Now more than ever, kids represent an important audience to marketers. Forty years ago, children were not thought of as spenders or customers at all (McNeal 2020). While children’s products existed in small quantities, they were advertised to parents rather than the recipients. Today, children spend $4.2 billion a year of their own money on their own desires and influence the adult market through their parents (McNeal 2020).
As a result, industry spending on advertising to children has exploded over the past two decades. In 2009, companies in the United States alone spent over $17 billion marketing to children, more than doubling what was spent in 1992 (Strasburger et al. 2010). Children today are bombarded with advertisement messages in stores, at home, and in schools.
Many parents encourage their child to start thinking about purchases early, providing an allowance that the child can spend freely. However, when a child walks into a toy store, they learn more than healthy buying strategies. Every toy aisle is washed in either pink or blue, covered in Barbies or brawny action figures, displaying toys that are played with by either boys or girls. Due to gendered toy marketing, the toy industry has become a primary place where children are introduced to gender stereotypes.
Gendered toy marketing is a strategy developed by toy marketers to sell the same products multiple times to the same family (Zbooker 2018). If a family has both a boy and girl child, they will be encouraged to buy both the girl and boy versions. This strategy, however, relies on gender stereotypes in order to determine what will sell to a boy or girl.
“Girl’s toys” for earlier generations advertised that they would teach domestic values like sewing seen in the advertisement to the left (Sweet 2014). Advertisements like those on the right were targeted to boys and claimed to teach skills useful for labor, like engineering in this ad for an Erector set (Sweet 2014).
We find the same stereotypical values in today’s toy marketing. Just check out how toys are divided by pink and blue today!
Three Communications professors Pastor, Ojeda, and Martinez (2013) found that traditional gender roles dictated which toys were targeted towards each gender and which values were promoted in the ad. Advertisements for vehicles and action figures were targeted towards boys, while advertisements for dolls were directed at girls. Values associated with each gender can be seen below:
You may have noticed the slant in values portrayed for each gender. What’s more, these kinds of advertisements can be very successful.
Rather than being innately drawn to pink and sparkly princesses or blue monster trucks, girls and boys consume ideas about gender in advertisements and apply it to their own purchasing behavior. The gender roles that children see in toy advertisements help form their view on what is appropriate for them to play with (Pike and Jennings 2005).
Gendered toy marketing limits the toys that children are socially encouraged to play with, toys which are meant to help build skills for later life. Jenny Willott, while serving as Consumer Affairs Minister in the UK, summarized the limiting effect that gendered toy play has on children’s development and interests. She states that, “a boy who has never had a sewing kit might never discover his talent for design and a girl who has never had a Meccano set may never discover she has real potential as an engineer” (Fine and Rush 2018). The girl who is restricted from engineering sets will not be able to develop the spatial skills that such toys promote. Similarly, a boy who feels unable to play with dolls or girl’s products will not be able to practice the social skills associated with this form of toy play. Why then, are we surprised when men dominate STEM fields and women are the majority in social work?
From the ages of 2-7 years old, children are not able to distinguish media reality and social reality (Piaget 1999). They do not understand the persuasive intent of advertising and believe that everything exhibited in media is true. Therefore, as children become an increasingly targeted branch of consumers for stereotyped and harmful content, it vitally important to provide them with media literacy skills in order to combat misinformation. Media literacy is the ability to identify different types of media and understand the messages they’re sending. According to one expert in childhood literacy Faith Rogow, media literacy can benefit from a strong foundation in the early years.
On this website you will find three catchy songs that discuss media literacy in marketing. Watch them with your child to jumpstart the discussion about gendered toys, marketing messages, and media literacy. Just click on a button below!
This song introduces the topic of gendered toy marketing in an easy format for your child to understand and relate to.
The second song demonstrates the importance of media literacy and how to start asking questions about the media we consume.
This final song in the series tells a story about a young girl named Mary who wanted to grow up to be an architect but couldn’t develop the skills because “only boys play with blocks.”