Sympathetic Dads Appearing More in Ads

May 3rd, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Fathers generally and positive images of fathers are playing ever greater roles in advertising.  That’s the message of this article and the phenomenon reflects changing cultural realities and likely will provide a catalyst for them as well (Marketing Week, 5/3/12).

Exactly what is going on in the parenting roles of fathers and mothers is the subject of some debate.  Are we in the process of substantially altering parental roles or is what we see and hear reported more hype than fact?  It’s not certain, and different studies reflect different pieces of the parenting puzzle.

What’s definitely true is that women are doing more of the earning than in years past, and that men are doing more of the parenting.  What’s also true is that men still do more paid work than women do and women do more parenting than men do.  Likewise, men are far less likely than women to take significant amounts of time out of their careers to care for children.  But little by little, we’re inching toward equality.  That’s true despite the fact that stay-at-home mothers outnumber stay-at-home fathers by about 34 to 1.

The thing that most clearly ensures that we’re not tilting at windmills, is advertising.  To me, how advertising dollars are spent is one of the surest indicators of the zeitgeist in almost every area of life.  The fact is that advertising is expensive and often not very effective, so companies don’t tend to waste their money on campaigns unless the marketing research supports them.

So it’s interesting to note that, as the linked-to article says, advertisers are making sure to include fathers in ads promoting family products.  What may be more interesting is that one of the justifications for doing so is specifically the desire to not alienate mothers by depicting home-use products as exclusively the purview of mothers.

“Dads are playing an increasingly important role in modern families,” says Allied Bakeries director of brands Will Ghali, who recently oversaw the production of the first TV ads for Kingsmill showing fathers as family heroes as an extension of its Fresh Thinking campaign.

Kingsmill used research to discover that fathers are now more forthright when it comes to choosing and preparing bread, and launched three TV spots all featuring a dad as the main character.

It’s an insight that is supported by recent research into the role that men play in modern parenting, which has found on average 48% of dads share all responsibilities with their partners. In addition, the report by Mintel reveals that 23% say the fact that they wanted to stay home with the children was an important factor when deciding whether their partner returned to work…

Kingsmill is not the only brand to spot an opportunity to harness the modern family dynamic and changing role of dads to broaden a brand’s appeal. Lego, Cravendale, Weetabix and Sainsbury’s have all recently launched campaigns that either feature fathers as a central figure or have widened their strategy to concentrate more firmly on dads. Each of the campaigns is humorous, aspirational and shows a friendly but firm take on modern fatherhood.

So clearly, advertising firms believe they have solid marketing research behind them when they choose campaigns aimed at fathers.  But there’s more to it than the present-day reality of parental roles.  There’s also what today’s fathers aspire to.

For Lego, its dad-focused campaign came from insight gathered from a focus group put together to research an entirely different subject.

Lego UK senior director and head of marketing David Buxbaum says: “The insight that we heard from today’s dads is that they feel they are very different to the previous generation. They aspire to have more of a hands-on relationship with their children and prioritise more time for that.

Much of this pro-dad marketing is also aimed at mothers.  In the same way a new generation of fathers wants more to do with their children, a new generation of mothers wants to be seen as more than stay-at-home parents.  So products for the home and children that focus on fathers carry a secondary message for mothers – “domestic work and childcare aren’t on your shoulders alone.”  That promotes women as breadwinners and fathers as caregivers.

Perhaps the best thing about focusing on fathers is that women also respond well to ads featuring dads and find a less ‘gendered’ take on domestic responsibilities refreshing, says Ghali.

“The interesting thing about using a dad is that mums can see their role reflected in what dad does, so you’re appealing to both parents. But if you use a mum, you run the risk of saying that’s just a ‘mum brand’.”

In short, it’s a changing world and one of the surest indicators of that can be found in the iconography of marketing.

There’s one stumbling block for advertisers, though – much of their approach to marketing to dads is humorous.  If that raises in your mind the specter of offensive ads featuring doofus dads, you’re not alone.  Of course, just a few weeks ago, Kimberly-Clark’s Huggies brand incurred the wrath of men’s rights organizations everywhere with just such an ad campaign.  So intense was the response that K-C, to its credit, pulled the ads and replaced them with dad-friendly ones.

So advertisers are now on notice to tread more carefully when putting fathers and humor together on one stage.

Marketers must approach humour with care when they feature fathers in advertising, according to Mark Tungate, author of Branded Male: Marketing to Men. “The important thing is not to make dads look like bungling idiots,” he says. “Marketing needs to empower fathers because that’s where we feel our job is – we want to protect.”

Tungate cites Kimberly-Clark’s recent US Huggies ad as a key example of what not to do to endear yourself to fathers. Huggies’ Dad Test campaign featured an unflattering portrayal of five dads caring for their babies for five days, with the premise that if Huggies could survive five days with the somewhat idiotic dads, then they could survive anything. The advert was widely criticised online and Kimberly-Clark decided to pull it…

In one of the Kingsmill spots, the younger son complains that his father isn’t putting the ingredients in the sandwich in the same order as his mother would, so his dad turns the sandwich upside down – something that both father and son find quite amusing.

That last is a good example of the appropriate use of humor in a father-son ad.  The spot brings a smile, but at no one’s expense.  The dad’s not a fool; his solution to the problem with which his son presents him is clever.  He’s a father who can deftly handle the unexpected challenges children sometimes present.

There’s an almost gravitational pull exerted by traditional parental roles on today’s society.  Try as we might, it’s just not that easy to reconstruct the behavior of men and women when it comes to family and paid work.  But with some 60% of college enrollees being women, the likelihood of them doing much more of the earning than in bygone generations seems high.  Meanwhile, someone has to care for the kids and it’s not going to be government or company-funded daycare, much as feminists might want it.  That leaves fathers, and, if marketing is any indication, they’re stepping up to the plate.

Now if family court judges will only start to notice what the ad firms already know…

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