Disney to ditch dad stereotypes in movies & marketing as it urges other brands to follow suit

In Hill's words, dads are a "strong point of entry" for the brand

Disney has found a disconnect between the way dads see themselves and the way they are portrayed in media and advertising, issuing a call to other brands to ditch fatherly stereotypes as it realigns its own marketing to better unlock the demographic’s commercial potential.

While many family brands are focused on the purchasing power of mum, Disney has been working on a piece of deep qualitative research examining how changes to modern family life and social dynamics have affected dads across the EMEA region – the learnings of which will be applied to its advertising, and movies.

“We've got to a position where we have realised the role of dads is really important and probably something that we needed to do a deeper dive into,” Disney’s UK chief marketing officer Anna Hill told The Drum.

The study, which saw the brand engage in conversations with around 160 dads in the UK, Germany, Spain and Sweden, uncovered that the market is fatigued by worn-out tropes depicting fathers as hapless jokers who are overworked or absent. Instead, it found, dads are driven by four key aspirations: the desire to bond with, protect and equip their children, as well as entertain.

Regardless of age, nationality, geographical location, education levels or affluence, these four drivers were the constants that presented in all dads surveyed across the EMEA markets.

Hill said she believes this is a call to action for other advertisers to rethink they way they depict dads.

“I think lots of brands are starting to do it," she said. "There are some brands who still use the dad as the haphazard, court jester, but there are examples where dad is seen as the tender, loving, homemaker.”

Strong entry point

In Hill's words, dads are a "strong point of entry" for Disney. Many of the kids Disney spoke to as it built out the research said they had been introduced to franchises such as Star Wars or Marvel "through Dad".

The brand decided to carry out the research after being alerted to the trend via its audience trackers, which regularly monitor how kids and parents are connecting with Disney in about 10 of its 14 core markets.

Separate 2015 data from IPG Mediabrands' Initiative indicated that millennial dads in particular become more receptive to brands’ advances after becoming fathers. Almost half (45%) said brands play an important role in their life compared with 39% of non-dads and 38% of mums. So it’s little wonder then that Disney is keen to understand the demographic better.

One of the key learnings for the media giant was around bonding. It discovered that while bonds between mothers and children are more rooted in the latter's likes and dislikes, dads are consistently more likely to start from their passion points and build relationships with the family based on those.

Hill referred to this understanding around emotional connections between dads and their children as an "important pin point" in Disney's research, as it seeks to tell stories that represent its own understanding of dads in a modern family set up.

This is especially true when it comes to its DisneyLife streaming app, which landed in the UK and Ireland in 2015.

While not sharing specifics, Hill said: "What we're finding with [the app] is that it's an opportunity to provide the right content in the household and to bring co-viewing opportunities together.

"For the first time ever we've got data on who is using the service, and what we're looking to see is how we can bring these bonding moments together."

From Mr Incredible to Darth Vader

Disney also found that along with the four constant emotional drivers, major external factors were at play driving a change around what it means to be a dad.

These changes included a move towards co-parenting, gender equality and an increase in the age at which people decide to have children. All were in evidence across EMEA, though were moving at different paces by market.

For example, the socially progressive Sweden was at the vanguard, but post-recession Spain – where extended family is still a big part of day-to-day life – was a little behind.

For Disney, these learnings will be taken into consideration whenever it's making a new movie, advertising a resort and beyond. For Hill, it's clear the popularity of Disney's movies is a sturdy platform upon which it can speak to a new generation of dads via the rolemodels it depicts.

Pointing to the recently unveiled Incredibles 2 trailer, which depicts the father character Bob Parr as a modern day dad, Hill mused: “We’ve often looked at the mums and the female leads in our films. But actually when you look at characters like [the Lion King's] Mufasa, and Parr, and even Darth Vader, who has some very questionable parenting skills ... it shows the great influence that fathers have in our stories."

She added: "We shouldn’t just stereotype them, which I think as generation we probably have done. And we’ve gone through a big change in our generation: dads are becoming house husbands and the main caregivers. They are a source of protection, comfort, enthusiasm for their families. So I think it's important for us that we tell new stories."

Customer centricity

This research is all tied to Disney's recent commercial overhaul in which it promised to prioritise "audience centricity" by bringing its ESPN and Disney sales teams together under the umbrella of Disney Media Sales and Partnerships.

Disney's director of brand and consumer insight, Paul Woodhouse, told The Drum that in "this day and age of brand clutter," talking to audiences about their own lives was a "massively important" mission for the brand.

From Hill's perspective, the commitment to dropping stereotypes around dads also ties in with other work the brand has been doing around empowering young girls and encouraging children and their parents to lead healthier lifestyles through collaborations with the likes of the Football Association (FA).

The research and call to action from Disney is also timely, with the Advertising Standards Authority's fresh guidelines around gender stereotyping poised to come into play in early 2018.

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Rebecca Stewart

Rebecca Stewart is a reporter at The Drum. Based in London, she writes news, analysis and features around brand marketing and digital innovation. She has interviewed key figures from the likes of Airbnb, Amnesty International, Unilever, Facebook and Spotify, as well as covering international events like Ad Week Europe, Dmexco and Ciclope.

All by Rebecca