Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Ad Dad

Advertisers know who buys stuff. I don’t know the exact percentage, but I’m pretty sure that women handle most of the purchasing in our culture. What makes me say that? Just look at the ads.

Whenever you see an ad on TV that features a family element, (food and travel are real stand-outs here), it’s always the Dad who is the knucklehead, the clown or the hapless loser. Mom sweeps in to put right whatever he has destroyed or messed up, usually with that look of knowing wisdom that I saw on my mother’s face more often than I care to remember while growing up. Men are just big children, the ad seems to say, and women are the sensible ones.

Right. Because men will buy six shirts, four pairs of pants and three pairs of shoes with the absolute certainty that most of this stuff is to be returned to the store. Men know that when you buy something on sale, even if you didn’t really want it, it’s still a bargain and you’ve saved money on it. And, men always flick through every piece of clothing on a rack without the slightest target in mind. Really?

Men don’t do these things. Why? Because they don’t make any sense whatsoever. These practices are illogical, and companies know this. Only someone who can view consumerism through such an illogical lense can be influenced to believe that it’s a virtue. Ads are masterful at playing to this idea that it’s okay to be completely illogical, as long as you buy something… preferable spending more than your gift card has on it.

This, to me, is blatant pandering to the female consumer, but it goes beyond the simple, “Dad’s a jerk but Mom will save us” mindset. The ads we and our children see are playing, not to the strengths of the women in our lives, but to their fears. Ads still objectify women and their bodies, but they do it to stoke the fires of a woman’s fear of being alone. Right after the ad that shows the Mom smirking at the camera while Dad falls down in the background, an ad for lacy bras over flat tummies comes on to push the message that says, “Hey, at least you have a man. Wanna keep him? Well, you better look this good to do so!” The twenty-something slacker with his two-day shadow is fine, but the woman needs to be polished and perfect in order to be worthy of this moron.

Then there are the ads that show Dad not as an idiot, but as a hero. Interestingly enough, Dad is usually alone in these ads. Power tools, cars and lawn tractors extol the virtues of being in command of the elements and bending them to your will. They play to Dad’s fear of being lost in his own environment, and having no control of his surroundings.

The bridge between these two extremes is the beer ad.

Beer ads are simple in their message. Young men who couldn’t tuck in a shirt to save their lives want to have sex with women, and they know that women want them, as long as they are in the right place at the right time. Preferably drinking a Miller Light, (served, of course, by the all-knowing female bartender). What these ads allude to is the fact that once you find a woman who will have you, you can go on being the hapless dork you are, because she will take care of everything, being the wise one in the family.

These themes carry over into sitcoms as well, where the Dad provides comic relief, (often with his adolescent-minded buddies), to great hilarity. Then, Mom comes in and straightens everything out in the end, giving the Dad some measure of credit to assuage his ego and allowing him to save face before the children. But the kids know this. When Mom says “No”, they go and ask Dad. Dad will let us do it… he’s an idiot. The only time Dads on TV make a good call on parenting is when they express a fear of their wives…, “I can’t let you do this… your Mom will kill me!”

I relate all of this in the hope that you will do a simple test each time you see one of these ads or shows. Switch them around. When you see the ad where Dad says or does something really stupid, and Mom saves the family, imagine the dialogue being swapped. In your mind, have the Mom do the stupid thing and have Dad tell the world that you can be as smart as him, even if you have to put up with this ridiculous female in your house. Would such an ad invoke the hue and cry that the media would raise from all corners decrying the deplorable “women-bashing” of this ad or show? Of course it would, but you don’t hear that kind of outrage from men.

That’s okay. We Dads plod on, changing light bulbs, mowing the lawn and serving as your stud-puppets. It’s fine. We know the truth. The battle of the sexes is over. We all lost. Now go buy something that makes you feel better about it.