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Are Dad Bloggers Attacking Father Stereotypes or Windmills?

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Session: How Dad Blogging Can Bust the Fatherhood Stereotypes
Speaker: Ron Mattocks

Are Dad Bloggers Attacking Father Stereotypes or Windmills?

Remember Don Quixote, the middle-aged country gentlemen who lost touch with reality and charged off to fight what he thought were giants, but what were really windmills?  (Do schools even teach this anymore?)  Sometimes I wonder if us dad bloggers aren’t like Don Quixote when we get all up in arms about stereotyped fathers in the media. Are we mistaking a windmill for a giant?

Dopes Are Tropes

Am I implying the “dumb dad” shtick and other negative stereotypes don’t exists? Not at all. However, pointing to the demigod-like fathers of the 50’s as the gold standard for pop culture paternity is a poor argument for demanding a modern reboot. In a sense, these depictions of infallible fathers were  the least realistic of them all. Furthermore, to say that TV dads have only declined since is a faulty assumption too because for every bad dad shown over the ensuing decades, a good one can be found to counter it.  Even today, for every Tony Soprano and Peter Griffin, there’s a Don Draper and Homer Simpson (Gasp! That’s right, Draper and Simpson. Ask me why in LA.)

The truth of it is, the media doesn’t get motherhood right either. Michael Keaton’s Mr. Mom isn’t  any more accurate than Diane Keaton ’s supermom in Baby Boom. In those early years, behind every all-knowing dad stood a mom in heels and pearls mopping a floor; now behind every fat slob in a La-Z-Boy stands a disproportionally gorgeous wife and mother bringing him nachos before the big game. Yeah, that’s realistic.

Still, these inaccurate portrayals aren’t going to change, not as long as profits can be made from them. To network and ad execs, dumb dads and tolerant wives are merely tropes—story devices meant to contextualize whatever it is they’re hawking.  In ad campaigns marketers use mom and dad as tropes in several ways, for example:  1) The Empowered Woman and Impotent Man where a woman is told she doesn’t need a man to make a purchase decision when she can dupe him instead, and 2) The Oafish Man and Longsuffering Woman who accepts that she can’t change her bumbling man and endures aided by consumer products.

Wrong? Yes. But does that mean we mount a steed and follow Don Quixote into the fray?

Ragu: Giant or Giant Windmill?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Why did the spaghetti sauce cross the dad blogger? Give up? To get brand awareness. As a former VP of sales and marketing, I agree, the recent Ragu campaign slighting dads was both lame and ill-conceived. However, if the intent was to gain exposure among parent bloggers, when the numbers hit some ad exec’s desk, I guarantee he yelled, “Winning!” and then downed a pint of tiger’s blood.

The significance of Ragu-gate, though, is that it marks the first instance when a large portion of the dad blogger community responded in force. That’s a significant indicator of dad’s growing social media influence. However, despite both this and Ragu’s mistakes, some feel the situation was somewhat tarnished by the reaction itself.

One account rep remarked to me that they were “put off” by the backlash, not because the sentiment was wrong, but because the reactionary nature of some diatribes created the potential for current and future clients to be more hesitant about working with dad bloggers. Several veteran mom bloggers expressed a similar sentiment, likening it to the controversy over the varied reactions of the “Motrin Moms” back in the days when moms and brands were still feeling each other out.

In the end, though, Ragu got what it wanted. And dads? Ragu-gate’s widespread visibility may have given dad bloggers an added degree of credibility as influencers in the estimation of brands and advertisers. But the incident comes with a cautionary tale of how a right message can get lost in the wrong delivery, something moms and brands already know. But regardless of the outcome here, I have to ask, were we attacking a media misandry giant, or just another windmill.

When Did Giants Become Windmills?

For Don Quixote, his delusions stemmed from his getting too caught up in adventure books. Applying this to us dad and the fight against stereotypes, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype and miss what’s really happening along the way. Are fathers still largely misrepresented? Yes. Do women still control household purchasing power? Yes (sort of). But is there a paradigm shift running counter to the above premises? The answer is also yes. Consider this:

That same WSJ article also pointed out that, although still a bit feeble, today’s sitcom dads are confident, family men who are okay with housework and proficient at child rearing. Dumb dads and mom-centered advertising may still exist, but even so, the mainstream media is starting to get it.

Real Giants: The Makers of “Mooks”

Unlike Don Quixote’s self-fabricated monsters, real giants that are more damaging to fathers, do exist. Despite their overall positive treatment, the new dads on shows like Man Up and Up All Night, are plagued by their struggle to define their own masculine identity. Are they  acting like men or are they still boys? Are they being too macho, or too feminine? Where did this male identity crisis come from? Three words: AXE Body Spray.

Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but AXE marketing campaigns are a prime example of the real problem. Commercials showing mobs of sex-crazed women ripping the clothes off a teenage boy seconds after he applies a little body spray sends unrealistic and confusing messages to young impressionable males. And these images are far more prevalent in pop-culture than the stupid dads. According to the book, Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons From Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes, marketers are overtly telling boys they are supposed to be everything from underachieving nobodies to win-at-all-cost super jocks.

Such messages are damaging to boys’ self-esteem, delaying their entry into emotional adulthood, and what’s worse is that media, marketing and ad execs and are creating a generation of “mooks,” a term coined during an episode of PBS’s Frontline (“The Merchants of Cool”) in reference to selfish, superficial, young males who act like morons—morons who will likely be fathers themselves. By comparison, how a spaghetti sauce portrays me seems silly when some stink spray wants to turn my three boys into characters from the Jersey Shore. (Coincidentally, both Ragu and AXE are owned by Unilever.)

Dad Bloggers are Not Don Quixote

Unlike, the farcical Don Quixote, dad bloggers have real issues to confront, and to be blunt, it’s not what the mainstream media thinks of us as fathers; it’s what the mainstream media is telling our sons about what it means to be a man. The good news, though, is that men as consumers arguably have more of a voice in shaping brand messages now, more than ever through the power of social media.

The days of traditional marketing campaigns are over, and  brands are having to accept that they no longer control the message. Some of that control is now within the grasp of dad bloggers, and as the industry continues to gauge our influence, brands are listening. What are we going to say, and which brands should we be talking to?

Personally, what the mainstream media says about me as a father isn’t as important as what my kids think of me as a parent. My job is to do what’s best for them, so if Ragu runs a two-for-one deal—guess what’s for dinner, kids? And if an auto maker advertises their “Dad is a Turd” Spring Sell-A-Thon, but yet they offer a quality-made, vehicle that’s right for my family, then let’s make a deal.

It’s not that I’m ambivalent. I’m not. But, being already secure with my masculine identity, as a father I have a greater responsibilities to protect my sons (and daughters) from harmful influences, than I do protecting my image. So go ahead, CEOs and Media Moguls, make all the money you want off this “stupid” dad. But try making e a buck from telling my sons they’re stupid, and well, we’re going to have words.

* * *

If you’d like to continue this discussion, I invite you to join the outstanding team of Kevin Metzger, Jim Lin, Bruce Sallan, and myself for the Type A Parent panel, How Dad Bloggers Can Bust the Father Stereotypes.

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