Father Knows Best

By Glenn Sacks

The advertising industry has reacted to our recent protest of Arnold Worldwide’s TV commercials with great hostility. Our campaign seeks to convince Volvo to reject Arnold’s bid for its pending $150 million advertising contract. We oppose Arnold because of its track record of denigrating men and fathers, particularly in its recent Fidelity TV commercials. 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. While some critics have told me to “stop whining” and to “be a man,” I’ve rarely heard the phrase “be a man” connected to anything that was in a man’s best interests.

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 protesters write me, they often tell me of their pet peeve ad. Like the “humorous” new Sprint commercial where two men play a friendly joke on their female boss, who then assaults both, sending them to the hospital with head wounds. Or the Emerald Nuts commercial which aired during the 2005 Super Bowl, where a dad lies to his little daughter rather than give her some nuts, and is scolded for his years of deceptions. Or the Shaw’s supermarket commercial where a woman tackles and kicks a man who apparently took her lunch from the office cafeteria.

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.

Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” The ad industry has a problem. If industry executives develop a plan to solve it, we’ll applaud them. But until the industry learns to regulate itself, we’ll continue to pressure it to do the right thing. And Mr. Kelly, if your agency does happen to lose out on that $150 million Volvo contract, remember–take it like a man.


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