Last Sunday brought the first significant snow of the year to our town. This wasn’t just any snow, mind you. We’re talking about the perfect snow–32 degrees, large flakes, wet, packy snow. This is the snow that exists almost exclusively in the dreams of a child. For most grown men, such snow presents to the mind the dreary hour or more to be given to the task of shoveling and salting (not to mention the back ache that might follow). In all honesty, the beauty of the snow and the potential it presented for playing with my five children completely blinded me to the impending need for removing it from around the car and the driveway, walkway, and sidewalk. The snow fell like flakes of fun from the sky, piling up the possibilities for smiles, laughs, and wrestling.
With mass celebrated, Sunday school taught, lunch eaten, an agonizingly long rest-time taken, the children’s zeal for fun exploded onto the front yard in a flurry of poofy snow-pants, silly hats, mismatched gloves, and boots on the wrong feet. After figuring out wardrobes, the fun could begin in earnest. There were no questions asked, a snowfort must be constructed, to be followed by an all-out snow-pocalyptic war against Papa. With walls nearly as tall as my 8-year old child, the snowfort was a feat to behold, the eighth wonder of the next Ice Age. As you might predict, the sheer joy that followed in the pummeling, planning, running, tackling, laughing, freezing, and finally warming up inside was not only the stuff of a child’s, but a father’s dream as well. There was only one thing missing….
I didn’t have any Dove Soap or Lotion to put on after we came inside, nor did we all hop into a Nissan vehicle and drive home. (I guess that’s two things missing.)
Anyone who watched the Superbowl cannot but know what I am talking about, but for those of who didn’t watch, take two minutes and “google” the ads for Dove and Nissan that ran during the Superbowl. I’ll wait…
Glad you’re back, with the remains of the tear that likely swelled in your eye as you watched. My immediate reaction to these commercials was both joy and sorrow. Consider first the joy. These ads show a cultural awareness (whether explicit or implicit) of two things: (1) the absence of fathers and the crisis created thereby; and (2) the constancy of the true father, his presence and nurturing, guiding care at every moment is key to his identity and role. The Dove commercial shows the father’s caring presence in the whole stream of life’s events; whereas the Nissan ad shows the tension between the presence and absence of the typical father, and the corresponding love and resentment such habits form in a child. The soundtrack for the Nissan commercial (“Cat’s in the Cradle,” Harry Chapin) only added to the commercial’s effect (perhaps ironically). Both the song and the ad show the ambivalence of the father-son relationship, and the son’s tendency to re-enact the moral script his father’s own life provides.
Now to the sorrow. In watching these ads, I can’t help but feel as though I’ve witnessed a kind of profanation, or a banalization of something sacred. The Dove ad attempts to link its soap and lotion to the most sacred duties, rites, moments, values of the vocation to fatherhood. The ad, in fact, is not selling soap, but the idea (or rather the feeling) of fatherhood. It commodifies “care” or “strength,” and fatherhood itself. The ad is, therefore, a most brilliant piece of marketing. Why? Because it doesn’t bother to generate some artificial desire, rather it taps into one of the deepest desires inhering in each man: to imitate the caring, unreserved, unconditional presence of the Father Himself. Furthermore, it ties the fulfillment of this desire silently, subtly (as far as ads go) to the brand. The idea is to find my mind and soul branded just as each of the product bears the company’s “brand.” Whenever I see “Dove,” I’ll remember the beauty of fatherhood; or whenever I consider the joy of fatherhood, I’ll recall how “Dove” had captured it so well. They don’t need to tell me anything about the product, because it’s not what they’re selling. If I’m an American consumer, I’m going to buy soap. The question isn’t which soap works better, but which soap do I associate with my most fundamental hopes, dreams, values, and desires. Which brand of soap “embodies” for me those fundamental truths I hold dear? How could I buy anything other than “Dove” now?
The Nissan commercial does much the same thing. The ad makes no explicit claim as to the benefits of the vehicle. It doesn’t tell me anything. The ad embeds the information about the product into the narrative of the tension between husband-wife and father-son. The ad centers around the near-death of the father in a race-car crash. Thankfully, his car was a Nissan. He was able to walk away, and make a return to his anxious wife, and aloof-yet-anxious son. The ad sells safety not cars. The ad ties safety, moreover, to the guilt fathers have at their need to be “away” at work. Not only does Nissan sell safety, but also the feeling that I can always make things right with my son.
You might be saying I’m a bit harsh. It seems an ad agency can’t win with me. I mean, c’mon! These ads are trying to promote fatherhood and I’m raking them over the coals! Here’s the problem. Fatherhood is a sacred role and duty, a sacred practice. Being a father is not coterminous with buying the right product. To associate what is good and beautiful in fatherhood with a brand borders disingenuous and manipulative. What is it about Dove that is more closely tied to being a good father than any other kind soap? Indeed, Unilever (the megacorporation that owns Dove) also owns Lever 2000, Suave, Axe, and other health-and-beauty brands. Each of these brands is marketed as a different values scheme. It is principally that values scheme that I associate myself with when I buy the brand. The constancy, care, and presence essential to fatherhood cannot be purchased. They are the fruit of devotion and love. Safety and an eased conscience, moreover, cannot be purchased. Safety is an ever-elusive idol, only and ultimately found in the One who saves. An eased conscience is only available through an encounter with the one we’ve hurt, whether or not we go to pick him up in a Nissan vehicle. Advertisements that promote good practices, habits, and values are perhaps the best kind, but they nonetheless run the risk of leading us toward the error of thinking that our chief moral act is buying well rather than being good. Don’t buy fatherhood, be a father.
“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom all Fatherhood and all family on heaven and earth are named, that he might grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit” (Eph 3:14-16.