined our protests?

And while critics try to dismiss us as a male backlash, many of our biggest and most articulate supporters are women, particularly the mothers of boys.

One protester, a mother of two boys, dismissed the ad industry’s ludicrous pretense that these ads have no effect on how our society views men, telling Volvo: “What kind of world are we creating for our boys when all they see on TV are irresponsible, immature men incapable of being good husbands or good fathers?”

When protesters write me, they often tell me of their pet peeve ad. Like the “humorous” new Sprint commercial where two men play a friendly joke on their female boss, who then assaults them both, sending them to the hospital with head wounds. Or the Staples ad, where dad can’t change a diaper. Or the Emerald Nuts commercial, which aired during the 2005 Super Bowl, where a dad lies to his little daughter rather than give her some nuts, and is scolded for his years of deceptions.

When we protested the Verizon campaign, critics said it was unfair to target Verizon because it was McGarrybowen, its ad agency, that created the ads. But Arnold CEO Fran Kelly criticizes our campaign, and many of Arnold’s defenders insist that it’s wrong to blame the agencies, saying Fidelity should be blamed. In the advertising industry, apparently the buck stops nowhere.

Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” The ad industry has a problem. If industry executives develop a plan to solve it, I’ll applaud them. But until the industry learns to regulate itself, we’ll continue to work to pressure it to do the right thing. And Mr. Kelly, if your agency does happen to lose out on that $150 million Volvo contract, remember—take it like a man.