Protest Arnold Worldwide’s Anti-Male Advertising

Feb. 27, 2007–Apr. 23, 2007


Our campaign garnered widespread media attention, and Arnold Worldwide’s CEO fired back at us in Adweek. Volvo issued a statement saying its hand won’t be forced by our campaign.

Later, Volvo executives, including Product Communications Manager Dan Johnston, called protesters to reassure them that Volvo will remain a "family-friendly" company and that it is they, not the advertising agency they hire, who will direct the kinds of advertisements they create.

Volvo awarded the contract to Arnold Worldwide, but kept its pledge to our campaign supporters to steer clear of anti-father TV ads.

Several advertising agencies were competing for a $150 million advertising contract from Volvo. The agency which was the favorite to win the contract was Arnold Worldwide, the creator of numerous commercials which mock and denigrate men and fathers.

Working with advertising critic Richard Smaglick, thousands of our supporters wrote and called Volvo asking them not to award the contract to Arnold Worldwide.

Why This Campaign

Prior to its bid for the Volvo account, Arnold Worldwide, the target of our protest campaign, produced numerous anti–male commercials, including these Fidelity commercials:

‘Ping Pong’

A father plays his 11 year-old daughter, beats her, and goes into a mocking, in-your-face celebration as his daughter has the"my dad is an idiot!"expression on her face.


A husband looks like a fool in front of his wife, who’s disgusted and marches off.

‘Kids’ Toy’

A man makes a fool of himself playing with a kid’s toy in a doctor’s office waiting room as a little girl and two women watch him with contempt.

‘Pool Party’

A father acts like an idiot and his wife and daughter show contempt for him.

Arnold Worldwide explained:

Put simply, our work speaks the truth. It always comes out of the truth of the brand and connects with consumers in ways that we’ve found ring true with them.

Portraying men and fathers as idiots is "the truth"? There was not one man who was portrayed positively in any of the Fidelity ads, and only one ad ("Rick," with Rick Derringer) where men were portrayed as anything but foolish.

By contrast, “Carol”, the one ad which did feature a woman, bathed the woman in superlatives. "Carol" is a good ad and we’re glad Arnold made it, but why can’t we have a similar ad about a man?

On the other hand, Euro RSCG’s Volvo television ad “Rosi”is a touching commercial depicting a loving father picking up his chatterbox little daughter from school.

In my column Father Knows Best (Adweek, 3/12/07), I explained:

The advertising industry has reacted to our recent protest of Arnold Worldwide’s TV commercials with great hostility…The industry has protested loudly, but the industry doth protest too much.

In 2004, we organized a similar campaign against a Verizon ad which featured a father being humiliated in front of his daughter. Over 2,000 protesters contacted Verizon, the story made 300 newspapers, and the ad stopped running a few weeks later.

During both protests, many in the advertising industry accused me of being a humorless zealot with no appreciation for their clever ads. But if these advertising professionals really believe that it’s all just a harmless joke, shouldn’t they allow women to join in on all the fun? And when we can turn on the TV and see women routinely being portrayed as lousy, irresponsible mothers, will it still be funny? Will we still be laughing when commercials tell us that women aren’t as smart as men? Or aren’t as mature? Will it still be funny when women are always wrong and their husbands must continually correct them?

There is a justifiable consensus in our society that it’s harmful to depict African-Americans as being mostly either criminals, drug addicts or ne’er-do-wells. We agree that it’s harmful to portray women as being incapable of being scientists or mathematicians. Yet these same principles are not applied to men, the last politically acceptable group to portray in an unfavorable light.

Advertising professionals tell me that this is as it should be, since men are privileged and make up the majority of CEOs, politicians and powerbrokers. Yet when we say men are "privileged," we are only looking up. If we look at the bottom of our society—the homeless, the imprisoned, the suicide victims, those who die young, the school dropouts—most there are male, too…

We certainly don’t seek to cut out all ads which poke fun at men—what we want instead is balance. Everybody should get a roll in the barrel. The industry assures us that there’s no problem with current practices, but if this is true, why have several thousand men and women joined our protests? And while critics try to dismiss us as a male backlash, many of our biggest and most articulate supporters are women, particularly the mothers of boys. One protester, a mother of two boys, dismissed the ad industry’s ludicrous pretense that these ads have no effect on how our society views men, telling Volvo:

"What kind of world are we creating for our boys when all they see on TV are irresponsible, immature men incapable of being good husbands or good fathers?"…

When we did the Verizon campaign, critics said it was unfair to target Verizon because it was McGarrybowen, their ad agency, who created the ads. Now Arnold CEO Fran Kelly criticizes our campaign and many of Arnold’s defenders insist that it’s wrong to blame the agencies, since we should instead be blaming Fidelity. In the advertising industry, apparently the buck stops nowhere…

Media Coverage

Our campaign targeted the advertising industry and was repeatedly covered in the advertising industry press, including:

We also garnered widespread coverage in the mainstream media, including:

  • CNN Money
  • Boston Herald
  • Washington Times
  • Toronto Globe & Mail
  • The Nationally-Syndicated Lars Larson Show
  • The Nationally Syndicated Mike McConnell Show
  • Radio shows in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Detroit, Louisville, and numerous other cities.

Arnold Worldwide's Anti-Male TV Ads

Many of Arnold Worldwide's commercials which mock or denigrate men and fathers. Examples include:

‘Ping Pong’

A father plays his 11 year-old daughter, beats her, and goes into a mocking, in-your-face celebration as his daughter has the"my dad is an idiot!"expression on her face.


A husband looks like a fool in front of his wife, who’s disgusted and marches off.

‘Kids’ Toy’

A man makes a fool of himself playing with a kid’s toy in a doctor’s office waiting room as a little girl and two women watch him with contempt.

‘Pool Party’

A father acts like an idiot and his wife and daughter show contempt for him.

During our campaign we contrasted Arnold Worldwide’s Ad "Ping Pong" with Euro RSCG's Volvo ad Rosi below and asked "Which Commercial Better Represents Your Relationship with Your Daughter?"

Praise, Criticism from the Ad Industry

Because our campaign received so much attention within the advertising industry, we gained many supporters as well as critics. Below we discuss some of both.

Praise from the Advertising Industry

Praise included:
  • Brandweek editor Todd Wasserman took a hard look at our Arnold campaign in his column "The Surviving Dads Of Ads (11/12/07) and concluded "It’s Hard to Argue that Guys Like Sacks Don’t Have a Point."
  • Brandweek Senior Reporter Mike Beirne discussed our campaigns against anti-male advertising and quoted several authorities in the advertising world who sympathize with us in his 2,500 word piece "Marketers used to venerate the father figure. So why are they making him look like such an ass?"(3/3/08).
  • In the Washington Times article "Father Figures" (1/31/08), they noted "Todd Wasserman knew he had touched a nerve when he saw the enormous number of responses from readers [in response to his] column bemoaning the treatment of fathers in advertising…The letters poured in…’I don’t think we ever got so much reaction. That fathers are often the butt of ads and accepted as idiots, that was just commonly accepted. But for me, it just seems like a stale target, a safe target for someone trying to get an easy laugh in an ad. The more people I talked to, the more it seemed a lot of people felt that way.’"
  • In our column Advertisers: Men Are Not Idiots (Advertising Age, 4/14/08), we detailed numerous other advertising and media figures who oppose the advertising industry’s negative portrayals of men and fathers.
Brandweek also published numerous letters from our campaign’s supporters. For example:
  • Lori Clayton of South Fulton, Tennessee wrote:
    As a mom, we agree with you. Fathers should have rights too. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter and a grandmother. And I have seen the way men are being treated these days; makes me sick to know that men are being treated so horribly. Step back a moment, and just think: how would you feel if this was your Dad, your brother or your son or grandson?
  • Akshaya Patel of Marlboro, New Jersey wrote a letter titled "Ads Do Impact the Very Young":
    "I am a father of a 5-year-old boy and I can tell you that advertising impacts his perception of the world much more profoundly than adults may realize. Last year I severed my relationship with Fidelity Investment because I was appalled at the way they portrayed men in their advertising. I became politically aware during the years of anti-apartheid divestment and it has stuck with me…the corporate community speaks to the masses through advertising and they have to maintain a gender neutral balance in their message."
  • Eric Tarkington of Atlanta, Georgia wrote:
    Critics who say ‘enough dumping on dad already!’ are not alone—far from it, if anybody has a bizarre attitude about this, it’s the disconnected ad man sector, not the growing annoyed sector of the public. I have some sympathy for ad writers. You need the good feelings from a gag to become associated with your product or service. Somebody is always the butt of any joke, and political correctness says you won’t make it a her. Besides, you don’t have to be careful dumping on dad in this society. Or do you? People are getting annoyed…

Criticism from the Advertising Industry

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."—Upton Sinclair

Below are some of the criticisms I’ve received from people who identify themselves as working within the advertising industry. Rather than publish the full letters or comments, I’ve tried to pick the best and most distinct argument out of each one and respond to it.

Criticism #1) Chris Jennings worked for Arnold Worldwide from 1995 to 2002, and still works within the advertising industry. Jennings writes:

"Are you seriously targeting ad agencies? Why not target the clients that pay for and approve the work? Targeting the agency is like punishing the addicted smoker—not the tobacco company."

The ad industry seeks to evade responsibility for their mistreatment of men and fathers by placing the blame for the ads on the client companies instead of the ad agencies. It is true, of course, that it is not fair to blame the agencies 100%. Since we’re currently targeting Arnold Worldwide and not Fidelity—the client for whom it made the anti–male ads—it is fair, to a point, for Arnold to feel it’s being picked on. However, while it’s not accurate to blame the agency 100%, neither is it accurate to blame the company 100%, either. Ad agencies share a good part of the blame, despite the protestations of advertising industry professionals.

Also, it’s not as if we’ve never targeted companies with offensive advertising—that is exactly what we did during our highly–publicized Campaign Against Anti–Father Verizon Commercial. Both approaches have merit, though neither is perfect.

Finally, Jennings’ and others’ portrayal of ad agencies as poor, helpless victims—to the point of comparing them to hopelessly addicted smokers—indicates a pervasive victim mentality. And they accuse me of being a "whiner"…

#2) Advertising executive Frank Moricca, a senior vice–president at Fahlgren, makes a similar point, though (mercifully) without the hysterics. Moricca writes:

"I think your attack against Arnold is misguided and unfounded. First, as a father I am not at all offended by the Fidelity ads they produced. But if you are that’s OK, focus your anger at Fidelity…

"Arnold and their client, Fidelity, are trying to garner attention of their target audience in an environment that is overcrowded and cluttered. The fact that they take a subject and service such as financial planning—serious stuff that not many people like to think about or feel comfortable with—and make it inviting [and] approachable…

"Bottom line, LET THE CLIENT MAKE THE DECISION! You are doing nothing to forward your mission. I will give you the fact that you are generating publicity, but I am no more interested in what you have to say on the really important topics you discuss because of this."

A few points:

1) Again, the ad industry seeks to evade responsibility for their mistreatment of men and fathers by placing the blame for the ads on the client company instead of the ad agency.

2) I can understand that Moricca is not "offended by the Fidelity ads"—as I’ve noted, none of the ads in and of themselves are terrible. What’s bad is that the overwhelming majority of the ads they made for Fidelity portrayed men negatively. There’s not one man who was portrayed positively, and only one ad ("Rick," with Rick Derringer) where men were portrayed as anything but foolish. Conversely, "Carol," the one ad which did feature a woman, bathed the woman in superlatives. "Carol" is a good ad, but why can’t we have a similar ad about a man?

3) Moricca is right that Arnold Worldwide’s Fidelity ads take "serious stuff" and make it?"inviting" and "approachable." My question is this—why is Arnold’s only method of making a product appear inviting and?approachable to make men appear like fools?

4) Regarding "Bottom line, LET THE CLIENT MAKE THE DECISION!", we’re quite sportingly offering Volvo our assistance in making its decision.

5) Moricca is correct that Arnold and its anti–male ads are not at the top of the list of the "really important topics [I] discuss." However, I do believe that negative depictions of men and fathers on television do have a negative impact on our society. This is a particular problem now, given the way fathers are often marginalized by the family law system and vilified by the mainstream media. The battle against anti–male advertising is one front in the larger war, and it is a worthwhile one.

#3) Josh Casey, an advertising copywriter with KempGoldberg in Portland, Maine, makes a point about Arnold Worldwide and Euro RSCG, two of the four companies which are competing for the $150 million Volvo contract. We want Volvo to decline Arnold’s bid. Euro RSCG, Volvo’s current advertising agency, made the touching pro–father Volvo commercial "Rosi." Since we like to point out the positive as well as the negative, we’ve publicly commended Volvo and Euro RSCG for the ad, and let it be known that it would be nice if Euro RSCG won the contract.

Casey writes:

"Arnold Worldwide and Euro RSCG are part of the same company. So, despite your contention that Arnold be punished, the bottom line?remains the same whether the account goes there or to Euro?RSCG."

Havas is the company which owns both Arnold Worldwide and Euro RSCG. I was aware of this relationship, and it has little bearing on the purpose of our campaign.

It is true that for Havas, whether Arnold or Euro wins the contract, it would just be taking money from one pocket and putting it into the other. However, there are two important points to be made. One, the primary goal of our campaign is to advise Volvo to reject Arnold Worldwide’s bid—if it loses the bid to either of the other two competitors, Fallon and 180, Havas has lost a $150 million contract and won’t be happy. Two, if Arnold loses the contract to Euro, the company’s leaders still know that the next time they’re competing for an ad contract, it probably won’t be with another agency within the same company. Hopefully they will think "we’d better pay a little more attention to how we portray men and fathers—it could give us bad press or even cost us an advertising contract."

#4) Advertising writer Ronan Doyle, Associate Creative Director of Connelly Partners in Boston, writes:

"Have you actually reviewed the work created, over the past several decades, by Arnold? Not only are they one of the best creative agencies in Boston, but they have created some of the most effective and memorable ads that I’ve ever seen. And none of them are anti–male. Your attacks are not only irresponsible, they’re completely unfounded."

Our campaign has nothing to do with the artistry or creativity of Arnold Worldwide’s ads, nor with their ability to sell products. We are instead concerned with the ads’ depictions of men and fathers. Doyle says "none of [the ads] are anti–male", but Arnold’s recent ad campaign for Fidelity, one of their biggest clients, is dominated by ads which portray men as idiots and clowns.

On a larger point, Doyle and other critics seem to feel that as long as an agency has done some commercials which aren’t anti–male, it’s unfair to target?them for the ones which are. This is not practical—if we used this approach, we would never be able to act to address this problem. Criticizing Arnold for its?Fidelity campaign—a major, recent set of ads—is a reasonable standard.

#5) Jim, who also works in the advertising industry, writes:

"Euro RSCG had also done what you call "anti–male" advertising for their clients Sirius and Summer’s Eve. The latter portraying us men as non–hygienic."

I’ve been told that the Summer’s Eve commercial Jim refers to is pretty mild, but I’ve never seen the commercial so I will, for the sake of argument, accept Jim’s characterization of it. The ridicule of men and fathers is pervasive in the advertising industry—I doubt we could find one major company that has not engaged in the practice. Our point about Euro RSCG is not that their advertising for other companies has never merited criticism. We commended them for their pro–father Volvo ad "Rosi," and since the contract in question is for Volvo, it seems reasonable to focus on Euro’s work for Volvo.

Also, we pointed out Euro’s pro–father ad because, despite what my critics say, I’ve no desire to be only negative—when someone does something positive, I try to take the opportunity to point it out. For example, even though I am critical of modern feminism and major feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women, I have on numerous occasions gone out of my way to commend them for the not insubstantial positive things that they do and have done.

#6) Emily Klineman writes:

"LIGHTEN UP, FOR GOODNESS SAKE!? It’s a commercial, not a commentary on life or values.? Shame on you for trying to interject your personal opinions where they frankly don’t belong."

Again, we get the indignant "Sacks is stepping on our toes" reaction from the ad industry.

As for the "lighten up" line, since these ads are all just a harmless joke, it seems downright unfair that ad agencies don’t let women in on all the fun. I’m sure Emily would be thrilled to see women portrayed as irresponsible, insensitive parents. I’m sure Emily would love to see women portrayed as immature and foolish and a drain on their patient, superior husbands. In reality, I’m sure that Emily and most women would be very unhappy, and would make their unhappiness quickly felt.

#7) Anonymous writes:

"Idiots like you are systematically sterilizing our society to the point where there will be nothing left. The only thing your cause is actively contributing to is a cookie cutter, nanny culture dictatorship. Leave 1984 in the past where it belongs or move to a different country."

I’m not trying to "sterilize" anything—I’m instead trying to bring some balance to an industry which is very out of balance. I am absolutely not trying to eliminate all commercials which poke fun at men—I instead want everybody to get a roll in the barrel, not just men.

#8) Mick O’Neill, an employee of Arnold Worldwide, writes:

"Yeah big bad Arnold!!! Consistently rated one of the 50 ‘Best Places to Work in Massachusetts’ by Boston Business Journal. Arnold is a company that gives new fathers two paid weeks of Paternity Leave! Arnold also enables new fathers to work from home one day a week for 12 weeks! Arnold also provides 20 days of paid emergency day care support with Bright Horizons Family Solutions, one of the nation’s leading providers of work–site child care. This is on top of 15 additional days off including every second Friday during the summer, on top of the 10 standard vacation days for new hires. That is lots of time off for fathers to spend quality time with their families, let alone the 10 sick days, 3 personal days and generous health benefits."

I’ll assume for the sake of argument that all of the above are true. It’s nice that Arnold is apparently a good employer, though I don’t know if they’re any better than any other advertising agency, which is the most relevant comparison. And many of the benefits listed are at least as much for women as for men, such as the "emergency day care support," the vacation days, sick days, etc.

None of this is terribly relevant—this is not a campaign about working conditions at Arnold, it’s a campaign about their products. It’s not like I’m a union organizer (though I am generally supportive of unions). If Ford made a faulty car, could they defend themselves by saying they provide their employees good benefits? If a newspaper publisher prints a racist tirade, can he defend himself by saying that he pays his employees well? Of course not. And if Arnold Worldwide really is concerned about the needs of its employees who are fathers, it’s time for them to extend that consideration to the commercials they produce.

Special Thanks to…

  • Advertising critic Richard Smaglick, an expert on the advertising industry who does valuable work monitoring anti-male stereotypes in television commercials.