It's Father's Day come early.
Often ignored or portrayed as a dolt in advertising, the family patriarch is finally getting his due. Kind and gentle dads are populating pitches this year for everything from General Mills' Cheerios and Hyundai Sonata to Similac. Proud papas will also star in at least three Super Bowl spots -- for Unilever's Dove Men+Care, Toyota and Nissan -- all of which feature fatherhood prominently and positively.
Dads are even getting a lot more notice from two brands marketed by "The Proud Sponsor of Mom." A new spot for Procter & Gamble's Swiffer WetJet shows a single dad playing with his little boy and cleaning up later. A recent ad for Vicks shows dad asking his kid for a "sick day" from child-care responsibilities, but concludes that dads don't actually have that option (and there's a similar mom version).
While P&G took some heat for dissing dad in its corporate campaign, these two brands are picking up some slack with fathers lately. Vicks has spent an estimated $35 million on the NyQuil ad featuring dad vs. under $8 million for the mom spot, according to iSpot.tv.
Dads are appearing in a digital campaign for Abbott Nutrition's Similac that launched this month and lampoons "Mommy Wars" controversies over such things as baby formula. Infant-wearing fathers were added to a fictional playground skirmish, a move that drew on the real-life experience of one of the ad's creators.
"I experienced so much judgment as a new dad," said Jason Graff, one of the creative leads on the work from Publicis Kaplan Thaler. In the video, a woman asks a dad caring for his child, "What is it, mommy's day off?" -- a line Mr. Graff faced in real life.
So why the emergence of dad in ads? "Talking to dads is just smart from a business perspective," said Jennifer Bremner, marketing director for Dove Men+Care. "Men are doing more shopping, dads in particular."
Among other things, about half of men's personal-care products are now purchased directly by men, who were still buying the minority of products in the category even five years ago. Ms. Bremner noted that ads featuring dads as nurturing caregivers appeal strongly to the other half of the category's buyers: women.
Census data also shows an uptick in single dads. After a decline in the percentage of children living with their fathers to only 3.2% in 2006 from 4.8% in 2004, the proportion rebounded to 4.1% in 2013.
Dove Men+Care launched five years ago during the Super Bowl with a broader portrayal of men's journey to full adulthood. This year's Super Bowl ad focuses squarely on the fatherhood aspect of that journey around the #RealStrength hashtag.
As with Dove, the shift in adland's dad portrayals isn't so much about raw numbers as the more central and positive focus on fatherhood itself. Last year's Super Bowl also had dads -- notably from Microsoft, Cheerios and Hyundai -- but fatherhood wasn't as central to the storyline as in this year's crop from Dove, Toyota and Nissan.
Zach Rosenberg, who publishes the 8BitDad.com blog and has frequently criticized ham-handed ad portrayals of dads, has found outrage harder to come by these days. He found ads that portrayed dads positively outnumbered those portraying them negatively three to one in 2013. He's still working on a 2014 tally, bringing in opinions from other dad bloggers, but he personally hasn't found any ads this year that rate a one or two on his five-point scale for rating dad ads.
Advertising Benchmark Index President Gary Getto said TV ads with dads tested with consumers by his firm the past six months averaged a 107 effectiveness score, ahead of the 100 for all ads but a bit below the 109 for TV ads generally. However, dad ads outperformed the averages in automotive, beverages, electronics and financial services.
Ads featuring dads tend to outperform others in terms of sharing and positive sentiment, said Devra Prywes, VP-marketing and insight U.S. for video analytics firm Unruly. Dad ads score well on many -- sometimes all 10 -- of the contextual triggers that drive sharing, she said. Among the strongest of these is the highly sentimental "Origami" 2013 effort from Extra with a father and daughter. It shows a father making origami birds with gum wrappers for his child as she grows through the years.
"A lot of these ads are hitting on happiness, warmth, nostalgia and emotional factors outside humor really well," she said. "Origami" actually hit on all 10, giving it an unusually high 5% share rate among viewers.
Given the ad industry's recent turn toward dads, could they soon be overrepresented?
Of children under 18 in the U.S., more than a quarter are in families without fathers present, according to 2013 census data, a trend that's increasing as four in 10 births in the U.S. were to single mothers that year. Of 12 million single-parent households in the U.S., only 2 million were headed by dads.
Of course, households with fathers have something awfully valuable to advertisers: money. The median income for U.S. households headed by single women is $26,000, vs. $84,000 for married couples.