Dads Aren't Bumbling Idiots in Ads Anymore: Is That a Good Thing?

Two fathers on the upsides and the downsides to being a newly desirable target demographic
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A still from Tide's "princess dress" commercial, which stars a father who actually knows how to do laundry (Tide)

Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they discuss advertisers' new interest in competent fathers. Part one of the discussion is below; part two is here.


I remember the old days, when the only media dad was a bumbling dad, flummoxed by diapers, mystified by breakfast cereals, as incompetent at managing a household as his wife was hyper-efficient. In sitcoms, and in the commercials that aired during sitcoms, Dad was comic relief; everyone knew that power in the home (economic power, especially) resided with Mom.

When I became a father myself, a little over four years ago, I began to watch these media moments with increasing dismay. Was I such a bumbling father? Were we all? No! I could change a diaper, I could bottle-feed, I could make it through a weekend—or longer!—while my wife was on a business trip. Who were these writers and marketers to assume that I played no role in how the household functioned?

Once I began blogging about fatherhood, over at DadWagon.com, I discovered that other bloggers took this issue very seriously. Rebel Dad (at RebelDad.com, of course) even staged a boycott of Pampers after receiving one too many "Dear Mom" emails from Procter & Gamble. That was the kind of thing I cheered. Dad power!

Now, however, the marketers have realized their error, and dads—involved, caring, competent dads like me—are coming to the foreground. We see them with their daughters in car commercials, and with their daughters in other car commercials, and sometimes they even use Google! And not just to, you know, Google stuff. At last, we fathers have been recognized as an important demographic deserving of the attention of America's most creative capitalists.

Wait, whuh? Without getting too Marxist about all of this, there's something wrong here. I get the craving for media recognition of our achievements. But the fact is, that recognition, only now coming into effect, is happening for the express purpose of selling us things we might not actually want or need. No Procter & Gamble exec argued for a shift in marketing strategy solely because he or she had decided that we competent fathers deserved respect. No carmaker truly hopes that their 30-second spot will solely be seen as a fiery salvo in the SAHD revolution. Nope. They want to sell us shit, plain and simple.

Which is why lately I'm feeling nostalgic for those days when my ilk went unappreciated. For years, I think, we existed under the radar, one of the last untargeted demographics in America, roaming free across the land, able to ignore advertising messages written not for us but for our wives. We could make up our own minds about which diapers and cars to buy for our children, without the clutter of ad copy to distract and confuse us. We could smirk and roll our eyes at the hapless dads of sitcom TV, knowing with utmost certainty That's not us. And, most important, we could watch the Super Bowl without worrying that some commercial would make us burst into tears.

But those days are long gone. Now the marketers have us in their sights, and they're not going to let go—not until they've further subdivided us into ever more precisely calibrated demographics (older dads, younger dads, tattooed dads, gay dads, old gay dads divorced from younger, tattooed gay dads) and plucked every last nickel from our PayPal accounts. And you know what? We'll thank them for it, tearfully grateful for their kind acknowledgment of our diaper-changing prowess. This—this degraded state—is Dad 2.0.

See what you've wrought, Rebel Dad?

–Matt Gross

In February, not long after the Super Bowl, with the nation's consumerist gaze still affixed to the product-related aspirations, quixotic burdens, devious notions, and reckless wild hairs of the American male, the New York Times, impelled, as ever, to seek trend-driven faux-knowledge, finally, and at long last, decided that I had arrived. Was it the much-awaited though never-received review of my book, which, denied the critical notice of The Grey Lady, sank woefully beneath the waters of the pop-cultural stream, never to be seen or bought again?

Alas.

Instead, the article "Don't Call Him Mom, or an Imbecile," had nothing to do with me specifically, but instead trumpeted the increased commercial clout of the dad-blogger, of which I am one, and of the dad—one of those, too, three times over—and described how that has impacted media depictions of same:

The hapless, bumbling father is a stock character in product marketing. He makes breakfast for dinner and is incapable of handling, or sometimes even noticing, a soggy diaper. He tries desperately to hide the crumb-strewn, dirt-streaked evidence of his poor parenting before the mother gets home. This is an image that many fathers who attended the Dad 2.0 Summit—a meeting of so-called daddy bloggers and the marketers who want to reach them—have come to revile.

I didn't attend the Dad 2.0 Summit, although, like the Times, I, too, found it of interest. Along with Matt Gross and Nathan Thornburgh and Christopher Bonanos, I've been writing about fatherhood, and my serial failures and minor successes with it, for several years now, and unlike Dad 2.0's organizers, quite without attracting any of the good, clean, long green of America's corporate purveyors. Not that I've worked all that hard at it, dangling my choice online wares in the approved SEO manner, chasing the news and punditing it into submission, offering, as it were, a comely and welcoming e-forum for my dad-centric perspectives and opinions.

For me, blogging has always been a hobby that comes a distant second to paid work, however meager. It also must vie with handball, Chinese food, hiking, uninformed political chitchat, and televised sports for my spare time, always in short supply. Yet I would have liked, as now seems possible given the reporting on Dad 2.0,to have earned, well, anything, if only as a sign that the benevolent corporate overlords, be they Huggies or Porsche, that guide my parenting destiny with generosity and an iron fist, valued my efforts and felt it garnered sufficient wide-gauge interest to merit investment, and plenty of it.

Alas, again.

But if the article is to be believed—and who among us possesses the temerity to doubt a New York Times trend piece?—perhaps it was only my timing, and not my talent or choice in co-bloggers, that kept me in blog-penury:

In the past, consumer-product marketers weren't all that concerned with what fathers thought—women, after all, make the majority of purchasing decisions for households. But men are catching up: In 2012 men spent an average of $36.26 at the grocery store per trip, compared with $27.49 in 2004, according to data from Nielsen. Companies see an opportunity to reach a new demographic. The bloggers, for their part, are using their influence to change the way marketers portray them. "The payoff is huge if you get dads right," says Jim Lin, vice president and digital strategist at Ketchum Public Relations in San Francisco.

Mr. Lin, sir, I've never met you, but I sincerely hope the payoff you refer to is intended for me and those like me. The companies of the Fortune 500, I would imagine, are pretty well situated for cash, don't you agree?

Buried somewhere in the article is the idea that increased consumption of the nature described above signifies a shift in gendered household organization. Each weekend, for instance, I bring my two older kids down to the Fairway grocery store in Red Hook, Brooklyn to buy food for the week. After stopping for breakfast on the back deck, which overlooks the polluted-but-scenic Gowanus Bay, and, which until a recent, Sandy-related renovation, had an unimpeded view of the Statue of Liberty—bring it back Fairway!—we head back to the toilet paper, whole milk, packaged cereal, and the rest of our family's necessaries. My wife stays home with our youngest, who naps at that time.

Do you see what that means? Is it not clear? Our food bill each week runs to approximately $175—don't judge; New York's expensive—and all of it is mine (never mind that our money is communal—I slide the Amex). No spending at all for the lovely and long aggrieved Tomoko, a fact that I am happy to share with Kraft Cheese, Dove, and The National Milk Mustache "got milk?®" Campaign, all of which sponsored the Dad 2.0 Summit. Ring, ring, folks—I hold the power of the purse.

In truth, I don't know that fatherly spending patterns, or the ways in which companies direct marketing at fathers, are particularly instructive. Granted, the parenting dynamic in this country is in flux, roles are changing, and what's expected and encouraged of men today is not the same as when my father screwed me up. But, really, tracking those anthropological patterns via money hurled at bloggers, male or otherwise, is no way to measure social change.

Does anyone believe, for example, that mothers have changed their approach to childcare since the advent of mom-blogging? Know any who change diapers differently, or have even changed brand of diapers, since Heather Armstrong, the "Queen of Mommy Bloggers," according to her New York Times Magazine profile, began blogging her tots through law school? Or since Ree Drummond, the "Pioneer Woman," sprang fully formed from the pages of the New Yorker and onto the airwaves of the Food Network, equipped with an alphabetized sheaf of easy-to-follow recipes and a litany of cheerless homespun wisdom on staged rural living? Or have mothers, shocking as it may seem, remained largely the same, despite the commercial success that mom-bloggers have enjoyed?

For my part, since Dad 2.0, or really since this silly Times article, I have done neither more nor less housework, have not increased nor cut the time I spend with my kids, think no more nor less about what being a father or a man means, or if it means anything, or if it can be defined, or if it should be defined. I also fail to see how an uptick in the marketing lying in wait for me as a father signals an elevation of my role in that regard.

Loitering in the playground with my little ones on a winter's day, surrounded by mothers, none of whom have failed, as I surely have, to prepare their offspring for the chill, or to have brought the moment's favored organic snack and plentiful sandbox toys, undoubtedly I'm still an imbecile. You can see it in their pitying and understanding gaze, the one that says with utter clarity, you're doing it wrong. No ad campaign can change that, nor do I need it to. I'm as good a father as I can be on any given day, and a diaper ad, even one that does not condescend, is unlikely to alter that.

That said, if it is indeed true that "society is ready for a new narrative about dads," as Rob Candelino, vice president for marketing at Unilever, declared at the end of the Times' article, and that means a payoff impends, then, yes, I'm all for it. Craft, then, your ads to tempt, beguile, and curry my monetary favor. Campaign at me in ways I find amusing and inspirational, that evoke my best self. And please send cash.

–Theodore Ross

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Presented by

Matt Gross & Theodore Ross

Matt Gross and Theodore Ross write for the website DadWagon. Theodore Ross is the author of Am I a JewMatt Gross is the author of The Turk Who Loved Apples: And Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World.

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