The Project

My goal was to come up with a way to rate any commercial I saw in 2013 that had a father in it. This is harder than you think. I created some rules:

  • I’d rate a commercial 1-5, 1 being indisputably “bad”, 5 being indisputably “good”, 3 being “neutral”. 2 and 4 are “mostly bad” and “mostly good” respectively.
  • The commercial had to be new to 2013 (to ensure I was capturing brands’ message to fathers for that year)
  • The commercial had to be an English-language, American commercial aired on national television. This means no web commercials.
  • The commercial had to be for a company that does business in a majority of the United States so that I knew it wasn’t a regional, local, mom-and-pop commercial.
  • The commercial had to feature a dad in a major role. Initially I would accept any image of a dad, but montage style commercials began to flub the project.
  • The commercial had to be something I’d seen on television. More on this below.
  • I had to be able to find the commercial online somewhere, so I could list them for you.

Easy…right?

I ended up with 200 commercials in my notes. By the time I’d applied my rules to them, I was whittled down to 140. It was important for me to only use commercials that I’d seen on television. This way, it would be a “natural” cycle of commercials, and not simply me finding as many commercials online as I could. This way, the commercials that I viewed would be most likely viewed by everyone else. The other important thing about this is that some brands only featured fathers once over the course of a year, and others more than three times. Clearly, if a brand created multiple commercials for national television featuring dads, it’s a safe bet that they want to sell something to dads. Or, if we’re being cynical, a company could feature dumb dads multiple times, but with smart mothers saving the day in a bid to get mom’s money. It happens.

It was also important to me to rate the commercials solely on the treatment of the dad’s character in the commercial. It doesn’t matter if I like or dislike the actual commercial or brand; the rating reflects the general feeling I got about fatherhood after watching the commercial.

The Results

I already told you this, but for a guy looking to nail the dad-bias in commercials to Madison Avenue’s door, this sure was a bad year to try. Of the 140 commercials I noted in 2013 with fathers in a major role, over half of them fell into my 3-4-5 ratings. In fact, 121 of 140 commercials fell within that threshold of neutral-to-good! That’s 86.42857%! In fact, only 19 total commercials fell into my 1-2 ratings:

Commercial Ratings by Percentage

This pie chart is lookin’ awfully green.

By the numbers, it broke down like this:

  • Rated 1 (bad): 4 commercials
  • Rated 2 (mostly bad): 14 commercials
  • Rated 3 (neutral): 28 commercials
  • Rated 4 (mostly good): 37 commercials
  • Rated 5 (good): 57 commercials

These stats surprised me. I expected there to be a rubber band effect from all of the great work dads have done in complaining about the dumb dad images, but didn’t expect it to work this well. Initially, the ratio was a lot closer to 50% each good and bad commercials. I really thought Christmas – a season that loves to lampoon the shopping dad – would tilt the scales toward the bad. But as the year went on, the neutral rating category got bigger and bigger, and the good 4- and 5-rating commercials eclipsed the bad.

Matt Schneider

Matt “Soft Touch” Schneider, co-founder of the NYC Dads Group.

Matt Schneider, co-founder of the NYC Dads Group offered me an explanation. “We are seeing progress in the way brands portray dads in commercials. At the very least, savvy marketers recognize moms and dads are turned off by the ‘dad as doofus’ stereotype and are showing dads as active participants in family life,” Schneider told me. “In the best cases, brands like Volkswagen and Dove Men+Care are highlighting the importance men are placing on their role as fathers in spots that pull at our heartstrings.”

And it’s not just that old image of the “traditional” family – husband, wife, 2.5 kids – that marketers need to pay attention to in the sphere of fatherhood. According to Pew Research, the number of single father households has increased “about ninefold since 1960.” That’s significant. In fact, men make up 24% of single parent households. As well, non-marital births and divorce rates are up, which gives you an increasing number of single dads. And Pew Research’s elephant in the room: “single fathers are more likely than single mothers to be living with a cohabiting partner (41% versus 16%)” This is (I’m guessing) Pew’s stuffy way of saying “gay dads.”

Awkward.