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Vic (Chris Rock), left and Craig (Tom Lennon) in WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING. (Melissa Moseley/Melissa Moseley)
Vic (Chris Rock), left and Craig (Tom Lennon) in WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING. (Melissa Moseley/Melissa Moseley)

Adhocracy

Papa's got a brand new brand Add to ...

It’s hard to think of a more female-oriented movie than What to Expect When You’re Expecting. But look at any billboard for the film across Canada, and you won’t see the expected – expectant – image of a glowing mom-to-be. What you will see is dudes.

Specifically, the Dudes – as the group of dads in the film is known. Alliance Films, the Canadian distributor, unveiled the billboards this week to promote the coming release, and made a conscious decision to make fathers the focus of its outdoor campaign.

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It’s an extension of the marketing approach taken by the studio, Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. , which created a separate trailer focused on the dads, complete with a dads’ group it launched on Facebook.

“In Canada, we really wanted to broaden this to use an outdoor piece to portray dads,” said Alliance Films’ senior vice-president of marketing, Frank Mendicino.

For a movie about pregnancy to make such a big effort to speak to fathers might make sense to men who have been through the process, but not so long ago, marketers might not have even thought about it.

After years of ads that either depict dads as bumbling morons or ignoring them altogether, recent campaigns indicate a shift is under way to speak to men as competent caregivers.

“It’s a ridiculously untapped opportunity,” said Rebecca Brown, founder of Toronto-based agency Rec Room, which consults with marketers about how to speak to families with kids. Her clients include Gap Inc. and the Toronto International Film Festival.

“The traditional slant of advertising and fatherhood is to portray how inept dads are. That doesn’t speak to dads. Savvy companies are figuring that out,” Ms. Brown said.

Well they should: there were 60,000 stay-at-home dads in Canada in 2011, accounting for one out of every eight stay-at-home parents. That number has tripled since the 1970s. Advertisers can’t afford to ignore them, or the large numbers of men who are taking a more active role in child care.

It has been a bumpy road for some companies trying to make the change. In March, Kimberly-Clark Corp. found itself in hot water when it created an ad for Huggies diapers that it thought would speak to men. Instead, both men and women decried the tone of the TV spot: It purported to prove the diapers “can handle anything,” including “the ultimate test – dads. Alone with their babies.” The original ad capped off with an exhortation to “grab a dad and see for yourself” how strong the diapers are.

More interesting than the controversy, however, was the company’s fast response: It flew representatives to the Dad 2.0 social-media conference in Texas, to speak to attendees about the blowback and ask for input. A month after the original advertisement aired, Huggies had rejigged it with new copy emphasizing that it had “asked real dads to put [the diapers]to the test.”

“They’ve convinced me, at least, that their brand people are aware, and trying to change,” said Chris Routly, a Canadian stay-at-home dad living in Pennsylvania, who started a petition against the ad on Change.org. It attracted 1,300 signatures, but after the company approached him to talk about his objections, he took it down. He was pleased to see the new version of the ad.

“There have always been dads taking on this [parenting]role, but with changes in the economy and changes in mom’s role, we’re seeing more of a split of tasks,” said Missy Maher with Edelman, the PR firm for Huggies. “In the end, Kimberly-Clark didn’t put their head in the sand. They embraced it and moved forward.”

The company has engaged a growing group – daddy bloggers – for their feedback about how Kimberly-Clark can better speak to them. While the rise of “mommy bloggers” has been well documented in the past several years, a sign of fathers’ growing involvement in child care is the increase in dad blogs, including Mr. Routly’s.

He and other bloggers were included in a roundtable discussion with Huggies last month to give feedback about coming ads. Ms. Maher said the brand is planning to more frequently test samples of new products with daddy bloggers the way most big companies do with their female counterparts.

There are other examples of companies trying harder to speak to dads. A recent ad for Clorox featured a stereotypical father making a huge mess (in this case by playing with water guns filled with juice). But new version of the ad emphasized organized fun, not the father’s idiocy. Instead of the typical scenario of an exasperated mom cleaning up after them, the dad was shown enthusiastically blasting out the laundry stains after the fun was finished.

One of the ads for Google Inc. recently chronicled a dad’s quest to write messages to his daughter throughout her life, complete with photos, videos and heartfelt thoughts.

Procter & Gamble Co. , which counts Pampers diapers among its many products, has launched an online men’s magazine aimed squarely at fathers, ManoftheHouse.com, which offers household and parenting tips, hosts dad blogs, and promotes “the real man revolution.”

The image is shifting in popular culture as well: the NBC network comedy Up All Night, airing on CTV in Canada, features a stay-at-home father who cares for his infant daughter and retains his masculinity.

Mr. Routly is encouraged by such examples, as he is by the trailer for What to Expect, even though it shows dads making mistakes with their children.

“A lot of the negative stuff is craziness that happens to kids, and parents who talk about it,” he said. “Moms do that too … that’s not the hallmark of a bumbling parent, it’s the hallmark of a real parent.”

For Lions Gate and its Canadian distributor, there is another angle: persuading men to accompany their wives and girlfriends to a chick flick. “It’s not just mothers who are raising children. There are dads out there who are very active,” said Joanna Miles, Alliance Films’ vice-president of marketing. “We think [the movie]speaks to men as well as women.”

Even as some advertisers shake the bad habit of portraying dads as fools, there is still plenty of progress to be made. Often, fathers are left out of the conversation altogether. Most of the time, the image of the caretaker, the parent, the household manager is still shown as one person: mom.

“Dads are really hungry to see their experience reflected in a voice that’s palatable for them,” Ms. Brown said. “That’s a huge opportunity for marketers.”

And for all the Huggies brand’s efforts to change its maligned dad-test campaign, the section on its Facebook page devoted to questions from parents about child care speaks loud and clear. It’s called “Mommy Answers.”

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