Jeer old dad
When it comes to television advertising, it's open season on fathers
Mary Vallis, National Post
Saturday, June 20, 2009
In commercial after commercial on TV, the image of the modern husband and father is one of the buffoon -- trapped in a shed he built without doors, staring blankly at spilled juice, gorging on dog cookies until his ever-capable wife comes to the rescue.
Such ads are a mainstay because they work: They make viewers laugh, and they sell. And, also, critics argue, because such stereotyping remains socially acceptable.
"WASP men are the greatest target in advertising. The reason I say that is they are the only safe target in advertising," said Terry O'Reilly of Pirate Toronto, a leading audio advertising firm, and host of The Age of Persuasion, a CBC radio show.
"When you make fun of a white, Anglo-Saxon male, husband, dad, you don't get a single letter of complaint."
In his 30-year career in advertising, Mr. O'Reilly has never received a letter from anybody offended by the gentle fun he pokes at dads.
But in an age when fathers are expected to take on a greater role at home--changing diapers and clipping coupons, while also earning a paycheque -- portrayals of Dad as a bumbling fool are troubling to those who would like to see more equality in the domestic realm.
"It's deeply sexist, but what's even more troubling is that it's invisible as a form of sexism," said Dr. Kerry Daly, who runs the Fatherhood Involvement Research Alliance at the University of Guelph.
"They laugh, and it's funny, so there's the licence to laugh without the concern for the impact that it has. And I think it does have a significant impact, in continuing to reinforce negative behaviours associated with fathering and men's behaviour."
Fathers' rights advocates have begun boycotting companies that run ads they deem offensive. Since 2004, the Advertising Standards Council of Canada, the advertising industry's regulatory agency, has upheld seven complaints against advertisers accused of treating men unfairly.
In one of the cases, a father in Calgary filed a complaint against home-improvement store Rona. The spot showed a female customer lamenting that her husband does not help around the house.
A female salesperson responded, "They're all like that, aren't they?" The advertising council deemed the clerk's comment "disparaging" because it implied all husbands are lazy.
Such depictions of men frustrate Don Dymond, a fathers' rights activist and chemical engineer in Fort St. John, B. C. One night last January, he sat in front of his television and took notes as he watched how often men were portrayed as "smart," or "dumb" or "neutral." Tallying his notes, he concluded the ads portrayed men as dumb five times more often than women.
One of the offenders in his admittedly unscientific survey was Bounty paper towels. In the ad, a man and his son watch spilled liquid seeping toward a rug, as a glass still lays on its side in front of them.
As they debate how many paper towel sheets it will take to clean up the spreading mess (three-or four-sheeter?), Mom capably settles the debate, ripping off one sheet of paper towel and walking over to clean up.
"Once you open your mind to it, and you sit and you watch every single commercial on TV, anybody would start seeing this," Mr. Dymond said. He fears the effect they will have on his young sons. "What message are we sending out? ... If none of this turns around, what do we think it's going to be like in 20 years?"
Alison Thomas, a college professor of sociology in B. C., ponders the same question. Her own husband often cringes when offending ads flash on their television screen.
For years, Prof. Thomas has studied the depiction of parental roles in Mother's Day and Father's Day cards.
Her research, gleaned from studying hundreds of greeting cards, shows that fathers are typically characterized as flatulent, lazy shirkers who are subordinate to their wives and flounder with household tasks. Mothers, on the other hand, are portrayed as always there, always busy and always right.
Such humourous messages could have far-reaching consequences for both genders, Prof. Thomas said.
"It reinforces for women and men alike the idea that this really isn't men's normal home turf, that they're not able to be good at it, and therefore, why bother?" Prof. Thomas said.
"As a feminist, I find that problematic, because while it appears to be empowering women -- saying women are superior, women are supermoms, they can do everything, men can't really do this stuff -- what's the outcome going to be? That women carry on doing it all."