National Post Barbara Kay: For TV moms and dads, two different standards

National Post - Wednesday July 30th, 2014

A screen shot for a commercial for Peanut Butter Cheerios

In the past, television ad-makers rarely have dared make fun of moms. But dads usually have been seen as fair game for satirical commercials portraying fathers as immature slovens or domestic incompetents.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed an uptick in ads — for diapers, gum, cereal, detergent and the like — featuring dads as personable, smart and sensitive. The hands-on parental engagement demanded decades ago by equity feminists, now the norm in bourgeois families, is on full display in these ads. For a moving example of the type, Google “Extra gum, origami birds.”

Another example is a new online ad for Peanut Butter Cheerios, fathers-targeted because apparently dads aren’t eating as much cereal as they used to. It’s getting positive attention for its peppy depiction of a nurturing dad who singlehandedly shepherds his cluster of kids from morning wake-up through breakfast without breaking a sweat, including a split-second loving aside to his wife, who appears to be watching this performance with benignly detached amusement. Bottom line: Dad is fun, but demands respect (“being awesome isn’t about breaking the rules; it’s about making them”).

What’s not to like? Well, parenting author Kathy Buckworth’s July 25 column in The Toronto Star found something. She doesn’t like that the dad is so awesome (she wondered at first if it was a parody). “I think it’s overkill,” she writes, meaning she believes it’s over-compensation for all the ads that have portrayed dads as idiots. “I think it’s almost daring moms to be offended.”

Well, I don’t think moms (apart from those teaching Gender Studies) offend that easily. I think ordinary women welcome images of fathers acting like the kind of men – their husbands, brothers and sons — they love and esteem.

At least the dad pictured here is simply being a dad. Contrast the Cheerios ad with a recent Proctor & Gamble ad entitled, “Thanks Mom.” It was made to commemorate the 100-day countdown to the London 2012 Olympic Games, and celebrates the special bond between mothers and girls who grow up to be Olympic athletes. In it, you see touching scenes of moms at early-morning training practices, cheering their daughters on in games, consoling them when they lose, high-fiving when they win. You see the anxiety on mom’s face when the stakes are high, the relief when a new technique pays off, and of course the “money shot” of the daughter succeeding at the Olympics and the big, teary, triumphant mom-daughter clinch.

But where is dad in this scenario? He seems not to exist. Don’t dads support their daughters’ athletic dreams? Of course they do, even if their role is confined to working their butts off to pay for the insane training costs. Since P&G wasn’t marketing any particular feminine product, why aren’t both parents featured? Proctor & Gamble must have concluded that sharing the spotlight with dad would have diminished the ad’s appeal for women.

In the Cheerios ad, the father is simply performing ordinary household tasks for ordinary children. Nothing heroic. Just doing what average parents do. But the P&G mom is doing something only an infinitesimal percentage of moms do. What was the thinking behind it? Perhaps P&G was channelling our era’s subliminal cultural message to women that mothering alone is not in itself a worthy project unless it includes a payoff that wins (them as well as the child) the world’s admiration.

The ad featuring the dad didn’t feel bound to puff up the egos of men at women’s expense. Yet, paradoxically, the modest narrative of a man being nothing more than a great ordinary dad to ordinary kids radiates 100 times more authenticity to the average father than the “Thanks Mom” ad does for the average mother.

So we have two ads, both about parenting. One is entertaining, reality-based and features mom-appreciative dads. The other is emotive, fantasy-based and ignores the existence of fathers. Between the two, then, in which ad is the protagonist so “awesome” as to be, in the opinion of a Star writer, almost parodic? Which ad is “almost daring” the other parent to be offended?

Which one, in short, is “overkill”?