Selling the Good Father: From Ad Images to Reality

IN the middle of the morning rush hour, the voice of a young father comes over the car radio. ``My wife works in Boston, but I'm home during the day in Framingham with the baby,'' he explains. ``Being a new dad I have lots of questions, so I call her all the time. And believe me, that adds up.''

As it happens, this suburban daddy is only fictional, dreamed up by an advertising agency to promote AT&T savings on local calls between area codes. But as he describes a role reversal that remains relatively uncommon in real life, he might be doing more than just promoting a phone-company service. In small immeasurable ways, he could also be helping to change listeners' attitudes about what fathers can do.

A year or two ago, it would have been hard to imagine an ad like this featuring an at-home father. But suddenly fathers have become a hot property for advertisers - and it isn't even Father's Day. Consider a few current examples:

In one magazine ad, a man in a striped shirt and slacks sits on the floor with his young son and daughter, looking at charts that have just rolled out of his Hewlett Packard desktop printer.

Another glossy ad, this one for Chase Manhattan Bank, features a casually dressed father and daughter sharing a smile as he does his banking on the computer.

And in an ad for Northwestern Mutual Life, the camera captures a tender moment as a nattily dressed dad, perhaps just home from the office, snuggles his baby cheek to cheek.

These ads, with their air of 1990s realism, come at an opportune time. Fathers need all the positive images they can get these days. As the debate about welfare reform heats up, the pejorative phrase ``deadbeat dads'' hangs in the air again. Although the culprits on politicians' hit lists are men who default on child support or refuse to acknowledge paternity, headlines about paternal irresponsibility can indirectly cast a shadow on all fathers.

Even within the realm of two-parent middle-class families, male images need polishing. One full-time father in New York - the real-life version of the radio dad in Framingham - still finds evidence of ``inherent bias'' against the role he plays. ``You read so many articles about fathers who are irresponsible,'' he says. ``Something like what I do for my children gets a fraction of the coverage given to so-called deadbeat dads. It's very frustrating.''

Still, despite the growing numbers of attentive fathers like him - the ones who change diapers, read bedtime stories, drop off toddlers at day-care centers - new evidence suggests that change still tends to be more talk than action.

A report released this week by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, a private research organization, finds that ``in absentia'' fathers represent a global problem. An 11-nation study shows that young children around the world are rarely in the sole care of their fathers. In the United States, for instance, mothers - half of whom work outside the home - spend nearly 11 waking hours as sole care-givers of their preschoolers every day. American fathers spend just 42 minutes.

So much for the ideal of sharing equally in child rearing.

It will take more than slick ads to increase the parental involvement of the ``ghost dads'' in this study. Yet given the power of advertising to shape attitudes and actions, it's just possible that, over time, subtle changes in family life and corporate culture could occur if more fathers and children showed up in ads for a variety of products in magazines ranging from Business Week to Popular Mechanics.

Imagine the benefits to families if employers made it more acceptable for fathers to take paternity leave or share child care on snow days or sick days. And imagine the benefits to children if fathers spent more than 42 minutes a day with them.

A few gentle, involved fathers in ads won't revoke the more usual image of macho men that still prevails on TV - the Marlboro man without the Marlboro. But the newly domestic pictures of fathers being fathers may qualify as one small act of subversion - a puff of talcum powder rather than gunpowder tickling John Wayne's nose. Can that be a bad thing?

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