Note: This post first appeared on DadCentric, as part of its annual "30 Days of Dads" patrapalooza.
In a previous life, I taught GMAT classes for a test-prep company. The most tedious part of the gig was grading the essays, because most of the prompts had such a binary structure. Writers had to feel This Way or That Way about a topic and list the reasons why. Which led to a lot of homogeneous mediocrity, and a really sore forehead.
Every once in a while, though, the GMAT got creative and came up with a prompt that was open to much more varied interpretation, like this:
“You can tell the ideas of a nation by its advertisements.”
This prompt has stuck in my mind for all this time because 1) it was the first one that inspired essays that were varied and truly interesting, and 2) it’s true.
If you follow dad blogs regularly (and if you don’t, DadCentric is a great place to start), you’ve read about the mess Huggies made with its embarrassing “ultimate challenge” ads, how Kimberly-Clark reacted to the blowback by sending brand managers to the Dad 2.0 Summit, and how much less insulting the new campaign is. Wins all around, right?
Soon afterward, Jason wrote that he “didn’t give a rat’s ass” what Huggies thinks about dads. In his usual cogent, passionately detached way, he took down both the Doofus Dad and Superdad stereotypes with one skillful, cutting stroke:
"One’s as irrelevant as the other …. These misrepresentations are just so much white noise, gibberish from some alien planet, broadcasts from a Bizarro Earth."
It’s good that a lot of us in our small but burgeoning dad blogosphere have the esteem to tune this crap out. It’s a start, but it’s not enough. This isn’t an alien planet. This is our Earth, which happens to be teeming with young men who are terribly confused by dissonant expectations about what manhood is.
We have to tell them that sexism goes both ways. It’s just as shitty to imply that all girls are “too pretty” to do homework as it is to say all men are dumbasses who can’t take care of a kid. And when a brand asserts either of these things, we have to call them on it. Especially now, when many seem to be listening.
We have to think about kids who aren’t as lucky as Jason’s, who watch a lot of TV and see ads like this far more than they see their fathers. Advertising is an art form (albeit one with specifically corporate goals) that is ubiquitous and universally accessible. And like any art, the best ads succeed by creating a relatable message. If one such message is that dads are idiots, and boys grow up seeing men behave like children and women like exasperated caretakers, the prophecy is doomed to fulfill itself over and over.
It’s a long--and some might say quixotic--road, because stereotypes are grounded in experience. But dads are talking, and shifting the conversation, and that encourages me. Because by the time my sons are ready to become fathers, I want the ideas of this nation to be a lot different than they are now.