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Toying with Gender Marketing

Not all girls like to play with dolls. What's a race car girl to do when her favorite toys are marketed towards boys?

| Fran Silverman

When my daughter was little, she loved to play with racecars. She’d line them up in parking spots along the kitchen floor, race them around the house, and spend hours at the store picking just the right model to add to her collection.

Yet every year on her birthday, she’d have to endure getting several different versions of Barbie dolls from friends or family members who seemed to always forget THAT SHE LIKED RACECARS.

Don’t be mistaken – she liked playing with Barbies and dollhouses, and hated to change out of her Disney pajamas that featured the three princesses – Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. But the issue was that society always seemed to be making the decision for her about what toys she should like best – society and marketers, that is. We still talk about the time when she dragged me into a fast food restaurant because they were giving away racecars in their children’s meal, only to be told by the cashier that girls don’t get the racecars, only boys do. We argued. We stared the cashier down. Still, she wouldn’t hand my daughter the racecar. Finally I went back to the counter with my son who asked for the same meal and got the racecar, which he then quickly gave to this sister.

Thus, it was with much delight that I read that Hasbro had complied with a request from a 13-year-old New Jersey girl who started a petition on The online petition site, Change.org, is a for-profit, B corporation that makes money by running campaigns for organizations that are willing to pay for access to Change.org’s users’ personal information, which includes their name, e-mail address, and mailing address. According to its privacy policy, “[i]f you sign a petition … even if you uncheck the box “Display my signature publicly”, your Personal Information may be delivered to the intended recipient of such campaign and/or the creator of such campaign either electronically or in writing ….” It is estimated that Change.org will have revenues of $15 million in 2012. to make a gender-neutral Easy Bake Oven and to put boys in the advertisements so the oven would also appeal to her little brother. Hasbro – pointing out that it has made the oven in many colors, including silver, since it first introduced the toy in 1963 – said it would soon reveal a black, silver, and blue oven. Still, when you Google “Easy Bake Oven,” Hasbro’s website pops up introducing the toy as a “Cooking & Baking Game for Girls.” Hum… They may want to change that wording to go with the new gender-neutral black and silver oven.

In 2011, Lego took a lot of heat when it introduced its new “Friends” collection aimed at girls that featured a line of pastel colored blocks with more curvy girl figures. Maybe Lego didn’t get the memo about the gender-neutral trend. Pastel is out. Black, silver, brown…in.

Other toy marketers are also making an effort to rethink gender marketing. Last year, TOP-TOY, a Swedish toy maker, distributed a holiday catalogue that pictured girls shooting Nerf guns and boys playing with dollhouses. In London, Hamleys, a 200-year-old toy store, dismantled its pink “girls” section and blue “boys” section for a red and white décor to promote more gender-neutral shopping.

Up until the 1950s, toys were marketed mostly in a gender-neutral fashion, according to research published in The New York Times. That changed when toy makers realized that segmenting the market allowed them to sell more versions of the same toy. And as manufacturers will point out, studies show that girls and boys play differently and with different toys.

But research also shows that what toys children play with is also wrapped up in the nature vs. nurture issue. In other words, girls may be attracted to baby dolls because it’s in their nature, or because they are molded by society to take care of children. Or both. And society can change that somewhat if girls and boys are steered toward other less traditional roles. Sigh… It’s all getting overly complicated.

For me, the efforts to market toys in a gender-neutral manner falls into the It’s -About -Time category. I just want my kids to decide what toys they want to play with, and not cast them aside because marketers decided to color them pink or segregate them in the “boys” aisle because companies can earn more revenue by segmenting the market.

Fran Silverman

Fran Silverman, former editor of TINA.org, believes in the watchdog role of journalists who can empower and inform consumers through news and education.


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