Husbands are boys and wives their mothers in the land of ads

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Why do advertisers and agencies think it's humorous to depict husbands as childish-but-lovable goofballs, unable to perform the simplest tasks without prodding and reminders from their wives? A corollary question: Do wives get this way only after being mothers themselves, or do they learn such behavior by observing how their own moms treat their fathers?

TV commercials that depict us husbands in this pejorative manner have been a revelation to me. I never realized how much in need of nudging we are, and I, for one, appreciate the time our wives put into the pretty much thankless job of getting us to behave in a more take-charge way, especially around the house. (Don't get me started on that other tried-and-true ad theme: men lost while driving but who won't admit it to their mates.)

But, God bless 'em, after all the aggravation we put them through, they still love us for all our faults, and are awfully patient while they pound into our heads what they want us to do.

I do worry, however, about the kind of father role model advertisers are sculpting for our children. Will kids get the not-so-subtle idea that fathers are supposed to be knuckleheads, incapable of absorbing instructions without continual reinforcement? And will daughters treat their husbands this way? And, more importantly, will sons be conditioned not to pay much attention to their wives because they know through years of observation that there will be lots of opportunity to absorb the message?

What has led to my musings are two commercials that foster this sort of unhealthy behavior by wives and husbands--one by Ameritrade, the other by Wendy's--and I'm curious if they stirred up with you the same forebodings they did with me. I'd be equally curious if wives who saw them said to themselves, if not to their husbands, "Yeah, that's what I've got to go through to get anything through his thick skull."

The Ameritrade spot opens on a wife getting dressed to go out for the day. Her husband sits on a couch watching TV like a lump of not-very-animated clay. The wife says, "Honey, the one thing I need you to do today is open an Ameritrade account. OK?" She is obviously keeping her instructions nice and simple so they will have a chance of sinking in. The husband nods as if such an assignment is beneath his intelligence.

The guy wastes the whole day sleeping and watching TV on the couch.The shadows grow longer and suddenly a car pulls into the driveway, its headlights sweeping through the window. The husband wakes in a panic, leaps to his computer and, just in the nick of time, enters the information to open the Ameritrade account. The wife unlocks the door and the first words out of her mouth are, "Hi honey. Did you do it?" He nods again, almost as if it were not worth asking the question so obvious was the answer.

What do we learn from this commercial? That the wife treats her husband like a little boy; that he's insulted by her reminding him of his only chore for the day; that he nevertheless procrastinates until the last moment; and that he's insulted again when she asks if he remembered to open the account.

The wife in the Wendy's spot tries the opposite approach. She, too, is about to go out, but instead of giving her husband one simple job to perform in her absence, she gives him a laundry-list in the forlorn hope that at least one will register. She apparently doesn't realize her husband is in a state of near euphoria eating Wendy's honey ham and chicken sandwich.

She says to her husband: "Remember, when the guy comes to fix the dryer, tell him it doesn't dry. If your mother calls, find out what flight she's on, otherwise we won't know where to meet her. Dinner's in the oven. Turn it on at 5. I told the neighbor you'd feed their cat. If you have a minute, honey, the back door's stuck open."

Alas, nothing penetrates the husband's preoccupation with his Wendy's sandwich. When his wife goes out the door, he says, "Come in!"

Is this what husband-wife relationships have come to in adland? The wives play the role of gently reproving mother, and the husbands play the role of cute but incorrigible little boy who almost never does what he's told and sometimes only at the last minute.

You can almost see the wife standing there, hands on hips, saying, "What am I going to do with you?" And the husband, with a sheepish grin, just shrugs.

That's about all any of us can do.

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