The latest tear-jerking commercial in Procter and Gamble’s “Thank You, Mom” series had its TV debut during the Golden Globe Awards earlier this month, but it had already logged millions of views on YouTube and countless shares on social media by then. The ad, timed to cash in on the growing excitement about the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, features sentimental scenes of mothers helping their children recover from faceplants and yardsales as they progress from first steps to first gates, goals, half-pipes, and camels, and finally to Olympic glory.
Titled “Pick Them Back Up,” the ad is reminiscent of “The Best Job,” the 2012 Summer Games version—which garnered 21 million online views and an Emmy Award—wherein moms make sacrifices for decades so their kids can become champions. These ads are not the kind where athletes tell you to buy specific products because they will make you cleaner and happier. They are the kind that open your heart with powerful images of motherly love and thrilling feats of sports heroism, and then, in the last few seconds, fill it with half a dozen familiar logos of the parent company’s brands. I don’t know how advertising alchemists calculate the revenue these feel-good spots generate, but I know from the comments I’ve read on social media that they have been reaping a huge bounty of goodwill.
Having been a stay-at-home dad for most of the past four years, though, these ads, like much of the media representations of parenthood, made me shake my head. I’m pretty sure that, if the attendance of the soccer and baseball games in my neighborhood are any indication, there are more than a few fathers involved in their kids’ athletic pursuits. While I was not into competitive sports as a kid, many of my peers remember their dads as being the parents who were gung-ho about their sporting careers. And yet, in the P&G ads, there is not a single shot of a father interacting with an athlete. It seems like dissing half of the parents who could potentially be touched by these ads would be a risky strategy for the brand—but there has not exactly been a hue and cry from outraged dads and their supporters. Mostly the ads have received unconditional love.
In the dad blogging community—of which I consider myself a part—media depictions of fathers (or the lack thereof) is a perennial issue. On our super-secret Facebook group of over 400 dads, the commentary tends toward the poles: on one side, “This company/movie/TV show hates dads—let’s get ‘em!” and on the other, “Shut up, you crybabies—why do you care what a diaper company thinks of you? Just be a good parent and stop whining.” But most dad bloggers who really want to affect perceptions of fathers, rather than simply rack up pageviews, take a more measured approach before they click “publish.”
Chris Routly of DaddyDoctrines.com, for instance, wrote a thoughtful piece about the new P&G ad, as well as the brand’s history of disregard for dads in its Olympic campaigns, arguing that changing the message from “Thank You, Mom” to “Thank You, Parents” would be an easy fix. In it, Routly provides examples of brands that celebrate Olympic athletes and their parents in a more inclusive, and, for my money, more moving way than P&G does. And Zach Rosenberg of 8BitDad.com gave himself the project of analyzing 140 commercials from the past year in which dads were prominently featured. The P&G spot gets no love from Rosenberg, but overall, his exhaustive, darn-near-scientific study finds that 2013 was not so terrible for dads in the media. It’s tempting to attribute Rosenberg’s upbeat conclusion, at least in part, to the social media activism of dad bloggers, especially given victories like the outcome of 2012’s Great Huggies Debacle. So why didn’t P&G get the message?
I talked to Doug French, co-founder of XY Media Group, which consults with brands about digital and content strategy regarding marketing to men and dads. XY Media is the parent company of the Dad 2.0 Summit, “an annual conference about the changing perception and social media voice of modern fatherhood,” which is taking place this weekend in New Orleans, and which I am sadly unable to attend this year. When I asked French what he thought about the “Pick Them Up” ad, he said was ambivalent:
I’m torn about the newest “Thank you, Mom” campaign, because P&G has shown its support for dads by sponsoring at Dad 2.0 and creating campaigns with XY Media. That said, I can’t say I’m not disappointed to see dads remain uninvolved in a campaign of this magnitude. The ads are very well done and have been very well received, to their creative credit. But when the world’s largest consumer products company creates a campaign on the world’s largest stage, it sends a powerful message to leave dads out so conspicuously. It also does a disservice to Olympic icons such as Apolo Ohno and Jim Craig, who routinely extol their fathers as the engines for their success.
I asked French if, in his capacity as a media consultant, he understood why P&G would choose to snub half the parenting population in one of their biggest campaigns. He admitted that the research about consumer habits of dads (this survey, for example), while spotty and preliminary, suggests that despite our growing involvement in family life, we still don’t necessarily make the purchasing decisions for everyday products. “What concerns me most,” he adds, “is how the image of caregiving has to be tied to purchasing tendencies. I understand the business angle completely, but it doesn’t seem fair to exclude dads in such a palpable way because they don’t buy enough stuff.”
I reached out to P&G’s media contact for a comment on their exclusion of dads in this campaign, but they did not respond.
While I understand the impulse to roll one’s eyes when a man seems to complain that household product ads do not acknowledge his participation in domestic life, I share French’s concern. On one hand, I am relieved that marketers aren’t targeting me. In fact, I have been so successful in using technology to filter out TV and radio ads that I have to make a concerted effort to find out what’s happening in the world of commercials. So when this ad campaign reached me through friends sharing it on social media, I knew it had successfully transcended the commercial’s traditional role of a necessary evil that goes along with free entertainment, and had woven itself into the emotional fabric of the Olympic experience. This connection will get even deeper once the games start and the ads air regularly. I’m all for celebrating moms, but as we make more progress toward gender equity in both the labors and joys of parenting, the last thing we need is more iconic imagery that reinforces the idea that Mom is the one who does all the heavy lifting while dad is nowhere to be found.