Don’t Moms Buy Everything? Ah, Nope.

Dear Mr. Dad: In last week’s column you complained that advertising ignores dads. As I understand it, moms make most purchasing decisions. Wouldn’t advertising to men alienate women? And why should advertisers spend money pitching to people who don’t buy anything?

A: You’ve raised three important issues here. Let’s go through them one at a time.

First, while mothers may make the majority of purchasing decisions, it’s not by much. Ninety percent of dad are involved in everyday buying decisions for their family. Forty percent do half or more of the household shopping every week. Single dads and at-home dads account for an even greater share, and those numbers are only going up, as the percentage of women who outearn their husbands also rises.

Second, ads aimed at dads will definitely NOT alienate moms. Most moms sincerely support their husbands, and my research shows that they actually respond very favorably to dad-friendly ads—and want to see more of them.

Third, because we know that ads profoundly shape how people see themselves, advertisers have a moral obligation to behave responsibly. Several countries have banned ads featuring underweight female models because those images affect the way women and girls see themselves and encourage unhealthy behavior. We also routinely refer to “the men and women of the armed forces,” “police officers,” “mail carriers”—despite the fact that men are the overwhelming majority in all those professions. The message is that girls can be anything they want (and with three daughters, I’m all for that).

I spoke with Dr. Sal Giorgianni, incoming chair of the Men’s Health Caucus of the American Public Health Association, who just did an exhaustive study of health messages that appeared in 198 general interest magazines. He found that health-related ads were targeted at women nearly three times more often than at men. Ads that did target men focused mostly on physical attributes (hair loss, erectile dysfunction, and six-pack abs leading the pack) instead of on making healthy lifestyle choices, such as getting annual physical exams.

“Given the media’s influence on the way we see ourselves and others, the lack of health messages aimed at men and boys clearly tells them that taking care of their health is something that’s not terribly masculine,” says Girogiannni. “Or, that it’s not their issue at all.” The consequences of that attitude show up in men’s insistence on ignoring their symptoms (in sports, it’s “playing through the pain”), in their reluctance to go to the doctor unless it’s an absolute emergency (by then it’s often too late), and their shorter lifesapans.

“Leaving males out of health advertising becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Giorgianni. “We’re telling them that health isn’t really their thing, and then we’re surprised when they take such poor care of themselves.”

It’s the same for parenting. If, as a society, we value getting men more involved, we need to be show them actively involved with their kids: guiding, teaching, loving, and caring for them—exactly what dads do in real life. But 75 percent of men find most advertising irrelevant to them and nearly half feel unwelcome in retail stores (even higher if they’re going underwear shopping with their daughters).

By ignoring dads and their vital contributions to their children’s lives, we’re telling them that they aren’t important. And that just increases the chances that they’ll leave the parenting up to mom.

You can learn more about the Men’s Health Caucus at menshealthcaucus.net. And I encourage you to sign the petition urging Procter & Gamble to include dads in their Olympics ads here:  tinyurl.com/P-GvsDads