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Gender-Based Marketing of Toys and its Effect on Children

While Christmas shopping for your little ones this holiday season, you may be too frazzled to notice a trend as you peruse the toy section – but it won’t escape your children’s impressionable minds. Gender-based marketing. Surrounded by every shade of pink in existence and far too much glitter, the ‘girls’ section is chalk-full of tutus, princesses, play kitchens and baby dolls. Meanwhile, the superhero-smothered ‘boys’ aisles will deliver tough-guy action figures, toolboxes, and Tonka trucks.

While it is true that the shelves are not labeled as ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ toys, every toy in the girls’ aisle has a girl on the box or in the ad to sell the toy, and every toy in the boys’ aisle has the same, respectively. With such clear direction to select a toy that matches a child’s gender, is it any wonder your children are persuaded to follow suit?

Toy companies have always adjusted their marketing and advertising strategies based on their consumers to some extent, however in recent years, certain gender stereotypes have quietly re-emerged in a most unlikely place – the toy market.

A History of Gender-based Marketing

In a sociological study conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Sweet, it was determined that gender-targeted marketing in the toy departments is so segregated that it’s nearly impossible to find a toy that is not marketed toward a girl or a boy based on the colour of the box or the picture of the child playing with the toy. It doesn’t stop there, however – the toys marketed push an outdated gender stereotype that adults have long since attempted put to pasture; that women are naturally nurturing and domestic, while men are strong, heroic, hard workers.

“There are pink aisles, where toys revolve around beauty and domesticity, and blue aisles filled with toys related to building, action, and aggression.” – Dr. Elizabeth Sweet, Guys and Dolls No More? NY Times

Sweet’s study of the Sears catalog uncovered a significant difference in the marketing of toys for girls and boys, however, it wasn’t always so streamlined:

“In the 1970s, toy ads often defied gender stereotypes by showing girls building and playing airplane captain, and boys cooking in the kitchen,” Sweets says.

After the mid-90s, Sweet noted a significant increase in gender-based marketing. It seems that while women were making significant strides towards gender equality, the toy market was working in the opposite direction progressively, and was actually profiting from the most impressionable and delicate minds it could – children.

The Effects of Gender-based Marketing on Children

A study conducted by The Young Woman’s Trust in 2015 found that one in three women between the ages of 18 and 30 thought men were better suited for some technical careers, such as Information Technology, while only 10 percent of older women felt the same. Unsurprisingly, a whopping third of the younger women interviewed felt that women were better suited to a nursing profession than men, while older women felt that only 13% of women were better suited than men.

Staggering statistics, however, are these numbers the result of gender-based marketing towards young children, or are they simply innate?

“Teaching children early that there are boys’ things and girls’ things has long-lasting effects… younger women have more stereotyped ideas about jobs such as being housewives than older women – this means the stereotypes we learn in childhood take a long time to shake off.”

– Jess Day, ‘Let Toys be Toys’ campaigner

Let Toys Be Toys

A few years ago, a study-turned-movement, appropriately named ‘Let toys be toys,’ uncovered some progress; in 2016, catalogues showed an increase in girls playing with cars and boys playing with baby dolls after some stores removed their gender-based marketing strategies. It would be prudent, therefore, for advertisers and toy manufacturers to note that “If only girls or only boys are shown in a particular section, children will draw their own conclusions,” Day says. Advertising outside of these confines may prove to be financially beneficial.

The trouble is, catalogues have had great success with gender-based marketing in the past. The reason for this is simply that parents purchase the gifts their children ask for, however, these decisions are generally based on the advertisements viewed by the children themselves.

In 2015, Target announced that it planned to rid itself of gender-based labeling in their children’s bedding and toy departments, and even phased out coloured shelving pink for girls, blue for boys. Children are impressionable, and if a toy manufacturer instructs a child in some way that a certain toy is for a specific gender, it doesn’t take much for the child to make that decision themselves. Whether these toy-preferences in children are innate or learned remains to be scientifically proven, but the power still lies within the consumer: the parents.

While a change may be on the horizon, gender stereotypes can be combated with time – and resilience.

About Lauren Hall

Lauren is a Canadian Writer and Blogger, based in Calgary. In addition to her freelance work, she is an Human Resources professional by trade. Lauren is always hungry for information, and has developed many hobbies in her pursuit for knowledge: she is an amateur archer, avid goldfish enthusiast, zombie aficionado, proud dog owner, and a casual gamer.

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