From the moment I started writing about advertising, I’ve fielded complaints—always from men—about how fathers and husbands get portrayed in TV commercials. Ad after ad makes doltish Dad the butt of all jokes. He’s outwitted by his children. He’s the target of condescending eye rolls from his wife. He’s a dumb, incompetent, sometimes even selfish oaf—but his family loves him anyway.
This pop culture trope has been around forever. From Ralph Kramden to Homer Simpson to Phil Dunphy, sitcoms have long featured goofball dudes married to much shrewder women. As a comedic formula, it works. And what works in a 30-minute show will inevitably get used in a 30-second ad.
But why does it work? What makes the galumphing hubby such an enduring stock character? If you believe my outraged email correspondents, it’s because heterosexual men are the last safe targets in a politically correct world—the only demographic you can ridicule these days without getting in trouble.
I don’t buy this. How politically correct was American society in the Honeymooners era? And what about shows that feature buttoned-down men poking fun at flighty women? (I’m looking at you, Dharma & Greg and New Girl.)
The simpler conclusion to draw is that there’s a dollop of truth in the caricature. We all know goodhearted dudes who are a teensy bit slow on the uptake, forever a step behind their sharper female companions. By no means does every heterosexual relationship exhibit this dynamic. But it happens frequently enough to provoke a chuckle of recognition when people see it mirrored on TV.
I’d always felt this was a relatively harmless stereotype to perpetuate. (Straight dudes have enough societal advantages—we can endure a bit of friendly ribbing.) But a recent ad for Huggies diapers, and the outcry it provoked, has me rethinking my position. Maybe the dad-as-doofus trope has more nefarious implications than I’d realized.
The whole Huggies hubbub began when Chris Routly, a stay-at-home father of two boys, saw some Huggies marketing implying that men are inattentive parents who can barely change a diaper. In the TV spot—it’s mostly disappeared from the Web, but Routly forwarded me a link to this grainy copy—a group of dudes watching sports can’t tear their eyes from the game long enough to tend to their infants’ stinky nappies. An accompanying promotion on Huggies’ Facebook page called dads “the ultimate test” for diapers, and urged readers to find a dad and “hand him some diapers and wipes and watch the fun.” One picture showed a guy in a tie, presumably just home from the office, looking less than pleased to be holding a baby and a diaper bag.
“It was encouraging mockery of dads,” says Routly (who was interrupted during our phone conversation when one of his sons needed to go potty). Routly posted a petition on Change.org urging Huggies to end its anti-dad message. “I felt like I could accomplish something here,” he says. “If all of Kimberly-Clark [Huggies’ parent company] becomes more aware of this in its marketing, that’s a lot of products and a lot of commercials.”