This Huggies Ad Starred a Doltish Dad. Then Real Fathers Complained.

The stories behind the stuff we buy.
March 26 2012 3:47 PM

The Reign of the Doltish Dad

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

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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.

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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.)