Watching Dads in Xmas Ads

As the first big Christmas adverts hit our screens, PROF DAVID MARSHALL hopes for more nuanced portrayals of fathers at the heart of the home.

Watching Dads in Xmas Ads

2017-11-03.pngAs the first big Christmas adverts hit our screens, PROF DAVID MARSHALL hopes for more nuanced portrayals of fathers at the heart of the home.

It’s that time of year again. Barely have the Halloween bonfire embers faded before our screens herald the first of 2017's big-hitting festive supermarket ads.

This year Asda and Argos have pipped John Lewis - traditionally the first of the seasonal crop - to unveil their creations, due to air this weekend. So what do they say - if anything - about fathers or father-figures?


Argos opts to steer clear of families altogether, offering a space age fantasy around the latest must-have toys; but Asda interestingly follows a young girl and what looks like her grandfather into a Wonka-style factory to discover reindeer-powered pudding mixers, miniature people assembling canapés, and a generous dose of Christmas spirit. 

Other big names will no doubt follow within days - we’ll get to see the successors to last year's John Lewis Boxer, or the Waitrose robin, M&S Mrs Claus or even Aldi’s animated carrot. But where will fatherhood feature? Asda's benign father figure is not a bad start, but will this year’s crop give a new meaning to “father Christmas” – or stick to well-worn dad stereotypes?

Last year Tesco and Asda both featured dads in supporting roles in their respective ‘Bring it on’ and ‘Christmas made Better’ campaigns. In Sainsbury’s ‘Greatest Gift’ campaign dad took centre stage with the story of Dave, a cartoon character, who struggles to find a work life balance as he sings “I want to find the greatest gift I can give to my family/The greatest gift I can give is me’. (Campaign 2016).


Not bad, but could this year’s crop go one better? The question is particularly interesting in the light of this summer’s announcement by the Advertising Standards Authority of the findings of their review on gender stereotyping.

While not explicitly mentioning fathers the ASA deemed advertising that ‘features a man trying and failing to undertake simple parental or parental or household tasks’, as potentially problematic.

Hopefully, this initiative will have encouraged advertisers to think about the way in which they depict fathers in this year’s campaigns and reflect what is happening more broadly in contemporary families. Advertising has the potential to shape our perceptions and as these industry reports show gender stereotypes are prevalent in the media.


Much of the debate around parenting has centred on the role of fathers in relation to caring and their responsibilities within the domestic home. Yet these ideas are changing as fathers begin to take on more responsibility at home - although sharing the tasks is not the same as sharing the same tasks - and it may be that there are some efficiencies in a domestic the division of labour that sees fathers take responsibility for some tasks, and mothers for other tasks. Prof_David_Marshall.jpg

Stereotyping is problematic when it restricts or constrains our ideas or views or discriminates against those who do not conform and that includes depicting fathers and mothers in advertising. As Richard Pollay warns us ‘Simplistic, symbolic stereotypes, chosen for their clarity and conciseness, serve as poor models and inhibit sympathetic understanding of individual differences.' (Pollay, R W (1986) The distorted Mirror: Reflections on the unintended consequences of advertising, Journal of marketing, 50, 18-36).


We have seen a willingness to create campaigns around positive aspects of fatherhood but few that recognise their contribution to family care in ways that challenge some of the old stereotypes.  

In a recent survey Fathers Network Scotland found over fifty percent of dads are involved in doing at least half or most of laundry and cleaning. Amidst the debate about childcare, domestic roles and equality in the home, there is much less discussion around other tasks, such as collecting kids from school, taking kids to parties, sports games, and other activities that form part of the ‘real world’ parenting (see McDonald’s ~#LoveYouDad advertisement from the Philippines that topped the viral video charts around Father’s Day).  


A survey from Nationwide (Nationwide 2017) who produced the ‘Best Dad’ campaign, echo the findings of FNS with over half of dads classifying themselves as ‘modern dads’. Around two thirds report reading bedtime stories to their children, helping with homework, and playing with over half cooking dinner, doing domestic chores and attending school activities.

While mums are still responsible for more of the day to day activities - remember lasts year’s Tesco Christmas advertisement - two thirds of fathers are responsible for disciplining children, giving them money  and teaching them to ride a bike. Most would like to be able to spend more time with their children but they work twice as long on average as mums and earn twice as much making the majority of men the main breadwinner (Nationwide 2017).


One recent campaign that challenges some of these stereotypes is the M&S Fathers Day campaign, ‘For Dads that Do’. This advertisement plays on male stereotyping with a voice over -  watching the big game, up for an all-nighter, out with the lads, the strong silent type and bad dancer – that contrast with images of fathers spending time with their children.

This campaign challenges those stereotypes, although like the Dove + Men commercial the scenes are mainly about fathers spending time with their children rather than contributing to domestic tasks.

Let’s see what other messages this year’s Christmas campaigns bring.

David Marshall is Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour at the University of Edinburgh Business School