Dads in Ads, Changing Trends in Fatherhood

Dads in ads

Dads in recent ads: Lowe’s (left) and American Greetings (right).

I’d planned to write a post about some of my recent musings on fatherhood, but we’re experiencing end-of-school craziness (particularly because it’s my oldest daughter’s last week of elementary school ever), and over the weekend I was busy taking my kids to birthday parties and the park, and my one-year-old is teething so she hasn’t been sleeping at nights. You know, the usual work stuff.

You see, I’m a stay-at-home dad—though there’s still debate about what exactly that term means. I happen to be the primary caretaker and the one who does most of the household stuff, and for me “stay-at-home dad” implies two things: that you’re at home (whether working from home or unemployed) and that you’re actively taking care of your kids. But not everyone uses that particular definition.

Last week the Pew Research Center released a new report about stay-at-home dads—and their figures use this definition of stay-at-home father: “men ages 18-69 who are living with their own children (biological, step or adopted) younger than 18, not employed for pay at all in the prior year.” The U.S. Census Bureau’s definition is even stricter—not only does the father have to be out of the workforce, but the mother must be in the workforce (missing no more than a week of work if she changes jobs.)

Obviously, this definition doesn’t include dads who work from home, even if they’re the primary caretakers of their kids. It does include dads who happen to be out of work (say, because they haven’t been able to find a job) even if the mother is the primary caretaker and the father isn’t involved in child-rearing. Tying the definition of “stay-at-home dad” to whether or not you worked for pay doesn’t really seem to focus on the right criteria—like defining “regular biker” as “somebody who owns a bike and drives fewer than 3,000 miles per year.” The National At-Home Dad Network (I’m not affiliated) had this response to the report.

Pew Research charts about stay-at-home dads

Even using Pew Research’s definition, there were some interesting trends—some good, some bad. One encouraging trend is that, within the past three decades, more fathers are at home because they’ve chosen to be. Comparing 2012 numbers with 1989 numbers, the biggest growth happened in the percentage of dads who aren’t working because they’re caring for their home or family, rather than because they’re unable to find a job, ill or disabled, or some other reason. I’ve read a lot of stories about dads who stayed home because they had to—by being laid off, for instance—and then decided they loved it, but I’ve also read about dads who just couldn’t wait to get back to work because they didn’t feel cut out for full-time parenting. Having more dads at home who want to be there is a good thing, in my view.

One of the statistics I found disappointing was the second one pictured above: While there’s still a slight majority of people who think kids are better off with mom at home than working (that’s whole other can of worms), there’s an overwhelming majority of people who think kids are just as well off if dad’s at work, and only 8% who think kids are better off with dad at home. Well, sort of.

Note that the question wasn’t asked whether kids were better off with mom vs. dad, but were asked separately for mothers and fathers. Even though it’s presented as if these are two equivalent questions, there are a whole lot of assumptions affecting the answers people gave that aren’t really considered.

For instance, I would guess that for most people if you asked them the question “Are kids better off with mom at home or are they just as well off if mother works?” they aren’t assuming that dad is already at home with the kids. Unless you figure out what the base assumptions are, many people may equate this question with “Are the kids better of with mom at home or are they just as well off in daycare?” It’s no wonder 51% say they’re better off with mom at home—for some of them, they may just be stating that they think it’s better to have a parent at home than not.

Likewise, if the majority of people aren’t in the habit of considering full-time dads, the question “Are kids better off with dad at home…” might be like asking if dad should quit his job to stay home. Or if you assume that mom’s already home, then will the kids be better off with two parents instead of just one? Only 8% of respondents suggested that kids are better off with dad at home—but we don’t know how many people think dads aren’t capable of childcare, and how many assumed that mom was home already. The 13% and 11% of people who answered “Depends” to the two questions are probably the ones that asked: “Well, is mom or dad working now?”

Of course, I have no illusions about what the answer would be if the pollsters instead asked “are kids better off with mom at home or dad at home?” It’s true that more moms are home with the kids than dads. In fact, more moms live with their kids than dads—probably because in many cases somebody has decided that the kids are better off with mom than dad. Although attitudes are shifting, the majority view is still that “parent” means “mom.” I’m sure it’s related to the overall impression that dads are bumbling and immature at best, and violent and abusive at worst. It’s a stereotype that hasn’t changed much since Mr. Mom, and it seems that pop culture depictions of dads, whether in TV shows or ads, are always taking one step backward for two steps forward.

Back in January, Dave Banks wrote about the Procter & Gamble Olympics ad that cut dads out of the picture entirely. More recently, there was some talk on the GeekDad email list about the Lowe’s Valspar Paints ad:

I’ll admit: I thought the visual gag of the wiped-clean wall was funny, and it’s an ad that people will remember. Easy-to-clean walls are a great idea. But the ad still contributes to the idea that dad, even when he’s an involved dad taking care of three kids on his own, can’t keep his house in order. It tells working moms that, hey, if you have to go out of town on business, your house is going to be trashed. Sure, maybe dad will get it cleaned up, just like hard-partying teenagers will clean up after the kegger before you get home. The reason this ad works is because it’s relying on this same old stereotype—how different is this guy, really, from Mr. Mom?

For a different approach, American Greetings has two ads that they’ve run, one for Mother’s Day earlier this year and one for Father’s Day, both using the #worldstoughestjob hashtag.

First, here’s the Mother’s Day ad:

And now the Father’s Day ad:

Again, I’ll admit that I liked watching the ads. They’re emotionally compelling, which you’d expect from a greeting card company, right? Sure, the payoff is a bit underwhelming: moms and dads have the world’s toughest job, so … send a card. But, hey, it’s a commercial, not a public service announcement.

The ads do tell a very different story about moms and dads, though. I really like the premise of the Mother’s Day ad: being a full-time parent to young children (whether you’re a mom or a dad) is grueling work with no pay, and putting it in terms that you’d use to describe a job offer is really effective. The Father’s Day ad, on its own, is pretty great, too. The line “in real life, there’s no script” is greeting card cliche, but this ad takes it and brings it to life. This ad isn’t focused on the idea of dads being incompetent—in fact, the bit after the punchline suggests that dads do know what they’re doing sometimes. That when they speak from the heart, they get it right.

The difficulty comes when you place these two ads right next to each other. Mom’s tough job is that it’s 135 hours a week, no breaks or vacations, standing up all the time. Dad’s tough job is finding the words to say to his kids. Those don’t feel like the same degree of “tough” to me.

Until the number of stay-at-home dads comes anywhere near the number of stay-at-home moms, I don’t expect ads to start showing dads at home with their kids all the time. But I do hope that at the very least when we do see dads taking care of kids, we can get past the image of the buffoon, the blustering guy who has trouble expressing his emotions or cooking a meal without trashing the kitchen.

Kids growing up surrounded by these stereotypes start to internalize them. They assume that men are incapable of changing diapers, which lets them off the hook, which then makes them less competent. (Hint: changing diapers is not that bad, as Zach Weiner has apparently discovered.) They assume that working women should still bear the responsibility of running the household, that even if you’ve had a long day on a business trip you need to make sure your husband fed the kids.

Maybe then, we’ll see more parents who stay home because they want to, and more working moms who can rest assured that dad can be capable and competent at home when they’re not around.

Happy Father’s Day, whether you’re a working dad, an at-home dad, or a little bit of both. And, yeah, don’t forget to call your dad on Sunday.

About Jonathan H. Liu

Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit.

About Jonathan H. Liu

Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit.

6 thoughts on “Dads in Ads, Changing Trends in Fatherhood

  1. There’s a recent ad where the mother is watching her teenage son stare at the open fridge, looking for something to eat and wasting electricity. She wonders where he learned the behavior, and then dad walks in and stares into the open fridge. While I wasn’t offended at the Lowe’s paint ad, this one does bother me because it makes the assumption that males are totally clueless about the waste of electricity from an open fridge or freezer. In my house, I am the one who has to remind my wife to close the fridge door!

    I think in today’s world it is much easier to poke fun at males than at females in television advertisements. Maybe that’s because women were poked fun at for decades on TV and it’s just too risky to do the same thing today.

    TV shows are just as bad — big, bumbling male idiots on every sitcom and the wife has to be the voice of reason.

    I wish I could get one point across to today’s media creators — men are NOT stupid. Dads are not morons when it comes to our kids (unless we CHOOSE to be).

  2. Your comment of Dad’s being portrayed as bumbling is not entirely accurate. I think it’s more that Dad’s are portrayed as provider and protector and are out making money and therefore don’t have the experience with the kids and home that Mom has.

    • Completely disagree. When it comes to advertisements, dads seem to be consistently portrayed in a somewhat negative light — we make messes, we damage our own cars and homes, we forget our children are in the room, we dig ourselves into holes that only our spouses can get us out off… the list goes on. You see a lot of this in sitcoms as well, not dramas. I’ll bet you int’s 10-to-1 the number of sitcoms and advertisements that show dad bumbling instead of earning an income and being a good dad/husband. I don’t have hard statistics, but I do watch TV and that’s the image I’m seeing portrayed over and over.

      • Yep, I’ll echo what Jim Kelly says—there are definitely more ads that show dad as clueless, beyond just being inexperienced. And it’s not just about taking care of kids—it’s cleaning up after themselves, being able to cook for themselves … you’d think an adult male could do these things.

      • I’ve always hated that the sitcoms have the bumbling dad and the know-it-all mom. I can’t think of one sitcom where the reverse is true. In my lifetime, there has been The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Home Improvement, The Simpsons, Family Guy, etc…all with the bumbling, but well meaning dad, and the know-it-all mother who’s virtues as a person and mother are rarely questioned.

        I know the reasoning for there not being a show with the roles completely reversed, and although a small part of me wants to see this, it’s a very contrarian concept and would be very likely to incite a lot of negative feelings. Instead, I’d like to see one where the roles are more balanced…

        I work full time, as does my wife. She has more flexibility through work to take kids to / from school and events, but I have opportunities, too. I tend to do dishes and laundry more, she tends to cook more. I may not sweep and mop the floors, but I do the toilets more often. This sort of split (although I think is typical) is never portrayed.

  3. Great article! I do get annoyed that dads are viewed as incompetent caretakers of their kids, no matter if they work outside the home or stay-at-home. Even though my husband works full time and I’m a stay-at-home mom, he helps greatly with our son, whether it’s giving him a bath, waking up early with him so I can sleep longer, as well as help w/household chores. We work together as a team, and although I’m the parent that stays home, it doesn’t make my husband any less of a parent. I think having a parent at home (whether mom or dad) is very important for children. Happy Father’s Day!

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