This is a new Tide detergent commercial showing how Tide undermines Dad’s attempt to control his daughter’s sexuality. Dad is a central character in the ad, and all the action revolves around him. But the ad is not targeted at fathers. Women still do most of the family shopping, so we should read the ad as addressing moms. The commercial’s imagery does not break any new ground. Dad, wearing flannel, fixes a rusty latch on a gate with an oil can. He needs to wipe the grime from his hands, and comes across his daughters skirt on the clothesline. Disapprovingly, he snatches it off the line, wipes his hands with it, and cavalierly tosses it into the hamper on his way back into the house. As Dad reads the paper, Daughter discovers the soiled skirt at the bottom of the hamper, and brings it to Mom. Mom is surprised at its filth, and turns knowingly in Dad’s direction. Tide to the rescue, and the skirt is saved. Cut to Dad’s shocked face as Daughter strolls past wearing the skirt he thought he ruined. She presents herself to Mom, who nods approvingly, then Daughter gives Dad’s hair a friendly tussle and she’s out the door.
Seems innocent enough, just the latest in a long history of commercials that get a laugh at the expense of old white Dad. In the commercial, Dad is coded as hard-working, traditional, old-fashioned kind of guy. He wears flannel and a white T-shirt, works with his hands, and has some grey at his temples. Daughter is a pretty standard innocent teenager , and Mom is the savvy problem-solving homemaker.
Tide believes this commercial will work by presenting us with a humorous story about old-fashioned Dad that the women watching will consider amusing, causing them to recall the brand fondly the next time they are at the store. But jokes are funny because they have an element of truth to them.
In the beginning of the commercial, Dad is fixing a gate. The act is symbolic. He is protecting his household and family. And he believes he is doing the same thing when he yanks the skirt off the clothesline and wipes the filth off his hands with it. He (believes) he is protecting his daughter from unknowingly sexualizing and objectifying herself by wearing such a revealing skirt.
He is doing the same thing in both instances–protecting. This act of protecting codes this character as a certain kind of Dad-the kind who sees his role as father to be to protect her sexuality from herself. His reaction at the end of the commercial is not one of anger or outrage at his daughter for wearing the skirt or the mother for allowing it, he expresses surprise and shock that his efforts were thwarted. That the skirt bypassed his gate.
The commercial is supposed to be amusing because it accurately portrays something we are not comfortable discussing without humor: the desire of fathers to protect their daughters sexuality. Their need to control it and control access to it. This is common in advertising. Here’s T-Mobile, on the latter:
In America, many dads see themselves as gatekeepers of their daughter’s sexuality. They protect it. And that’s how they see this aspect of her identity and personality, as an “it”. To them, it is valuable, it is precious, and if they (Dad in this commercial) don’t intervene, the dumb girl will give it away or diminish its value. As we’ve seen before, a young girl’s sexuality is a valuable asset to be protected lest she throw it away.. Dad is enforcing what he believes are society’s sexual mores. How many times have you heard fathers attempt to defend this behavior by explaining that they “know how guys think.” So for the commercial to work on moms, it means there are Dads out there in the real world who think the exact same way. Maybe it is their husbands. Maybe it was their father when they were growing up. But it’s common. By and large, American dads think it’s their job to set the rules and enforce them.
This isn’t some retrograde image of fatherhood from the 1950′s that these advertisers are dredging up for cheap laughs. This idea of fatherhood is alive and well in in the Millennials. Comments on the Tide video range from the conservatively predictable to the certifiably insane. The most popular comment at the time of this writing applauds Dad’s attempts “to stop his daughter from becoming a neighborhood door-knob [but] is foiled by mom, who seems to approve of her daughter dressing like a slut.” The second most popular defends the Dad who just “wants to keep his daughter from being an STD rattled slut.” Are you spotting a trend? In fact, the word “slut” appears 30 times in the 326 comments to that video. But cheer up, feminists, the word “whore” only appears 10 times. Progress!
Now, you can say that YouTube comments are the sewer of the internet–and you’d be right–but at times like these I like to think of them as the voice of America’s collective superego. The fact that the YouTube superego is a staunch advocate for Dad is not an accident. The commercial was written to play to this sensibility in most fathers and to it’s corollary in childless men–misogynistic judgment.
Notice the commercial has three principal characters: Dad, Daughter, Mom. Dad is the superego. He sets the rules and mans the family’s gates literally and figuratively. Daughter is the id; she is all drive, fun, and pleasure. The ad shows her having an innocent sexual drive represented as the desire to wear what we are supposed to think is a short skirt (based on Dad’s reaction) and giving Dad a playful pat on the head. The mom is the ego, mediating between the two and finding a way through.
The Freudian triumverate is a staple of American television commercials. Advertisers rely on it overtly to as seen in the Tide ad, but also implicitly as seen in the T-Mobile ad. They use the Freudian model because it works. And it works because it is an accurate model of the dynamic in huge percentage of families. In this particular instance, the Freudian model works because it effectively communicates a real anxiety in American fathers. Most American men have not been able to reconcile their objectification of women in culture, advertising, and everywhere else with the reality of their daughters becoming women. The objectification is so deeply programmed in American men that to engage a woman without it becomes a source of anxiety. These men attempt to resolve that anxiety through over-protectiveness and over-involvement in their daughter’s sexuality, and it comes off as comical to moms. (Moms have their own anxiety typically expressed passive aggressively, rather than authoritatively).
This is a generalization, of course, and not all Dads or families are like this. But enough of them are that one of the largest and most profitable consumer products companies is willing to bet one of their oldest and best-selling brands on it.
But not all advertisers approach the Dad-Daughter dynamic in such a Freudian and dysfunctional way. Consider this ad from Subaru: