The Reign of the Doltish Dad

Men in commercials can’t do anything right. Will that ever change?

dad with baby
Have advertisers been dumbing down dads?

Ingram Publishing

From the moment I started writing about advertising, I’ve fielded complaints—always from men—about how fathers and husbands get portrayed in TV commercials. Ad after ad makes doltish Dad the butt of all jokes. He’s outwitted by his children. He’s the target of condescending eye rolls from his wife. He’s a dumb, incompetent, sometimes even selfish oaf—but his family loves him anyway.

This pop culture trope has been around forever. From Ralph Kramden to Homer Simpson to Phil Dunphy, sitcoms have long featured goofball dudes married to much shrewder women. As a comedic formula, it works. And what works in a 30-minute show will inevitably get used in a 30-second ad.

But why does it work? What makes the galumphing hubby such an enduring stock character? If you believe my outraged email correspondents, it’s because heterosexual men are the last safe targets in a politically correct world—the only demographic you can ridicule these days without getting in trouble.

I don’t buy this. How politically correct was American society in the Honeymooners era? And what about shows that feature buttoned-down men poking fun at flighty women? (I’m looking at you, Dharma & Greg and New Girl.)

The simpler conclusion to draw is that there’s a dollop of truth in the caricature. We all know goodhearted dudes who are a teensy bit slow on the uptake, forever a step behind their sharper female companions. By no means does every heterosexual relationship exhibit this dynamic. But it happens frequently enough to provoke a chuckle of recognition when people see it mirrored on TV.

I’d always felt this was a relatively harmless stereotype to perpetuate. (Straight dudes have enough societal advantages—we can endure a bit of friendly ribbing.) But a recent ad for Huggies diapers, and the outcry it provoked, has me rethinking my position. Maybe the dad-as-doofus trope has more nefarious implications than I’d realized.

The whole Huggies hubbub began when Chris Routly, a stay-at-home father of two boys, saw some Huggies marketing implying that men are inattentive parents who can barely change a diaper. In the TV spot—it’s mostly disappeared from the Web, but Routly forwarded me a link to this grainy copy—a group of dudes watching sports can’t tear their eyes from the game long enough to tend to their infants’ stinky nappies. An accompanying promotion on Huggies’ Facebook page called dads “the ultimate test” for diapers, and urged readers to find a dad and “hand him some diapers and wipes and watch the fun.” One picture showed a guy in a tie, presumably just home from the office, looking less than pleased to be holding a baby and a diaper bag.

“It was encouraging mockery of dads,” says Routly (who was interrupted during our phone conversation when one of his sons needed to go potty). Routly posted a petition on urging Huggies to end its anti-dad message. “I felt like I could accomplish something here,” he says. “If all of Kimberly-Clark [Huggies’ parent company] becomes more aware of this in its marketing, that’s a lot of products and a lot of commercials.”

It makes some sense that Huggies would target ads solely at moms. According to Lisa Belkin of the Huffington Post, Huggies says 75 percent of diaper sales are to women, 20 percent are joint purchases, and only 5 percent of diapers are bought by men alone. So why not pander to exasperated mothers who do most of the buying??

Two reasons:

1) Ads like this one cement a retrograde idea that dads are no good around the house, and thus shouldn’t even be asked to chip in with domestic chores. “Some men are uncomfortable with the idea of taking on domestic responsibilities,” says Routly, “and they’re willing to play along with the idea that men are incapable so they don’t have to.” If we instead portray dudes on TV as competent parents and equal household partners (see, for example, Will Arnett’s stay-at-home dad character on Up All Night), it paves the way for new dads and husbands to act accordingly—and for their wives to expect as much.

2) It’s just bad marketing. There’s no reason to alienate half the population, even if that half is not currently the central customer for your product. I’ve previously written about Burger King ads targeted at young men—ads that had the ancillary effect of repulsing basically all women. Not a winning strategy in the long run. And while the long run may take a little bit longer with diapers, it’s easy to envision a day not too far off when men make 20 or 30 percent or, hey, even 50 percent of diaper purchases. Brand image is a complicated thing: It sets and hardens, and can be tough to rejigger. Might as well establish dad-friendly branding right now, instead of scrambling to make up ground later.

To its credit, Huggies is doing just that. Within a week of Routly posting his petition (and after it had garnered 1,300 signatures), Kimberly-Clark executives got on the phone with him and promised to modify their campaign. They pulled the ad with the dads watching sports and replaced it with a spot showing tender moments between fathers and infants.

There’s always room for humor that cleverly winks at truths we observe in real life. But—whether in a scripted TV show or an ad for diapers—there’s no need to fall back on lazy, limiting assumptions. (Next archetype in the crosshairs: the sharp-tongued grandma trope. Puts way too much pressure on actual old people to deliver caustic yet wise zingers.)