Madison Avenue and fatherhood

Alex Beehler Contributor
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Robert Young, as the firm but fair button-down patriarch in the popular 1950s television series, “Father Knows Best,” was so convincing as an icon of veracity and wisdom, that he had in real life an even longer and more lucrative role in the 1960s selling the virtues of a certain brand of coffee. Now, two generations later, as Father’s Day 2010 approaches, it is appropriate to reflect on Madison Avenue’s current image of fatherhood and its impact on contemporary culture.

Fatherhood in the 1950s held a commanding presence in our society. For starters, a significant percentage, upwards of 50 percent, had served in World War II and the Korean War as young men bravely and successfully defending our country in times of war. Now, they would bravely and successfully build our country in times of peace. Mothers were to be exactly that- focused on the responsibilities of raising growing families ushered in the Baby Boom. Not surprisingly, Madison Avenue stereotyped the Father figure as leading his family in engagement and exploration of the outside world (for example, driving the “right” car for family outings and vacations), while the Mother figure was absorbed in deciding how best to feed, clothe, and entertain the children in a clean, modern home.

Today, these caricatures reside only in film archive vaults. While the commercial role of woman is significantly less defined as a mother, the advertisement image of men generally, and fathers specifically, is increasingly effeminate, clueless, irresponsible, and stupid- in short, not commanding respect as much of a father.

For instance, a major telecommunications firm has extensively run on network television two advertisements promoting its services and products to each members of a family of four (mother, father, and a son and daughter). In the first commercial aired last winter, the company representative highlights features meant to appeal to each individual family member. The salesman first focuses on what is of interest to the children. Then he pitches the ability to watch simultaneously figure skating, meant to elicit a favorable response from the mother. When the father excitedly and in tandem responds with the mother, there is immediate, awkward silence in the room, with the embarrassed father eventually stammering, “that was weird” under this breath. More recently in a commercial by the same company to a different family of four, the mother reveals to the salesman, presumably heretofore a total stranger, that the father is the very same “daddy on girl’s bike” who was filmed somersaulting a kiddie girl’s bike into a snow bank which became featured on YouTube. Fathers further embarrassing themselves to the delight of family members and the public at large. And this father was not even wearing a helmet!

Recognizing that the rugged “Marlboro Man” of the 1960’s has long disappeared, imperiled by the potential for lung cancer, the advertising world has gone too far the other way, projecting modern day fathers as, in the words of the current governor of California, “girlie men,” undeserving of respect.

For our country is still defended primarily by men, many who are fathers. The most hazardous jobs domestically from coal miners and construction workers to police and firefighters are filled mostly by men, the majority of whom are fathers. Conversely, the current generation of young men in our country ( and throughout much of the world) face increasing disincentives to become responsible responsible fathers. Percentage of males enrolling and completing a college education, vital to launching a successful and stable career, is on the decrease. With the lack of education and challenging economic times, unemployment for men under age 25 is 25 percent in the U.S. and over 50 percent in many other countries. Add disincentives from government welfare policies and the dissipation of any cultural stigmas, and the result is more than half of all births in our nation are out-of-wedlock. Such a child most likely will be raised by one parent, most likely with no father present and involved.

With such a grim scenario, advertisers should take a hard and conscious look at how father figures are portrayed in commercials that are aired thousands of times and view by millions, both by adults and children, both domestically and abroad. The portrayal of a good, well-respected father is getting harder to find in today’s societies. The Madison Avenues of the world need to be more respectful of this fundamental challenge. For father may not know best anymore, but an absent father knows least.

Alex Beehler is the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Environment, Safety & Occupational Health) at the United States Department of Defense.