Magazine | August 14, 2017, Issue

Dads in Ads

Men are used to seeing commercials that portray guys as dumb sheepish dorks, unable to do the basic things sensible, capable women can do. Leave them home alone with the kids and they’ll put dish soap in the washing machine and the baby in the dryer. Plaid shirts untucked, dad-gut under a stained white T, whining to Mom-wife: Jane, stop this crazy thing so I can go drink beer in the garage!

The strong, wise, calm, friendly Father Knows Best type is just so troublesome. Especially in these days when women are being expelled from college en masse, shackled to kitchen tables, stripped of their footwear, and told to ovulate. But what if some men decided these ads were insulting and demanded that they be banned?

Other men would laugh, of course. But the U.K. ad biz would be keen to hear any complaints. As this Jezebel headline puts it, “Ads That Perpetuate Gender Stereotypes Will Be Banned in UK, but Not in the Good Ol’ USA!”

Because we’re awful. The U.K. guidelines are only advisory in nature, in the way Tony Knuckles strongly advises you pay back the money you borrowed to play ponies. But wouldn’t it be great if it were really against the law to make unhelpful ads?

The author picks out some Yank spots that perpetuate gender stereotypes, and we’re expected to hiss and scowl. Consider this example: A woman is sitting in a huge clock, eating pudding. She has a happy expression one would normally associate with inhaling a cubic yard of nitrous oxide and being dropped into room full of puppies.

She is eating pudding as people do in commercials, slowly withdrawing the spoon through smiling lips, closing her eyes in a transport of ecstasy as the chocolate sends chemical signals to the brain, where they detonate like Fourth of July firework shells. The clock indicates that this is her time. She has, in the words of the you-go-girl narrator, “washed the bills and paid all the dishes,” and having battered her way through the daily chores like Joan of Arc hacking through the front line of an opposing army, she is entitled to this. You almost expect the ad to end with the woman on all fours, getting out every jot of chocolate like a dog working on a jar of peanut butter.

Some women may have found it insulting, but it’s possible it tested well with women who like Jell-O chocolate pudding. They may have tested some commercials that showed a grimy female coal miner sitting on a folding chair in a warehouse, eating the pudding with the flat end of a chisel, but it didn’t quite click.

The Jezebel article and the commenters were conflicted about a commercial that showed a little boy cutting the hair off his stuffed animals. He wears a vest and has black glasses and looks a bit pudgy. On one hand, of course it’s Mom who has to clean up the hair with a Swiffer, and the fact that she does so while wearing high heels is even worse. On the other hand, the little boy could be gay, so that’s kinda awesome.

Women are saddled with most of the domestic work, studies say. Apparently this means that advertising brainstorming sessions should ignore this fact:

“Okay, team! Let’s create a series of ads where men pitch in with happy gusto, ferrying the kids around, disinfecting the trash can, doing the laundry. He finds some towels for the bathroom he just loves and brings them home, and then they have pudding! And he daubs a little pudding off her nose. Women will love it.”

They make the commercial. The reviews come back: hated it. For one thing, when the husband takes the kids, they always stop at McDonald’s and that throws off supper. He used to do the laundry but he folded everything wrong, and I told him that over and over — and worse, now he doesn’t do it at all. Choosing towels? C’mon. We went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond once and he was bored after the first hour. And you don’t use towels to wipe up pudding. Chocolate is hell to get out. You have to presoak, use the bleach stick — what was the product again? Insurance? Really?

The problem with trying to undo all these gender-role assumptions is the number of people who currently inhabit them, willingly. You can attribute this to false consciousness, brainwashing, the crushing Handmaid’s Tale world in which we live, but it’s possible there are lots of women who enjoy being a mom. When you wake up to a day with your toddler, you may have challenges to face, but the chance of a 3 p.m. meeting with a PowerPoint about actualizing strategies is a blissful nil. There are at least a few of such women, and corporations feel comfortable committing millions of dollars to creating charming domestic vignettes to sell them cleaning products.

Just saying it’s possible.

The Millennials atwitter about bad ads don’t want to watch ads anyway. Ads are things they see on YouTube and dismiss after five seconds. But they want the ads they don’t see to send the right messages. Other people who stare drooling at the TV might look at an ad with a Harmful Message and conclude they should feel guilty because their son doesn’t seem gender-flexible yet. Choice is all well and good of course, but if women don’t choose to persist and resist but choose to have a little pudding after Cloroxing the diaper pail, things need to change.

Let’s start with that whole “choice” and “free will” thing and see where it goes from there.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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