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A father gazes tenderly at his grown daughter. He marvels as she tidies her child’s toys, cooks for her family, does the laundry and juggles a call from work and a project on her laptop, all while her husband sits on the couch watching television.

“I’m so proud, and I’m so sorry,” he writes in a letter to her. He confesses his regret that he never set an example of a household in which a husband shares the burden of childcare and housework. While women have moved ahead in the work force, chores are still one area where equality is lagging. This video, from ad agency BBDO India, tackles the subject in a campaign for Procter & Gamble Co.’s Ariel laundry detergent, suggesting that men “share the load.”

The campaign received a boost this week after Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg posted it on the social network, where it attracted more than three million views in less than a day, and was shared more than 80,000 times.

It also points to a larger shift that is slowly taking hold in advertising: depicting men more frequently as considerate husbands, caring fathers and active members of their households.

There is good reason for this: When Unilever PLC conducted a survey of roughly 3,700 men in five countries in December, 2014, only 7 per cent said they could relate to media depictions of masculinity. And 86 per cent said they believe that the meaning of masculinity has changed since their fathers’ generation.

The research has informed the marketing strategy for Unilever’s Dove Men+Care brand, which recently launched an advertising campaign celebrating men’s everyday acts of kindness. The slogan for the ads: “The strongest men are those who care.”

“We could see in the market that there needed to be a change,” said Diane Laberge, marketing director for skin care products at Unilever Canada. “… This is just the beginning of the journey we’re embarking on as an organization.”

The same research also contributed to a change in Unilever’s Axe brand of men’s grooming products, which are targeted at younger men. Axe (and Lynx, as it is known in some countries) has done its fair share to contribute to a laddish ad culture that reduces women to nothing more than potential sexual conquests – and takes a reductionist view of its male customers as a result.

However, its newest campaign has taken a major turn, mocking ads that portray models with ripped muscles as the only attractive male form. The men in the ad are praised for their individuality: a chalk-flipping math whiz; a skinny guy with a prominent nose, who appears self-assured as he cracks up his female companion (who, it should be noted, is sitting in the driver’s seat of the car); a guy in a wheelchair grooving with his date to the dance; two male music fans who swoon over each other in a record shop; a fierce vogue master, dancing in heels.

The trend applies to high fashion too, where designers are blurring the gender binary: Recently for example, actor Jaden Smith posted a photo shoot he did for Louis Vuitton, wearing clothing from the women’s line.

“This new definition of masculinity comes in many different ways,” said Jessica Grigoriou, marketing director for hair care and deodorants at Unilever Canada. “Men are free to dress how they want, love who they want, be who they want. ... We want to be as inclusive as possible.”

For a brand geared especially at younger men, to make this change is significant. A study conducted in 2013 found that macho advertising was targeted more often to younger, less educated and less affluent men.

“Hyper-masculinity, we believe, is a substitute for real social, economic and political power,” said Bruce Tefft, an author on that study and professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba. He has also noticed a shift more recently. “I hasten to add that change comes slowly – you can certainly find products and services being advertised in the more stereotypical masculine way. … But they’re reflecting a change in society, a broadening of gender roles.”

Marketers are chasing changes in buying habits, too: From 2007 to 2012, product launches targeted to men in the beauty and personal care segment rose 70 per cent, according to research firm Mintel. And they are making purchasing decisions on behalf of their households: In a 2014 survey conducted by Microsoft Advertising Canada and Omnicom Group Inc., approximately three-quarters of men said they buy personal-care products, and do at least some of the grocery shopping.

A recent campaign for P&G’s Tide brand featured NFL players doing their own laundry, to show how “powerful” the Tide Pods product is. In general, Tide has been moving away from scenes of moms alone in the laundry room, showing dads taking responsibility for chores as well.

Ads such as this don’t just appeal to men who are taking on more chores around the home; they may also win over women, who want that kind of balance in their own lives.

Another laundry brand in the U.S., Persil ProClean, created a character for its ads called “The Professional,” a James Bond type who tackles laundry emergencies with panache. The character is manly enough to pass muster with male viewers, but is also clearly designed to appeal to women who wouldn’t mind having a Professional on call themselves.

“We have passed the point in society where a man looks henpecked if he’s participating in household activities,” said Eileen Fischer, a consumer researcher and marketing professor at the Schulich School of Business. “The days of that arch, wink-wink, ‘All you care about is having sex with young babes,’ advertising, that is passé. … For sure, there is still some of that. But the notion that it will be interpreted in an unambiguously positive way by their target audience is much less assured.”

Advertisers are hardly altruistic: The ultimate goal of these messages is to sell stuff. But regardless of the motives, a change in ads’ gender portrayals has important consequences.

“Anything in the media is both cause and effect,” Prof. Tefft said. “Advertisers spend a lot of energy and money paying attention to changes in the market. But by their messages, they also contribute to changing the market themselves.”

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