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Dads in Ads - time for a new narrative?

The way dads are portrayed in the media can affect what we expect from them in real life - whether that's a strong & loving carer or an amiable buffoon. Here PROFESSOR DAVID MARSHALL reflects on the changing depiction of fathers in modern advertising, and picks out some personal favourites.

The media, and advertising in particular, has an important role to play in the way we think about fatherhood.  As we allude to in the Year of the Dad video (above), fathers have featured in a number of recent marketing campaigns, but it seems advertisers are yet to catch up with what it means to be a modern dad.

Positively, Dove’s Men+Care campaign recognises changing ideas about masculinity and celebrates men who embrace their caring side. Screened during the 2015 US Superbowl, its television commercial showed us a side of masculinity and fatherhood we don’t often see in advertising.

It featured children calling for “Dad” who is there waiting to catch them, kiss them, hug them and walk them up the aisle. All before closing with the strapline ‘care makes a man s+ronger’.


Back home the Nationwide Building Society’s ‘BEST DAD’ advertisement shows a young boy gifting his dad a knitted scarf, who gives it back to him years later when he himself becomes a father. (The son then leaves it on a bus before it’s returned by a building society employee). 

One of my favourite campaigns, ‘Loving Eyes’ from Toyota Japan, also looks at the changing relationship over time (and a range of different Toyota cars) between a father and daughter but from both their perspectives.

Meanwhile, Weetabix’s humorous ‘Dad’s day out’ (below) from a few years ago shows a mother who returns to find a father asleep, exhausted, at the end of an action-packed day looking after his son (although for many stay-at-home mums, or indeed dads, it might seem like a relatively normal day).

It’s pleasing to see these positive, powerful depictions of fatherhood on our screens. But sadly they remain in the minority.

As our MSc Marketing students at the University of Edinburgh recently discovered, contemporary advertising is still dominated by depictions of fathers as less capable carers – exhausted from looking after the kids, struggling with nappies, or finding innovative approaches to combine childcare and domestic chores.

But why is this still the case in 2016?


Working with colleagues from British and Australian universities we looked at fathers in family related advertising the popular British magazine Good Housekeeping to see how dads have been depicted in print media over the past 60 years.

Taking a sample of print advertising we found fathers featured more prominently in advertising in the 1950s and 1960s almost exclusively as part of the ‘traditional’ nuclear family unit.

Campaigns featured fathers in their work clothes (suits), standing in the background looking over the family or seated at the table - waiting for mothers to serve the food.

This was the era of the father as ‘primary breadwinner’ and ‘secondary carer'. In this patriarchy fathers worked and mothers stayed at home and looked after the children. 

But by the 1970s and 1980s expectations about the role of fathers is beginning to change as more women are engaged in full and part-time employment outside the home.

During this period we see more images of fathers in casual clothes relaxing at home, spending time with the family and playing with their children. Dads are shown as being more emotionally connected with their families.


It’s a theme which continues into the 1990s with the new ‘family’ man actively engaged in childcare (although we find fewer images of fathers as part of the ‘traditional’ nuclear family in this decade).

Then, perhaps surprisingly, in 2000 and 2010, we see much less evidence of fathers in family related advertising – Dad has disappeared from print.

This may reflect broader social change and more diverse types of family that emerged during this period, or the somewhat conservative nature of the industry and the magazine advertising we analysed.

Over the period there was an almost complete absence of advertising showing fathers alone with their children. Despite this fathers remain in the background, not visible, but implied and subject to the readers own interpretation of the family and the role of the father.

We are seeing a shift from dominant depictions of fathers as providers, to broader interpretations of Dads as nurturing and caring, emotionally engaged, responsible and accessible. But the protective breadwinner model of the father is still very evident in much of contemporary Western advertising and it may be that the flurry of campaigns last year that centred on fathers was more of a blip than a trend.

Perhaps tellingly, there were relatively few fathers in the 2016 Super Bowl advertising with only one campaign, ‘First Date’ for Hyundai, featuring a protective dad carrying out a surveillance on his daughter as she goes out for the evening with her date.

Year of the Dad offers a platform to think about what it means to be a Dad in contemporary society and reflect on fatherhood. Media has a role to play in shaping those perceptions.

We need to recognise that the breadwinner model is increasingly seen as outdated in contemporary society as new hybrid forms of fatherhood reflect a much more diverse family structure.

David Marshall is Professor of Marketing at The University of Edinburgh Business School.

This research project entitled ‘Discursive Families: A comparison of magazine advertising in two countries’ was an international collaboration between the University of Edinburgh, University of Sydney, Lancaster University, University of Oxford and University of Monash supported by the Leverhulme Trust.

The reference to the full article is - Marshall, D., Davis, T., Hogg, M., Petersen, A. and Schneider, T. (2014) From overt provider to invisible presence: discursive shifts in advertising portrayals of the father in Good Housekeeping, 1950-2010.  Journal of Marketing Management, 30, 15-16, November, 1654-1679.