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Insight | Do dads still have a place in our ads?

08 November 2017

As the first big Christmas adverts hit our screens, Professor David Marshall hopes for more nuanced portrayals of fathers at the heart of the home.

It’s that time of year again. Barely have the bonfire embers faded and the first of 2017’s big-hitting festive ads have begun to hit our screens. So what do they say – if anything – about fathers or father-figures?

Argos steers clear of families altogether, offering a space-age fantasy around the latest must-have toys. Asda interestingly follows a young girl and what looks like her grandfather into a Wonka-style factory to discover reindeer-powered pudding mixers, miniature people assembling canapés, and a generous dose of Christmas spirit.

Other big names will no doubt follow within days – we’ll get to see the successors to last year’s John Lewis boxer, or the Waitrose robin, M&S Mrs. Claus or even Aldi’s animated carrot.

Last year, Tesco and Asda both featured dads in supporting roles in their respective ‘Bring it on’ and ‘Christmas made Better’ campaigns. In Sainsbury’s ‘Greatest Gift’ campaign, dad took centre stage with the story of Dave, a cartoon character, who struggles to find a work-life balance as he sings “I want to find the greatest gift I can give to my family/the greatest gift I can give is me’.

Not bad, but could this year’s crop go one better? The question is particularly interesting in the light of the Advertising Standards Authority’s review of gender stereotyping this summer.

Recognising the potential for advertising to shape our perceptions, the ASA deemed campaigns which ‘features a man trying and failing to undertake simple parental or parental or household tasks’, to be potentially problematic.

While it falls short of explicitly mentioning fathers, hopefully, the initiative will encourage brands to consider the way they depict dads to reflect the reality of contemporary families.

Much of the debate around parenting has centred on the role of fathers in relation to caring, and their responsibilities within the domestic home. Yet these ideas are changing as fathers begin to take on more responsibility at home.

We have seen a willingness to create campaigns around positive aspects of fatherhood, but few recognise dads’ contribution to family care in ways that challenge some of the old stereotypes.

In a recent survey Fathers Network Scotland found over fifty percent of dads are involved in doing at least half or most of laundry and cleaning.

Amidst the debate about childcare, domestic roles and equality in the home, there is much less discussion around other tasks, such as collecting kids from school, taking them to parties, sports games, and other activities that form part of the ‘real world’ parenting (see McDonald’s #LoveYouDad chart-topping viral-video from Father’s Day.)

A survey from Nationwide (Nationwide 2017), which produced the ‘Best Dad’ campaign, also found over half of fathers classify themselves as ‘modern dads’. Around two-thirds report reading bedtime stories to their children, helping with homework, and playing with over half cooking dinner, doing domestic chores and attending school activities.

One recent campaign that challenges some of the stereotypes is the M&S Father’s Day campaign, ‘For Dads that Do’. A clever play on male stereotyping with a voiceover – watching the big game, up for an all-nighter, out with the lads, the strong silent type, and the bad dancer – all in stark contrast to powerful depictions of fathers spending time with their children on the screen.

Let’s see what other messages this year’s Christmas ads bring.


David Marshall is Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour at University of Edinburgh Business School. An original version of this post appeared on Fathers Network Scotland.