The Great Role Reversal

Last week, after taking the train to the 'burbs and then picking up my four-year-old son from preschool, I was lucky enough to witness a tender moment. A father and his kids were sitting on their stoop, barefoot, happily watching the world go by. The dad was dressed casually, the toddler was in shorts and the baby was hanging in his diapers. They clearly had been home all day -- you could tell that they had happiness and rhythm in their world, a successful hallmark of being a stay-at-home parent. The only thing "unusual" about this scene was that a man was in the nurturing role, traditionally embodied by a woman.

This scene got me thinking about how gender roles have shifted, even reversed -- and how as a result, advertising is challenged in authentically portraying these roles today.

So much of the dialogue today is around the rise of women: Look at them break through that glass ceiling! I remember my mom going to work. One day, she sat me up on the washing machine, showed me how to use it and said, "I’m going to work now so you are going to have to learn how to take care of yourself." I was in third grade and welcomed the responsibility, I learned independence and self-reliance, says the former latchkey kid. Looking back, I see that my mom taught me that women can do, get and be whatever they want. But where do men fit in this equation? Especially now that women are being raised to be self-sufficient, heroes in their own right that don’t need a man to save the day? With every action comes a reaction. Where are men in this ongoing cultural shift?



As culture shifts, so do brands. Let’s look through the lens of traditional female roles to see how they are portrayed in brand messaging and advertising today. Female roles tend to fall into two camps: the madonna or the whore. Can men wear these shoes?

Let's start with the whore. (I promise not to get too dirty.) We see this role portrayed by women all the time when products are marketed to men -- namely beer or HBA products that tempt men with the idea that they might “get some.” Let’s hire us a hottie to move some cases. Easy!

But can the same visual strategy apply to products traditionally marketed to women? Brands such as Liquid Plumbr and Velveeta are giving it a whirl. Clearly, it is quite entertaining to reverse the roles but does it work? With an air of self-deprecation about them, these ads seem forced and inauthentic. Perhaps taking it to humor instead of to sexy is more palatable for mainstream America, but it does feel a bit more Chippendales than Magic Mike. Perhaps this is still an unnatural role for men to play or even to be viewed in? Basically, unless the man wants to be an object of desire (we love you, Channing Tatum) this image won’t ring true to the viewer.

Let's now look to the madonna role. Madonna (no, not that one) is the quintessential nurturer -- a caring persona whose goal is to care for or help others. In modern-day layman terms, the mom role. But today, with approximately 20% of men who are stay-at-home dads, these waters are getting rather muddied. Part of this is due to the “mancession” (yes, that’s a word) but part of it is choice. “There are a lot of guys out there that had remote relationships with their own fathers and they don’t want that with their kids,” according to Jeremy Adam Smith, author of The Daddy Shift.

Which brings us back to that guy on the stoop. What did I love so much about that moment? It was real. Men as nurturers might not have a historical precedent, but it is a role that is becoming more and more authentic today. Ask yourself, what is more attractive to a female eye? A man in a uniform or a man with a baby? The times they are a changin'.

We see this in advertising more and more today, especially around Father's Day, with brands like Wells Fargo, Huggies and Oral-B, the latter of which showcased this trend in its Power of Dad spot.

By elevating the conversation to the concepts of nurturing and love, we find a universal story that speaks to anybody with a heart. Screw the stereotypes -- the heart wins every time. Who are these ads resonating with most, mom or dad? The answer is both, methinks. 

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