By Henry Gomez – Senior Director of Strategic Planning at Marca
Fatherhood. It’s an institution that’s as old as the human race, but as a topic of discussion and research, it’s, quite frankly, novel. Dynamic changes in our culture during the sexual revolution and Great Society seemed to diminish the role of fathers drastically, but fatherhood is coming back in a strong way.
Writing in Esquire’s “Fatherhood Issue,” Stephen Marche quantifies the issue of fatherlessness (24.6% of American families are without a father) and its destructiveness to society, but he also identifies a rising tide of fathers who are actively choosing to be more involved with their children than ever before:
“The new father is an engaged father by instinct. Witnessing the birth was the beginning of a widening intimacy. The new father holds his babies. He bathes them. He reads to them. The new father knows the role of the father is not to merely provide food and shelter. The role of the father is to be there, physically and mentally.”
The statistics make it clear that the era of the traditional family is behind us. That is not to say that there will no longer be traditional families, but rather, that whether by choice or by circumstance, the old definitions of family no longer apply to many Americans. And whether it’s the result of changing gender roles, divorce, or alternative living arrangements, it’s becoming obvious that we’re in the midst of a new generation of actively involved fathers.
In fact, as Marche posits, I believe we’re witnessing a movement among men to take back their roles as fathers, and perhaps to maximize them like never before. For example, the Dad 2.0 Summit, a meeting of so-called “Daddy Bloggers” held annually, is just one example of the rising profile and influence of fathers in America.
In 2012, a group of such bloggers spearheaded a petition drive protesting Kimberly-Clark’s portrayal of fathers as bumbling incompetents in a TV spot for Huggies. While the petition was successful and Huggies created a new spot in response, the brands that will win in the era of the Dad won’t be the ones who simply avoid offending them. Procter & Gamble’s homage to mothers for the last two Olympics stands in stark contrast to the usual depiction of fathers. Changes in modern fatherhood are going to necessitate changes among marketers in how they think about their customers. Perhaps this short film from Johnson & Johnson is a sign of things to come.
A few years ago, I was talking with a married friend who is also a father, and he broached the topic of McDonald’s. Near his house, at the time, there was a large McDonald’s restaurant with an indoor playground, and my friend jokingly referred to it as “the poor man’s Chuck E. Cheese’s.” That got a laugh from me, but I knew there was an insight hidden in that punch line. You see, this friend, who is a realtor and whose wife is doctor, is also more engaged with his children than has been traditionally expected of fathers. It was he, not the mother of his three boys, that McDonald’s would have to convince if they wanted more business from his family.
I’ve worked on several fast food brands, including McDonald’s, over the course of my career, and there was a common thread when it came to looking at the family business: a focus on moms’ wants and needs. I began to question this approach when I separated and later divorced. I had been a father since the day my twins were born, but suddenly, I had to take on responsibilities that I had previously ceded to my ex-wife. With shared custody, I now I have to feed, clothe, entertain and educate my children during those periods of time when they are with me. No, I don’t have them 100% of the time, but I’m 100% responsible for them when I do have them. Still, there’s very little marketing out there that speaks to me as a father.
My personal anecdote suggests that divorce can be an important catalyst to more involved fathering. With divorce rates near all-time highs, family relationships are being redefined in unprecedented numbers. Where women were once almost automatically granted full custody, men are making great strides, and a fathers’ rights movement is gaining traction in America.
In a highly publicized case, the Miami Heat’s all-star Guard Dwyane Wade was involved in a bitter divorce that ended with him being awarded full custody of his two sons. The judge on that case cited parental alienation on the part of Wade’s ex-wife as the reason for his decision. The experience was so life-changing that it prompted Wade to write a memoir entitled A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball.
People have readily come to understand the concept of single mothers, but such an interpretation completely dismisses the idea of an involved father being in the picture with the children, which is increasingly the case. Unfortunately, there’s little data about this phenomenon and it doesn’t fit into nice little buckets.
According to Experian’s Simmons Fall 2013 Study, 41% of men aged 18-34 who report that they are fathers/guardians are presently unmarried. Not only that, their attitudes can differ greatly from their married counterparts. For example, according to the same study, the unmarried fathers are more likely to agree to the following statements than the married ones:
- I enjoy shopping with my children</em> (44% vs. 36%)
- My children have a significant impact on the brands I choose</em> (41% vs. 38%)
- I find it hard to resist my children’s requests for non-essential purchases</em> (30% vs. 22%)
- Advertising helps me to choose products to buy for my children</em> (47% vs. 29%)
The Pew Research Center estimates that the number of households headed by a single father exceeds 2.6 million, a nine-fold increase since 1960. According to Pew, “Black fathers are the most likely to be heads of single-father households-29% are. This share drops to 20% among Hispanic fathers and just 14% among white fathers.” And yet, this number still does not take into account the millions of half-time and part-time fathers out there due to changes in child custody laws and precedents being set by judges.
In a piece for The Daily Beast, Andy Hinds rhetorically asks if 2014 is the “Year of the Dad.” I suspect that it won’t be a one-year thing. It seems that the fatherhood genie is out of the bottle for good and making its presence felt in all aspects of our society. The media is finally beginning to take note, and I expect that this won’t be the last we hear about the subject. The point isn’t that mothers aren’t important, but rather that dads are equally important. And my point is that marketers who ignore the rising tide of the new fatherhood increasingly do so at their own peril.
As Father’s Day approaches, I’d like to take the opportunity to salute those men, many of my friends included, who have chosen to make raising their children job one.
About Author: Henry Gomez is the Senior Director of Strategic Planning at Marca in Miami.