Toy marketing mines the divide between boys and girls

Many parents at this time of year are struck by the strong distinction in the way toys for girls are marketed differently from toys for boys. Inside the toy store is the pink aisle, devoted to the “princess culture” that currently dominates toy marketing for girls and quite different from the blue, black and silver aisle devoted to toys marketed to boys.

The difference has become accentuated since the early 1980s, according to Rebecca Hains, an associate professor of communication at Salem State University who studies marketing to children.

“Children understand the difference between boys and girls – they identify as boys or as girls and they look to parents for cues into what girls should like and what boys should like, therefore, what makes them who they are,” she said in an interview with CBC’s The Current.

Marketers are “really feeding into this natural developmental stage” with their campaigns, particularly the Disney Princess arm of Disney Co. and children are drawn to the “rigid” roles they promote.

“If this is for a girl, I’d better buy x, y and z, or if this is for a boy, I’d better buy those toys,” Hains said.

This year a toy called GoldieBlox waded into the debate over “girl toys” and “boy toys.”

Designed by Stanford engineer Debbie Sterling, GoldieBlox are promoted with the tagline "toys for future engineers."

More specifically, its mission is to sell toys that promote construction and engineering to girls.

"Me and my little sister growing up, our parents never bought us Legos or Erector sets – we all thought that those were boys' toys. I thought, those toys have been marketed to boys for over 100 years and they get them interested in math and science, meanwhile all we get are the dolls and makeup kits and it’s not fair,” Sterling said in a TED talk earlier this year.

“So I thought, well I’m an engineer now, I have a degree, I can make anything I want now. I’m going to make an engineering toy for girls. And I’m going to give them a toy that I didn’t have so that they can discover a passion for engineering much earlier than I did.“

After a successful Kickstarter campaign, GoldieBlox rapidly attracted attention with an online commercial of little girls creating a kind of Rube Goldberg machine with toys that drew more than eight million YouTube views.

The toys are construction sets, creating spinning machines, a parade float and other objects out of parts that snap together. They landed a spot on Toys 'R' Us shelves and quickly became hot sellers.

But GoldieBlox has met skepticism, and not just because of its legal fight with The Beastie Boys for using the group's track, Girls.

“My first take on GoldieBlox is it’s an alternative to what’s in the toy aisle,” said Catherine Connors, editor-in-chief at the parenting blog,

“But at the end of the day it doesn’t live up to its marketing message. At the end of the day, it’s Tinker Toys for girls, it’s not actually a robust alternative to girl-focused toys out there, it’s actually another girl toy, with lots of lavender and purple and blues and pinks and girl images.”

Connors objects to the idea that there is something wrong with princess culture and with toys marketed specifically for girls, because all play is good for kids.

“The message being advanced in the marketing for GoldieBlox is that there is actually something wrong with girl toys or girl play,” she said.

“Critics are calling this a very cynical play on parents concerns about the ‘pink aisle’ in the toy store,” she added.

All of this debate does not mean that girls aren’t playing with Lego and boys aren’t picking up dolls and ponies, Connors said.

Connors points to the U.K. campaign “Let toys be toys,” which encourages retailers not to target toys at just boys or just girls, but to show both sexes at play.

Toys "R" Us announced in September that its U.K. stores will stop labelling toys "boys" and "girls" and it would eliminate in-store signage pointing to boy or girl toys.

Hains agrees that, with its pink and purple packaging, GoldieBlox has not really busted out of the pink aisle. But she said a new product doesn’t have much choice but to either spend a fortune on marketing or fit into the retailer’s perceptions of what will sell.

People in the industry believe that toys need to be pink and stereotypically girly to appeal to girls, she said.

“What are you going to do — you’re going to appeal to the widest audience possible which at this point is people looking for princess toys,” she added.

“However the 8.5 million views GoldieBlox received in a week on that ad shows there is a growing interest in alternatives.”

A print advertisement for Lego from the 1970s shows a girl in jeans and a t-shirt playing with Lego – as the gender roles in marketing had not hardened at that time.

Children of grade school age naturally segregate themselves into girl and boy groups, Hains said, but she worries toy marketing is not giving them permission to mingle at all,

“When segregating themselves in the same way the toy ads are segregated, it has consequences for how boys and girls will relate to each other in those early years, in order to later have a shared memory of a shared childhood as a happy time,” she said.