January 3, 2012 / Media - Marketing & Advertising, Opportunity, Youth

Is Gender Specific Marketing of Toys Paving the Way for Gender Inclusivity?


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

“ The companies that make  these try to trick the girls into buying the pink stuff, instead of what the boys want to buy, right?…So, why do all the girls have to buy princesses? Some girls like superheroes. Some girls like princesses!…Why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different color stuff?”  – Riley, a precocious, young girl, on the marketing of toys

Ah, the wisdom of a child! Seventeen billion dollars are spent annually on marketing to children, but it seems a young child even realizes that in spite of the massive amount of money being spent, marketing of toys seems to play into certain gender stereotypes regarding color and interests.  However, have shifts in the way toys are marketed in recent years indicate that incremental progress is being made in destroying stereotypes of toy preference, even if style and color stereotypes are still kept in place?

In 2007, Target stores launched a line of pink sporting goods, complete with pink baseball gloves, basketballs, and the like prompting a “mommy blogger” to write:

On first glance, it might be tempting to hate on this stuff as going with the stereotype. Why do girls get everything marketed to them as princess pink fairy lacy frou frou? But I look at this equipment, and I see a nice revolution. If a girl is in the oh-so-common pink phase, she might like having a ball that appeals to her color love, and therefore be more into trying a sport.

This is a valid point. Although there is still no overwhelmingly conclusive evidence for gender differences in color preferences, one small sample Chinese study published in Current Biology in 2007  indicated that both genders prefer blue hues, but females have a “preference for ‘reddish’ contrasts.” This preference may have born out of the natural history of women’s roles as “gathers” who would need to readily distinguish fruit and berries amongst green foliage. If sporting equipment is marketed as equally aesthetically pleasing to both girls and boys, could it help continue to increase girls’ interest in sports and help to dispel the misconception that sports are mainly for boys? Yes. While it may play into some stereotypes, it is a baby step in helping not only to change children’s perceptions, but also society’s perceptions as a whole.

Take as another example of a stereotypically primarily male interest—science. A science kit company has created a whole line of kits aimed at getting girls more interested in science or at least to get girls’ parents to purchase these products. These kits, though, range from an aroma art kit to a beauty spa kit.  This has prompted Scientific American’s Dr. Janet D. Stemwedel to write:

 For all I know, putting science kits in pink boxes is an excellent strategy to get them to fly off the shelves, but I am not convinced that it is a good strategy when it comes to getting girls interested in science. Indeed, I worry that whatever interest in science kits like these might cultivate might come with baggage that could actually make it harder for girls (and the women they become) to pursue scientific education and careers.

But, the packaging [of a spa science kit] here strikes me as selling the need for beauty product more emphatically than any underlying scientific explanations of how they work. Does a ten-year-old need an oatmeal mask? (If so, why only ten-year-old girls? Do not ten-year-old boys have pores and sebaceous glands?) Also, I’m nervous that the exploration of scents and “aromatherapy” may be setting kids up as easy marks for health food grocers and metaphysical bookstores who will sell them all manner of high-priced, over-hyped, essential-oil-containing stuff.

Maybe the Barbie-licious artwork is intended to convey that even very “girly” girls can find some element of science that is important to their concerns, but it seems also to convey that being overtly feminine is a concern that all girls have (or ought to have) — and, that such “girly” girls couldn’t possibly take an interest in science except as a way to cultivate their femininity.

While getting girls more interested in science is indeed a noble and important goal, isn’t it misplaced to attempt to make science appealing to girls by marketing it as a way to simultaneously “cultivate their femininity?” Does this, as Dr. Stemwedel suggests, seem to indicate the girls have “overtly feminine” interests? She would later note in her post that this company tries to make slime appealing to girls by marketing it as a “beautiful blob slime” kit—perhaps to decrease the “yuck” factor.  To be sure, marketing is not solely to blame for the misperceptions of female disinterest in science, nor are these types of kits without merit, as they would indeed be appealing to many young girls. The shortcomings lie in the lack of understanding that young girls may just be as interested or more so in an exploding volcano kit as they are in a perfume science kit.

In a later post, Dr. Stemwedel addresses this complex issue further. The false dichotomous choice between perceived femininity and interest in science need not be perpetuated, but nor should girls who wish to embrace both be discouraged:

To get to the point where a pink microscope does not act as yet another tool to police gendered expectation on girls (and boys) — and when women who reject pink microscopes are not used to police gendered expectations on scientists (as not girly) either — we need to figure out how to change the societal presumption that femininity and masculinity have anything at all to do with inclination towards, or ability in, science. We need to recognize opting into, or out of, femininity or masculinity as a completely separate issue from opting into, or out of, math and science. And, decisions with respect to math and science need to be seen as counting neither for nor against your opting into or out of a particular package of gendered characteristics.

After all, as far as I can tell, whether one is interested in math and science, or displays an ability for them, is an empirical question. Why not drop the gendered assumptions about who will be “naturally” suited to them and see what happens?

An opinion piece published in the New York Times last week hits as Dr. Stemwedel’s question about gender assumption, but applies it to toys specifically, by asserting that today’s executives often think in order for toys and other products for kids need to be “gender fair,” they have to be “gender specific.” The piece poses the question about a new marketing campaign from Lego about such gender specific marketing:

That free-to-be gesture was offset by Lego, whose Friends collection, aimed at girls, will hit stores this month with the goal of becoming a holiday must-have by the fall. Set in fictive Heartlake City (and supported by a $40 million marketing campaign), the line features new, pastel-colored, blocks that allow a budding Kardashian, among other things, to build herself a cafe or a beauty salon. Its tasty-sounding “ladyfig” characters are also taller and curvier than the typical Legoland denizen.

So who has it right? Should gender be systematically expunged from playthings? Or is Lego merely being realistic, earnestly meeting girls halfway in an attempt to stoke their interest in engineering?

The gender-fair versus gender-specific discussion is indeed an interesting and important one to have, and the very fact that there is such a discussion indicates that strides have been made in appealing to a girl’s athletic, scientific, or engineering sensibilities—sensibilities that had been seen as non-existent in girls for far too long. At the same time, it does pose the question of where gender and both participatory and intellectual sensibilities intersect.  For some girls, a pink basketball may indeed provide the impetus for athletic involvement. On the other hand, other girls may think that marketing pastel Lego kits discourages them from purchasing other Lego kits that may be targeted at boys, but that they themselves find more appealing. The fact that some companies and stores have chosen to broaden their marketing is indeed a good first start. Gender specificity is a good stepping stone to complete gender inclusivity where solely interest, not gender drives the marketing  of sporting equipment and toys for children.  Removing stereotypes and stigmas regarding gender, color preferences, and athletic and intellectual interests may take more time. Communicating to young girls (and marketers) that interest in athletics and science are not gender specific will hopefully fuel the cultural shift that will be needed to continue to overcome the stereotypes.