Emmet Gowin
Emmet Gowin

Sitting down to watch last week’s Super Bowl XLIX, I thought I knew what to expect from an event the 49th of its kind: footballs on the field, fantasies in the commercials. From advertisements aimed at male audiences, I was accustomed to hot babes, race cars and rock stars. What I found, instead, unsettled me:

Men were holding newborn babes. And feeding, cleaning and dressing them. Men were leaving their racecars behind, to rejoin their families. Dads, tonight, were the real rock stars.

These ads were incredible. An enormous departure from the buffoon figures familiar to many viewers, these fathers were patient caregivers and powerful examples for their children.

In Dove’s “Real Strength” ad, there’s plenty of physical action. Dads carry kids down from scary heights, and launch them high into the air. Dads chase tiny feet and tickle chubby tummies. But they also sit down to brush hair, and crouch down to apply sunscreen. A cheerful instrumental track celebrates their connection to their kids.

In Nissan’s “With Dad,” we see a father’s distress at missing milestones in his son’s life. Each time he returns to the racetrack, he fears for what he could leave behind in a crash. Finally he ends his career to be his son’s ride home from school. The song in the background, “Cat’s Cradle” by Harry Chapin, laments the pressures of work that keep dads and sons apart.

In Toyota’s “Bold Dad,” a reflection on dadhood plays over scenes of a father taking everyday heroic measures for his daughter: bee-proofing a treehouse, taking on a bully, volunteering to dance and more. Inspired by his values, the grown daughter hugs him goodbye before stepping out of their car to depart for the military.

Why, then, did such positive, compassionate ads make me uncomfortable? No doubt, they mark a step forward for society and how we view roles of parenting. The real reason was personal: I simply didn’t like these new commercials. When I had been shown only the incompetent daddy culture, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything.

The strongest woman I know is my mother, a single parent by choice. Growing up, I couldn’t have had a better model of courage, love and determination. I am so, so proud of my family; however, I’m not ashamed to wonder what might have been. At times, this consideration can cause pain. Super Bowl ads are designed to have mass appeal, and when the national consensus appears to be that fathers play significant, special parts in our lives, those with different types of families can feel excluded from something wonderful.

Later that night, after the game had ended, I found online an ad that had aired before the game, one I hadn’t seen. Part of Toyota’s “The Bold New Camry” campaign, the three-minute long “To Be a Dad” publicity featured former and current football stars describing their relationships with their fathers and with their own children. This video wasn’t a joyous montage packed with paternal moments; rather, real men described their real experiences with fatherhood. Listening to their words, I felt the exclusion prompted by the previous ads drain away.

Commercials with lovely, idealized images and messages can be extremely effective for their purpose: to sell you a product. And by convincing you of what exactly you should desire, they can create a new cultural standard. This Super Bowl’s “dadvertising” promoted the healthy, beneficial impacts of active fatherhood, a cause certainly to be embraced. A child can never have too much love or support. But must a certain allotment of care come from a father? Not necessarily, I can now say. Many important values can be imparted to us from male figures, whether biological fathers, male relatives, guardians, community members or more. Recent advertisements recognized paternal traits like bravery, compassion, and strength. Today I realize that I have never lacked for such examples in my life, despite dreaming of a different package for them.

For example, if cars are truly the crux of fatherly leadership and love, my relationship to transportation might be judged deficient. And indeed, when my mom was teaching me to drive, I expressed my hatred of the lessons with my friend, only to hear in response: “Do you have any masculine presence you could go with instead? I only drive with my dad.”

Having Don Draper in the front passenger seat wouldn’t have helped me any better. Besides my mom, I had logged practice hours with our next door neighbor, the auto mechanic; with my uncle, in his SUV loaded with electrical equipment; and with my grandfather, whose sedan had carried his own set of car seats until his grandchildren had outgrown them. Whenever I think back on my struggle through driver’s education—I was so bad at it that my grade in the school’s course was the worst I ever got—the care (and courage) demonstrated by everyone who volunteered to help me means so much more to me than their gender.

In “To Be a Dad,” the most straightforward of the dad ad trend, one player says about fatherhood: “It’s not biological. It’s about a choice that you make to love your children.” Or, depending on the child, a choice one makes simply to love.