Little girls only want Barbie dolls in pretty, pink dresses and little boys just want big, blue trucks — right? Well, that’s what many toy brands and stores would have you think, even in 2022.
But in a world where gender equality and expectations are evolving rapidly, why does the children’s toy market seem to be so far behind? Gendered toy marketing (GTM) is a real issue for brands all over the world, and its impact on children’s development has been widely documented.
According to Dr. Rebecca Whiting’s 2020 study, Gendered Marketing of Children's Toys and Clothing:
“The marketing of children's clothing and toys has become increasingly gendered as stereotyped gender roles and narratives are promoted by brands. ‘Boy toys’ encourage action, physicality and competition; ‘girl toys’ encourage socialising, domesticity and concern with appearance.”
These glaring differences have been a part of children’s toy marketing for decades — but as consumers’ expectations evolve, does it still have a place in 2022? And how are some brands pushing back against gender stereotypes in toy marketing?
This article will explore the issue at hand, as well as provide a few tips for brands that are looking to un-gender their own marketing.
What Is Gendered Toy Marketing?
Source: Daily Mail
Gendered toy marketing (GTM) is exactly what it sounds like — marketing certain toys to either boys or girls based on preset gender stereotypes. Aka pink kitchen sets for girls and red racing cars for boys. As Whiting explains:
“Gendered marketing of children's toys and clothes involves explicitly labelling items as intended for girls or boys. This is done either by implicit labelling through advertising, using models of one gender to promote the item, or by packaging - using gender-associated colours such as pink for girls – and physical segregation, organising retail layout by gender.”
Clearly, there are many ways that toy marketing can be gendered, with some practices being more apparent than others. But no matter how it’s done, it has a long-lasting impact on children.
How Does Gendered Toy Marketing Pose An Issue?
For decades, the limited and stereotypical toys marketed towards girls were found to have negative consequences. In fact, in a 2017 article for , journalist Natasha Daly explain that “the way girls play may affect how their brains develop”, further stating:
“Targeting toys by gender has consequences beyond socialization. A 2015 study found that boys are more likely to play with toys that develop spatial intelligence—K’nex, puzzles, Lego bricks—than girls are.”
And spatial skills are an incredibly important piece to future success — they’re “distinctions (that) may shape later life.”
According to Jamie Jirout, a Developmental Psychologist at the University of Virginia, “spatial skills are a piece of the explanation for the underrepresentation of women in science and tech” — something that’s become a more acknowledged issue over the past few years.
Daly expounds, stating:
“Informal activities like play are key to developing spatial skills, which, (Jirout) says, are ‘not only important for math and science but for what we call “executive function”—higher-level thinking.’ Being comfortable with certain types of toys may also shape kids’ confidence in a specific subject.”
Clearly, the types of toys that are marketed towards young girls have an impact on their lives on a grander scale than one might expect. Everything from confidence to high-level thinking to spatial intelligence — it all links back to play.
That’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with girls playing with dolls or pink ponies. But when those kinds are toys are the only ones on offer for young girls, it can have a negative effect on their development and later career opportunities.
However, more recent research suggests that girls are the only ones negatively impacted by gendered toy marketing — boys are suffering, too.
In 2021, Lego conducted a global survey that found that, overall, “attitudes to play and future careers remain unequal and restrictive.” By marketing differently for both genders, brands are having a real impact on childrens’ futures.
Based on Lego’s findings:
“while girls were becoming more confident and keen to engage in a wide range of activities, the same was not true of boys. Seventy-one per cent of boys surveyed feared they would be made fun of if they played with what they described as ‘girls’ toys’ – a fear shared by their parents.”
According to Madeline Di Nonno, the CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media:
“Parents are more worried that their sons will be teased than their daughters for playing with toys associated with the other gender (...) But it’s also that behaviours associated with men are valued more highly in society. (...) Until societies recognise that behaviours and activities typically associated with women are as valuable or important, parents and children will be tentative to embrace them.”
Di Nonno’s research also found that the activities children are encouraged to engage in are defined by gendered expectations — with boys encouraged to try sports and STEM activities, while girls are “offered dance and dressing up (girls were five times more likely to be encouraged in these activities than boys) or baking (three times more likely to be encouraged).”
Such gendered expectations pop up all over the world, but when it comes to children’s toys, many girls are now encouraged to play with “boy stuff”, while boys are still discouraged from playing with stereotypically “girl toys”.
What does this mean? While girls are now playing with Lego sets marketed for boys and, thus, developing better spatial skills or confidence — boys aren’t granted the same opportunity to play with dolls and develop nurturing skills, for example.
So, it begs the question: do toy brands have an ethical imperative to put children’s futures over easy profit and steer clear of gendered toy marketing? Many consumers would say yes — and some brands have already begun to do so with the introduction of gender-neutral toy marketing.
Two Big-Name Brands That Are Pushing Back
Gendered toy marketing has been a staple of the industry for decades. Though the practice waned in the 70s, it came back with a vengeance in the 80s and stuck around.
But in 2022, some brands have said “enough is enough” and decided to remove gendered toy marketing from their strategies. Instead, choosing to encourage all children to play with the toys that interest them.
Let’s take a look at two such brands taking a gender-nonconforming approach and discuss what others can learn from their success.
Source: The Guardian
In 2021, Lego announced that it would begin removing gender stereotypes from its toys going forward. According to Lego’s Chief Product and Marketing Officer, Julia Goldin, the brand is “working hard to make Lego more inclusive”.
The new “Lego mandate” is to “promote nurturing and caring as well as spatial awareness, creative reasoning and problem solving” for all children. Plus, the toy brand is no longer labeling any of its products “for girls” or “for boys”, and consumers can’t search for products by gender on Lego’s website. Instead, users can peruse “passion points” to find the toys they’re looking for.
Finally, Lego has also announced that it will be testing all its products on boys and girls from now on — as well as working hard to spotlight more female role models. At the 2021 Lego Con, the brand “showcased female designers talking about the work they did” in an effort to make good on their promises.
Going forward, Lego has a clear goal: “to encourage boys and girls who want to play with sets that may have traditionally been seen as ‘not for them’”.
And these changes — as well as other improvements in the area of sustainability — seem to be having a positive impact. According to Nasdaq, Lego’s “revenues in the first half of 2021 rose 43% year on year to $3.6 billion. Profit rose 140% to $1.75 billion. Both are records.”
The Takeaway: It’s (almost) never too late to make important changes to your business model. Lego may not be a pioneer in the movement to un-gender toy marketing, but better late than never, right?
Instead of sticking to its traditional approach, the brand looked to expert research and consumer opinion to inform its marketing strategy going forward — and will reap the rewards in 2022 and beyond.
Most popular for being the creator of the Barbie, Mattel’s products reinforced gender identity, as well as gendered roles and stereotypes, for decades. However, in the last 10 years or so, the brand has been making real efforts to move away from gendered toy marketing.
In 2019, Mattel released a line of gender-neutral dolls called Creatable World, where children can choose from a wide range of wardrobe accessories and interchangeable hairstyles. This allows children to design dolls with their own preferences — long or short hair, skirt or pants, it’s up to them.
By placing children’s creativity front and center and allowing them to express themselves in such a unique way, Mattel is making huge strides in eliminating gendered toy marketing in a notoriously gendered and traditional market.
In an interview with Forbes, Kim Culmore — Senior Vice President and Global Head of Design for Barbie at Mattel — provided an explanation of why Mattel chose to make the Creatable World line: observational insights and cultural shifts.
“We absolutely see it in culture. We receive lots of trend data and interview data around how this generation of kids are perceiving themselves and the world, and there is no doubt that there is a difference between how children are viewing gender and how older adults are. There is definitely a shift.
“This product in particular started from the insight around ‘no labels and no rules.’ And so then we thought where do we go with that? And we've taken some of the research and data that you're talking about. We build prototypes, we do observational play and this is how we got to Creatable World - where ‘all are welcome.’”
By exploring non-gendered play and allowing children to be themselves, Mattel is staying true to its purpose: “exploring the wonder of childhood and empowering kids to reach their full potential.”
The Takeaway: Mattel didn’t choose to ditch gendered toy marketing on a whim — it was based on detailed research and in-depth consumer insights.
Want to know if your target audiences are also sick of gendered marketing? Well, you’ll need data. That’s where brand monitoring software comes in, as it allows you to gather nuanced, reliable consumer data on the issues that matter most.
With the insights brand tracking software provides, you’ll make smarter, more informed changes to your marketing strategy.
At the end of the day, there’s nothing inherently wrong with little girls liking sparkly ponies and little boys loving train sets. The problem stems from children being offered a dearth of choices and, in many ways, having their futures heavily influenced by something as basic as gendered marketing in toy ads.
In 2022, brands would be smart to listen to consumer opinions and make the changes necessary to reduce gendered marketing going forward. After all, making choices informed by consumer preference is always a good idea.