Alamy The Big Dummy isn’t dead yet … but it doesn’t look good for pop culture’s inept father figure.
He’s had a good run: since the 1980s, the big, dumb dad has loomed large on televisions across the country. Married to a beautiful, accomplished wife, outpaced by diabolically clever children, there was a time when the moron-of-a-thousand-faces was all but ubiquitous. For over two decades, in fact, it was almost impossible to find a TV father who wasn’t overweight, unattractive, and seemingly brain damaged.
The dummy also dominated commercials. On all channels, at all hours, an army of doughy, schlubby dads stumbled through basic household tasks, making a mess of things while their capable wives and offspring looked on in bemused exasperation.
It’s not hard to see why this minstrel show version of the American father did so well for so long. For a generation of women, it was common to spend eight hours at the office, followed by an infamous “second shift” of housework that amounted to an estimated extra month of work per year. When mom finally managed to collapse in front of the tube, the networks served her a parade of helpless, hapless dimwits stumbling around ordinary household chores, seemingly incapable of cooking a meal, running the clothes washer, or tying their shoes. And, in between Homer Simpson and Tim Taylor, there was a stream of commercials sending the same message: Men are useless in the home.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century: A growing push for gender equality, combined with a major economic meltdown, transformed a large cohort of dads into the main caregivers –- and shoppers — in their homes. The numbers tell the story: In 1950, married couples made up 78 percent of households, but by 2010, that number was down to 48 percent. As for “traditional” households with married spouses and children, those were down to 20 percent. Amid those trends, the number of men cleaning their own homes and washing their own clothes went through the roof.
At the same time, the roles of men who were married and living in “traditional” settings were also changing. Between 1995 and 2011, the number of stay-at-home dads in the U.S. almost tripled, from 64,000 to 176,000. And fathers were also taking an ever-growing role in caring for their families: By 2010, 17 percent of preschoolers were receiving primary care from their fathers, and 15 percent of single parents with primary custody of their children were men.
The Great Recession put another nail in the coffin of the dumb dad. Between 2007 and 2009, the number of working wives with unemployed husbands more than doubled, from 2.4 percent to 5.4 percent. But while the recession’s brutal impact on men’s employment levels certainly played a part in changing household dynamics, it isn’t the whole story. After all, the dummy started getting old long before the economy melted down. In the last decade, a cadre of dumb dads — from the father of “Malcolm in the Middle” to Jim on “According to Jim,” “The King of Queens” or the Raymond whom everybody loves — hit their expiration dates, told their final jokes, and toddled off into syndication, the victims of changing ideas of manhood.
Since the recession, this new version of the father has started to cement himself on TV, where a growing rank of flawed, yet increasingly functional fathers have taken their place on programs like “Up All Night,” “Glee” and “Parenthood.” These days, the best place to find cartoonishly stupid dads is — literally — on cartoons: Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin are still going strong, the last of a dying breed.
It it has taken a little longer for the death of the dummy to make its way into commercials. One of the first harbingers of the end came in 2011, courtesy of Ben Seldin, a media strategist for advertising agency Allen and Gerritsen. After the Great Recession, Seldin noted that a growing number of husbands and fathers were taking over household duties while their wives stayed late at the office. In a survey that he conducted in 2011, Seldin got a glimpse of how this was playing out in the home: His findings suggested that 44 percent of men described themselves as their family’s sole purchaser of food and cleaning items.
These fresh ranks of “mansumers” haven’t been pleased with the bumbling, idiotic depiction of men on TV -– and, worse yet, advertising’s apparent inability to recognize them as a powerful market force. As Seldin recently explained, “Some companies that go with the ‘dopey dad’ stereotype are shooting themselves in the foot. Sometimes they get bad press, and even backlash from bloggers.” This was the case with Huggies diapers, whose 2012 “Dad Test” ad campaign became the industry standard for a tin-eared, shortsighted, anti-male ad campaign.
Featuring a handful of “real dads” bumbling their way around their offspring while their wives made smartass comments, the “Dad Test” reflected the obsolete image of the hapless father. Parent company Kimberly-Clark (KMB) was surprised when thousands of fathers took to the internet, circulating petitions, comment-bombing the company’s Facebook page and declaring that they were switching to Pampers. Within days, Huggies pulled the ads and radically altered the campaign.
Not all companies are quite so ham-handed when it comes to marketing to men. Seldin highlights Proctor & Gamble’s (PG) Drew Brees ad campaign, which, he notes, offers a natural, low-key image of a caring dad. “They show a father simply taking an active role in the home.”
Doug Johnson, a senior vice president for media agency BPN, thinks that the changes in advertising are only the beginning. “Men are shopping and men are buying,” he points out. “This is the new normal. I think it will increase, because retailers will embrace it.”
Seldin adds that the impact of male consumers goes far beyond commercials — and the male influence on the housewares section of the store is only going to continue to grow. “If companies are only thinking about changing advertising, they’re approaching the problem too late,” he argues. “They need to think about it at the product development stage, and the packaging stage.” For Seldin, this means “neutralizing” products, designing them so that they don’t look especially masculine or feminine.
Johnson, who notes that he often spends his evenings and weekends shopping, taking care of the kids, or doing laundry, suggests that the increased impact of men in the household is here to stay. “Men are defining happiness differently. A clean, happy household is a success.” In other words, while there’s still more than a little grumbling about men who supposedly don’t do their part in the home, a growing number of companies have begun to realize that the reality on the ground is a pretty clear. More dads are wielding the power of the purse, and those companies that disrespect the domestic dad do so at their peril.