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The ‘Bumbling Dad’ Was Nowhere to Be Found in Super Bowl Ads

Advertisers continue to make progress in depicting on-screen dads as more than mere stereotypes.

Family has always been a foundational part of the Super Bowl commercial experience and it doesn’t take too much insight to understand why. Moms and dads make up an enormous portion of our country and, when they see a version of themselves on TV, they’re more likely to connect with a brand and buy whatever chip, beer, or car is being sold. Tapping into this universal experience is Advertising 101.

Families were mostly left out of this year’s Super Bowl ads, in favor of rapping celebrities, blockbuster movie trailers, and, for some reason, the voice of the Dr. Martin Luther King to help sell trucks. This makes sense: the majority of big game spots aimed for meme-ability and cultural currency in order to appeal to the coveted 18-34 demographic that prioritizes fun, work, and friends. In the ads that did feature families, however, the bumbling father figure was nowhere to be found.

With very few exceptions, there’s been a stark contrast in the depictions of moms and dads in advertising. For years, moms were almost exclusively shown as the “real” parents who cook, clean, and raise their children without breaking a sweat, while dads were the sweaty, hapless buffoons who didn’t know how to make a bowl of cereal or wash a dish. The strategy fed into the notion of dads as glorified babysitters and brands could easily sell a cleaning or food product by saying it’s so easy or useful that even dads can’t screw it up.

In recent years, however, many companies have made a concerted effort to subvert this stereotype. Instead, major brands pivoted to promote a more well-rounded and aspirational image of fathers. Some of last year’s most moving commercials were geared towards fathers and Disney recently made a major commitment to change the way they look at fatherhood on-screen. Does part of this reflect the fact that advertisers understand that committed dads are a big-spending demographic? Of course. But it’s a major turning point shift regardless.

The first Super Bowl to really go big on “Dadvertising”, as the trend is called, was XLIX, where multiple spots featured sentimental looks at the many sides of fatherhood. Super Bowl LII continued to move the chains further as, in the few commercials that did depict families, caring, empathetic dads were front and center.

In fact, this year’s most emotionally resonant commercial centered around the relationship between 17-year-old snowboarding Olympian Chloe Kim and her father Jong-Jin, who quit his lucrative engineering job when he felt it was interfering with his daughter’s dream of becoming a professional snowboarder. Fatherhood no longer needs to fit into a narrow box made up of gender roles and lazy generalizations, instead, the only requirement for being a good dad is loving your kids and doing what you believe is best for them.

In one of the only other parent-centric Super Bowl spots, a father is shown making some pancakes for his daughter, only to find that she is disappointed by the lack of savory condiments to improve her breakfast experience. The dad remembers he has Cool Whip in the fridge and is able to save breakfast without needing to call for back-up. It’s a narrative that, ten years ago, likely would’ve even made its way to the wipe board during an advertising agency’s brainstorm session.

On the surface, these might feel like largely inconsequential changes. But considering how dads used to be portrayed in commercials, they mark a continued effort by brands to appeal present fathers in a new light. They’re no longer the bumbling sidekicks; they’re stepping into the spotlight.