Here's my latest Top of Mind for Brandweek. Enjoy responsibly:
T here are many advertisements that tick Glenn Sacks off these days. Take the one from Kohler that shows a man trying to stop up his toilet so he’ll have an excuse to summon the hottie (female) plumber whose van is parked across the street.
Then, there’s the Pizza Hut ad that features a father “cooking” for his kids—by ordering out.
But Sacks’ beef has little to do with the creative quality of these spots. Instead, he comes at it from the angle that our sibling publication Adweek has characterized as “bizarre.” Those commercials, Sacks says, are “anti-father.”
Sacks, who’s a columnist, radio commentator and blogger, got Adweek’s attention in February when he led an effort to try to keep the firm of Arnold, Boston, from maintaining the Volvo account during a review. Sacks took issue with Arnold ads for Fidelity Investments that showed a dad jumping up and down like a twit after beating his daughter in ping pong. (Arnold kept the Volvo account; Sacks deems the new Volvo ads inoffensive.)
Sacks’ complaint admittedly seems weird at first, and also a little suspect—akin to making a case for WASP’s rights or a public plea to refrain from discriminating against Austrians. After all, aren’t fathers all-powerful in this society? Can’t they take a little ribbing?
It turns out, though, that Sacks isn’t the only one making this case. Mark Penn’s book Microtrends, a survey of emerging demographic and psychographic groups, includes a chapter on “Neglected Dads.” Penn charts the course of McDonald’s, which figured out early on that marketing directly to kids could increase the bottom line (not to mention those kids’ bottoms). But sometime in the mid 1990s, “moms started paying more attention to what their children ate.” That led to initiatives like 2004’s “McMom,” which includes an online newsletter with tips on parenting.
Yet at a recent company retreat, Penn pointed out to McDonald’s execs that since the 1970s, fathers have been spending more time with their kids. In fact, in 1997, dads living at home spent 65% as much time in the company of their progeny during the week as their mothers did, and 87% as much time on the weekends, per a University of Michigan study.
Penn continues: “This is serious father-child interaction time, say the researchers—which means meals. But where is the McDad initiative? Who’s targeting the volunteer coaches who need a place to take the kids after Saturday’s practice?”
Penn goes on to demand Daddy-and-me books and back-to-school clothing ads targeted at fathers.
If marketers take Penn up on his offer, they’ll be reversing years of not just neglect, but scorn—at least if you agree with cultural analyst and NYU professor Mark Crispin Miller. Miller’s theory is that since the 1950s advertisers have been scheming to subvert fathers’ power. Recall that fathers in the ’50s were children during the Depression. Wooing dad—often tight with the cash—was not the way to go. So, most advertisers (except for makers of big-ticket items like cars) not only ignored fathers, they elevated mothers and children above their heads with ads showing who was really pulling the family purse strings. Over time, programmers picked up on the switch as well: Stolid figures like Ward Cleaver morphed into the Bill Cosby of the ’80s who often came off as an overgrown man-child next to the witty-and-wise maternal oligarch, Phylicia Rashad.
The trend, if anything, has gotten worse. Comedy flicks like Knocked Up or any screen fare featuring Will Ferrell typically feature wise, understanding women falling for men who act like 12-year-olds. Sure, it’s funny, but it’s also hard to argue that guys like Sacks don’t have a point. “I understand they want to make funny commercials,” he said. “But why does the man always have to be the idiot?”
Sacks isn’t totally discouraged though. He was buoyed by a recent ad for the 2008 Ford Taurus that likened the automakers to the spot’s upstanding father shown buying the car for the same child that we see him teaching (in flashbacks) how to ride a bike. And Sacks also sees progress in a Disney kiddie show where, for once, the father isn’t made out to be a clueless idiot or nonpresence.
See, Sacks and other fathers like me aren’t asking for much. We’re so desperate for positive media role models that we’ll even give a shout out to Hannah Montana.