Tech + Health

06.17.14

Move Over, Ladies: Dove Does Dads

In the media, dads are often portrayed as bumbling idiots. But a new Dove ad does just the opposite.

Like any other cultural artifacts regarding the raising of kids, parenting-themed marketing is fraught with opportunities to disappoint, offend, or outrage. Moms are rightfully annoyed with images of women happily doing all the housework; sentimental montages of moms nurturing their kids embitter children of abusive or neglectful parents; adults who have chosen not to have kids roll their eyes at the glorification of parenthood.

Based on the volume of criticism directed toward parent marketing, though, it would seem that fathers are the most beleaguered of those affected by depictions of family dynamics in media.

Dad bloggers (and some mom bloggers) have used a lot of bandwidth criticizing advertisers, websites, magazines, TV shows, and movies that focus on parents. And who can blame them? It doesn’t take a peer-reviewed longitudinal study to come to the conclusion that, with few exceptions, fathers have been portrayed as either emotionally stunted figureheads or bumbling morons who are terrified of diapers and can’t cook mac-n-cheese without burning down the house.

More often than not, even well-intentioned advertisers include at least one tone-deaf element, whether it’s a tagline in an otherwise sweet commercial, gendered assumptions revealed in seemingly innocuous humor, or unchallenged depictions of dads being treated as second-class parents. And the omission or derision of dads in the parent (aka “mommy”) blogosphere is a perennial pet peeve.

The resulting criticisms and petitions have been criticized themselves, mostly for being whiny, nitpicky, and unbecoming of self-respecting men. Be that as it may, protestations of dad pundits have gotten results, sometimes directly, as in the Great Huggies Debacle of 2012.

Change is a function of the zeitgeist, as was the transformation of the TODAY show website’s parenting section from “TODAY Moms” to “TODAY Parents,” according to Rebecca Dube, senior editor of the site. “There wasn’t one big event that sparked the change,” Rube told The Daily Beast.  “Based on what we’ve seen from our users over the years, we wanted to be more inclusive. TODAY Parents just makes sense; it reflects the reality of what we do, and the reality of the American family.”

It doesn’t take a peer-reviewed longitudinal study to come to the conclusion that, with few exceptions, fathers have been portrayed as either emotionally stunted figureheads or bumbling morons who are terrified of diapers and can’t cook mac-n-cheese without burning down the house.

As much as dad bloggers may take up arms against offensive ads, shows, and sites, they also celebrate when brands get it right. This summer, everyone seems to agree that one ad campaign knocked it out of the proverbial park. This might be the first time a heartstring-plucker of this magnitude (2.5 million YouTube views and counting) has ruffled virtually no feathers. (Warning: NSFW in places where facial spasms and eye moistness could be hazardous.)

In the case of Dove Men+Care’s “Calls For Dad” campaign, the warm reception was no fluke. Dove Men+Care used the market research firm Edelman Berland to lay the groundwork by surveying, in partnership with Boston College’s Center for Work and Family, 1,000 American dads about how they perceive their parenting experience, and what they think about how dads are depicted in the media. It is probably a surprise to no one that the vast majority of these fathers see themselves as highly involved parents responsible for their children’s “emotional well-being;” a far cry from being “bumbling,” “disconnected,” and “incompetent,” the three attributes the men surveyed picked most to describe how the media presents fathers.

Some other interesting results from the survey:

70 percent of dads say they are involved because they want to be, and 80 percent are proud to be a strong presence in their children’s lives

55 percent of dads consider themselves equal partners when it comes to the responsibilities of raising their children, including nearly 1 in 4 dads citing themselves as the primary caregiver.

Dads also see being a good partner as part of their role with 87 percent of dads agreeing that being a good father also means being a good husband or partner.

When asked what words describe his role as a dad, the most commonly used words were “caring” and “loving.”

Over half (52 percent) of dads say their level of involvement in their children’s activities often surprises people around them.

In regard to work/life balance issues, dads clearly put a premium on family time:

An overwhelming majority of dads (94 percent) prioritize their families over their careers.

74 percent of dads say they organize their life around their family so they can spend more time with their children.

Dads today say they are responsible for their children’s emotional wellbeing (74 percent) as much as for their household’s financial management (76 percent).

63 percent of dads agree that the stress of balancing work and family for a father is much greater than it used to be.

The above is in stark contrast to how the men surveyed responded to questions regarding media portrayals of dads:

3 out of 5 dads say the media portrays them negatively.

3 out of 5 dads say the media makes light of what it is to be a father.

68 percent of dads agree that the media shows fathers in a backseat role.

1 in 3 dads feel that this portrayal negatively impacts how they are viewed as fathers.

The ad itself reflects the fact that the marketers did their homework, and yet it comes off as being the most obvious premise ever: kids calling out to their dads as they interact. It is simple, with dialogue limited to different permutations of the word “daddy;” and yet it’s thematically dense.

Dad-kid relationships are complicated, but these scenarios don’t need any narration in order for us to recognize what each moment is about. It’s shot such that it shows us the expectations and reactions that kids have to their fathers: they want comfort, consolation, affirmation, and help. And the expressions on the kids’ faces show that these dads deliver.

The ad was cast with real dads and real kids. One of those few dads was Trevor Mulligan, author of the blog oneSAHD, and now internet-famous as “that bald guy rescuing the adorable little towhead from the monkey bars as they are backlit by the afternoon sun.” I asked Trevor about his experience being part of the campaign, and why he thought it has resonated so well:

“When I was asked if I wanted to be a part of a Dove Men+Care video, I thought it would be a fun thing to do with my boys. I had no idea it would become this incredible ‘Calls for dad’ Father’s Day video. Dove Men+Care is a rare company that is helping redefine the perception of men in the media in a very positive way, and it’s truly an honor to be a part of such an important message. It’s surreal to see the picture of my son and me on the thumbnail for the YouTube video everywhere! To be one of the many great fathers included in the video is a gift in itself that I am truly thankful for.”

For some, crediting an ad based on extensive market research as part of an important cultural message may seem like a stretch. But as little as I care about whether and how I’m marketed to personally, as an involved dad, I appreciate Dove Men+Care’s efforts here.

I hope that its success encourages others to look beyond the tired “doofus dad” tropes. Those tropes don’t really hurt my feelings, but they contribute to the slagheap of dismissiveness toward the role of dads. I want future generations of fathers—and their partners—to have higher expectations.