New fathers may be the next major target for advertisers, and the recent launch of Dad and FQ provides ample evidence for this. Matthew Cowen investigates what is a burgeoning sector.

Back in the late 80s, when Ben Elton was still pretending to be a cutting-edge comedian, he starred in a particularly mean-spirited sketch aimed at a new phenomenon - the smug, show-off dad. What particularly riled Elton was the appearance of yellow warning signs in cars' rear-view mirrors that proclaimed "baby on board". To angry young Ben, this was a blatant attempt to advertise said smug dad's virility. His response was to wait until the offender got out of the car, run him over and yell: "Sorry mate, I thought you were only worried about your kid!"

Which makes it all the more ironic that today, when there are thousands more smug dads wandering the streets, Elton would most likely be flogging them tickets to some family oriented musical. He wouldn't be alone, mind you. Everyone else seems to be queuing up to sell to them too.

For something that has been around as long as our species, fatherhood's apparent arrival as a big business opportunity has come very late in the day - but it's been coming for a while.

David Fletcher, the head of research at Mediaedge:cia, attributes it to a shift back to what he terms "substance". He says: "Men now say 'there's more to me than going out drinking eight pints of Stella, than an adrenalin rush in a fast car or my next promotion. There's more meaning in my life.'"

This emotion crept into consumer consciousness with the arrival of the "new man", the hunk who knew how to cradle a baby in his arms or gaze sensitively at his sleeping son in the rear-view mirror. He was there, communicating tough but tender male values for Gillette, Calvin Klein, Audi and Peugeot, but rarely for products aimed at fathers per se. Thus far, fatherhood has been a symbol rather than a market for advertisers.

That, though, is beginning to change. Dad is no longer a supporting character in the commercial environment - look at Lowe's Vauxhall Zafira ad, which uses the Bony M soundtrack Daddy Cool. With an estimated 250,000 new fathers a year, he is becoming the next big target.

You could almost say, and some irritable columnists already have, that this is official government policy. New legislation guaranteeing the right of fathers to two weeks' paid paternity leave, together with an outreach programme encouraging dads to face up to their parental responsibilities and Tony Blair's own high-profile experiences as a father, have raised expectations of a man's role in childcare. And, while the Government has been pouring expenditure in his direction, advertisers and the media are beginning to do so as well.

And, arguably, there's good reason for paying attention. The growing national focus on fatherhood represents a significant opportunity to extend the time when the media can reach youngish men in simple, model-driven ways. The emergence of Loaded-style laddism over the past decade gave magazine publishers and their advertisers a lucrative window in men's lives, when a simply defined yet surprisingly wide-ranging group of men could be easily reached and persuaded to spend money - not only on fleshy glossies but also on the vast range of clothes, cars and gadgets appearing in them. The problem is that, about the same time as they become fathers, these males drop off the magazine radar and become frustratingly difficult to strike such simple chords with. Post-lads' magazines, such as Jack, have so far failed to locate them. New Daddism, redefining them as fathers, feels like the latest attempt to re-establish contact.

At first glance, Dad, a bi-annual, government-backed glossy that is delivered to new fathers at the initial ante-natal scan, seems the epitome of this emerging trend. Indeed, the magazine's editorial director, the former Esquire editor Peter Howarth, was recently asked (by Womenswear Daily in New York) if this could turn out to be the first post-lads' magazine.

It's a good question and you can bet the IPCs and Emaps of this world, eager for a successor to Loaded and FHM, will be very interested in the answer.

Before everyone gets carried away, though, it's worth remembering a few facts about Dad. This is first and foremost a contract publishing title - a functional magazine with a captive audience, guaranteed distribution and a genuine, very specific need to address. "This isn't for dads as a whole," Howarth says. "It's for people who haven't had children yet and have still got six months to go before the birth. When you're there, you don't know any of it. If you read a piece about sleep deprivation then it's new and very useful information. If an article about post-natal depression equips you to spot the signs then it can really make a difference to someone's life."

Howarth himself is sceptical about Dad pointing the way to a new boom in men's lifestyle mags. "This isn't the saviour," he says. "Dad is no different from a wedding magazine. You'll get it once or twice in your life when you need it. You'll never read it again - why should you?"

Does this mean that publishers and advertisers have been getting all excited over nothing? Not at all. Wedding magazines enjoy steady circulations and there's as healthy a supply of expectant fathers as there is of expectant fiances. Wedding magazines also carry an impressive amount of advertising and so does Dad. Enough to inspire a second title targeting new fathers called FQ, being launched by 3D Media.

"There's been a cultural shift and it involves men resisting the ageing process," Howarth continues. "Their perspective shifts with being a father but they're still interested in all the things they were interested in at 18. My dad had stopped doing those things by the time he was 30, but that's not true of our generation."

To all those searching for ageing Loaded readers, comments like that offer real hope. If Howarth's right, it could mean that this generation of fathers will remain responsive marketing targets with similar consumer energies to those that drove them in their 20s. However, there's a big difference between knowing a target is there and hitting it.

Dad sometimes feels as if it's being pulled in two separate directions.

The magazine's strategy is to use celebrities (such as Pierce Brosnan, David Beckham and Tony Parsons) to inspire young fathers to embrace the new stage of their life. Howarth talks about how this can resonate with all types of fathers, including those on low incomes who would never dream of the lifestyle enjoyed by such role models. He may well be right. But there are also elements of Dad that embrace the obvious aspirational elements of this formula. Spreads feature consumer products that are undeniably at the luxury-end of the market: £429 aluminium baby buggies and leather Bill Amberg baby slings for £285 ("Simply the baby accessory to be seen with," according to the magazine).

This is the aspect of New Daddism greedily eyed by advertisers - the confidence that the national conversation on fatherhood will provide a new trigger to opening men's wallets. It's not just enough to have a jumpsuit or a baby carrier - it's got to be the right brand. This in itself is nothing new. The expansion of trendy baby gear in recent years hasn't been down to men. Selling designer clobber to fathers, though, raises the stakes considerably. Generally speaking, fathers still have higher incomes and more guilt about not spending enough time at home. But they've also still got those laddish big-dog-gets-the-girl spending habits buried just under the surface and now they've got something else to prove.

Trendy children's stores such as Daisy and Tom on London's King's Road or Bill Amberg's expensive leather baby range attract affluent fathers.

The retail trimmings, such as hip background music, suggest this is a high-end shopping trip much like any other a man might make. The potential is obvious, so where could this new consumer trend go wrong?

Well, several places. The first is in the style of advertising that is usually applied to men and the difficulties of applying this to children's products. Put simply, male-oriented advertising usually has to look sexy.

In a society that already tends to be suspicious of the relationship between men and children, the potential problem is obvious. It's the tip of a sensitive iceberg and while it's something advertisers can work around, they need to acknowledge it first.

A more fundamental problem with this new marketing opportunity is just how narrow it could turn out to be. First of all, it's restricted by most men's continued reticence about discussing their children or presenting themselves to the world as fathers first and foremost. Just because Blair does it doesn't mean the rest of us are going to start.

"You don't walk around thinking of yourself as a dad all the time, do you?" Neil Dawson, the executive planning director at TBWA/London, who became a father himself this year, asks. "Being a dad is something that's a part of you, that changes you in many ways, but it doesn't take away your identity - it's not a lifestyle interest that defines you. Men can rapidly tire of fatherhood if it is over-packaged in the media and there is a danger of it being over-packaged at the moment. A lot of the stuff that comes out is quite patronising."

And it's an expensive way to be patronised. Given that many new fathers up and down the country are busy worrying about the cost of nappies and just how they're going to afford a night out in the next few years, the market for Bill Amberg products might not turn out to be that wide after all.

The biggest restriction on New Daddism, though, stems from the nature of fatherhood itself - and its natural effect on consumer behaviour. Fatherhood doesn't just coincide with the death of a testosterone-fuelled search for status - it causes it. It confronts men, for the first time in their adult lives, with the concept of unconditional love, a shock to the system that plays havoc with aspirational spending patterns. It's the point in life at which competitive young men start to realise that their honest best (no matter how clumsy or embarrassing that might be) is usually good enough for the people in their life that matter most to them. To turn fathers back into the hungry, got-to-prove-it consumers who thought breasts were something you impressed by drinking the right lager might ask too much.

Becoming a father is terrifying for many reasons, but having enough money is probably the biggest one. On seeing the expensive, high-end products in Dad, most new fathers will be filled with a sense of inadequacy.

But the time when young fathers are most likely to respond to such misguided pressure with spending is when their children are unborn or very young.

Their confidence in fatherhood grows along with the child. The trouble for advertisers, therefore, is that the vulnerable period doesn't last for long. New Daddism may extend the spending lifespan of new lads - but it doesn't extend it by much.