While old ads displaying Pepto-Bismol pink kitchens (probably decorated with paint containing lead and other environmental and health no-no’s frowned upon today) can bring a smile and feel of nostalgia, what this gender-specific marketing represents is not in the past. In fact, almost 65 years later, toy (and other) companies are marketing to gender stereotypes— and the success of these campaigns are further proof that these stereotypes are fully enmeshed with cultural norms.

Simone DeBeauvoir wrote, “He is the subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other.” And companies have marketed based on what they think the “Other” wants. Take Lego, for example. Marketing research showed that they were losing a customer base of female children and they took action. As a marketer, I respect that. After all, segmentation is key to marketing and the further you mine into the data, the more your message can be tweaked to resonate with a specific audience. But, did their market research really tell them that what female children wanted was the Lego Friends line? Pink and purple, heart and cupcakes, and pony and rainbow frilliness wrapped up in lace? Or is that what we told them they wanted, so they wanted it?

Walk into any toy store and right away you’ll notice the aisles set up to attract boys and the aisles set up to attract girls. Dr. Magdalena Zawisza, senior lecturer in psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge campus, says: “The gendered lines are very apparent on walking into a toy shop. Girl toys are usually signified by pink and fluff while boy toys are identified by displays of muscles, aggression and dark colors. Interestingly, in European history, pink used to be associated with boys, signifying blood on battle field, and blue with girls, signifying the color of St. Mary’s clothing—the ultimate symbol of purity and motherhood in Catholicism. So there is certainly some societal or cultural shaping present here.”

By fostering gender stereotypes, is society encouraging boys and girls to conform to certain gender expectations? I believe so, and that it is damaging.

Dr. Zawisza’s research shows that women exposed to gender stereotypical advertising experience negative effects, ranging from lowered self-esteem, to lowered performance in math tests. This, inevitably, affects educational and career choices; which might explain why recent figures from the Office of National Statistics showed that 80% of science, research, engineering and technology professionals are male and 82% of those in caring, leisure and other services are female. (Despite researchers’ and educators’ best efforts to introduce STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math— curricula to females at a much younger age.)

But it doesn’t stop at toys. There have been many companies interested in taking a gender neutral product and forcing its hand. The absurd Bic Pens for Her come to mind. Check out Ellen DeGeneres’ take on these pens, if you haven’t yet.

This extreme gender specificity is not retro, it is ridiculous. I’d be interested to hear what you think about this marketing trend that seems to take a giant step backwards.


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