Girls & boys toys: Is the toy biz being demonised for just supplying demand?

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Our X-Men Barbie: If she was an actual toy (as opposed to Beach Barbie wearing a Storm circa ’96 outfit), would she be categorised as a boy’s or girl’s one?

If the toy industry were at all sympathetic to the issue of their gender division of toys, we wouldn’t have to keep complaining. But is it fair to criticise them?

Recently, kids brand consultant – and father of 2 girls – Steve Reece (@nevetseceer) wrote this piece on it. Let’s just say it lost me at labelling those like myself, who disagree with the gender categorisation of toys, as ‘bandwagon jumping opportunists’ – and it went downhill from there. I shared it on Twitter, tagging Steve, and he & others responded.

Rarely does anything useful or constructive result from people with entrenched opposing opinions debating online. This was no exception.

As the twitter back & forth ensued, there were many of his points I failed to adequately address or respond to. Other people, notably scholar Elizabeth Sweet, had a more meaningful contribution. Here’s my tweet, followed by a sub-edited version of the ensuing conversation.

Carrie Proctor: Does Steve Reece not see that children pick certain toys because they’re taught to do so by society?

Steve Reece: I agree with you…kids choose toys based on societal influence…majority of parents see boys & girls toys still

Carrie Proctor: That’s why we try to get toys for our daughter in bright primary colours. She’ll pick her own favourite one day. 🙂 (Favourited by SR)

Enter Dr. Elizabeth Sweet, a Postdoctoral Scholar whose current research focuses on gender and children’s toys. So far more qualified than me/most in this area.

Dr. Elizabeth Sweet: My research finds that toys are far more gender segregated and stereotyped now than ever before. Simply not true that toys have always been so gender defined nor that they have to be.

My initial tweet also provoked this response from freelance writer Lisa Granshaw.

I then noticed that Steve had tweeted a response to those criticising his article, and the conversation shifted over to that thread.

(ICYMI – Steve’s hashtag reads: Reflecting current reality, not saying it should be that way, just that it is)

Elizabeth Sweet initially responded (before I butted in).

Elizabeth Sweet: Actually, not a reflection of current reality if you look at demographic & attitudinal measures in re: to gender. I would revise this piece I wrote in 2012 to say that gendering today is far more extreme than in ’50s.

Steve Reece: Really…? Difference between what people say hypothetically versus Behaviour measured by what sells…?

Elizabeth Sweet: When you only offer people one choice (e.g. highly gendered toys), is it surprising that they choose it?

Me: (To Steve) Chicken/Egg. They buy what you sell. I’d buy more female Star Wars & superhero toys if sold.

Steve Reece: You may buy, but are there enough like minded to justify tooling etc? Toy companies supply to demand.

Me: How do you know girls won’t buy/play Star Wars/Marvel, when they’re labeled as ‘boys’ brands?

Elizabeth Sweet: Toy companies are actively shaping demand by offering few and narrow choices vs. responding to it.

Steve Reece: Are there no female characters in those films? Male character sell by far most toys…

Me: Black Widow practically airbrushed from most Avengers merchandise; same with Leia and Star Wars. And both clearly defined as ‘boys’ brands by licensees and retailers, therefore excluding girls

Steve Reece: Commercial reality = if paying major license fees toy companies want every product that will sell.

Me: In the meantime, risk averse toy companies are excluding girls. Where’s the child development in that?

Steve Reece: Hard to stay in biz if don’t sell products made…no child development then?

Me: ICYMI – “Opportunist commentators have jumped on this bandwagon to blow their own trumpets, and… advance their own ends.” Nice Steve Reece.

Steve Reece: Demonising toy industry which positively contributes to development of billions of kids globally, for supplying demand. Also nice.

Me: What’s positive for girls who think science sets, doctors kits, or toolboxes are for boys – because they’re not pink? Not just toy industry – clothes, books, magazines, it’s a problem with most things being sold to kids.

Elizabeth Sweet: Clearly there is a demand for something different…this sold out immediately.

Me: (to Steve) I will never buy into your argument that sexism is justified to sell toys. Is racism too? The removal of Gamora from so much Guardians of the Galaxy merchandise is appalling. But you think that’s ok?

And there the conversation ended, and I’m glad it did as there was nowhere new I was able to take it.

Pretty depressing.

If this is the attitude of the toy biz then we have a long way to go, no matter what lip service they pay to our issues with their gender categorisation, and screening of licensed characters by gender – such as the aforementioned cases of Princess Leia, Black Widow, and Gamora being absent from a large chunk of movie tie-ins.

The citing of market research and of responding to consumer demand – without acknowledging the industry’s role in skewing those results through their marketing, or creating that demand – is frustrating.

These companies choose to create products for children, which as far as I’m concerned means they have a responsibility to not only make a profit, but – at the very least – to not negatively impact our children’s lives. It’s not much to ask, and the two things are not mutually exclusive.

And frankly, the notion that the likes of Hasbro, Mattel, or Disney might go out of business if they and retailers sorted and labelled toys by type or function instead of gender, is laughable.

But these industry behemoths do need to evolve their offering, for their own sake. Take Barbie, the queen of the pink aisle. Her global sales have significantly dropped in four of the last five quarters, and for an even longer period in the US (about 2 years). Some of Mattel’s initiatives, like the Barbie Project are interesting. Others, like putting her on the cover of a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, are troubling.

However, if the choice really is as Steve Reece claims, between these companies survival or our children’s positive development, then I’ll happily wave bye bye to Optimus, Mickey, and Barbie.

The toy industry’s ability to generate profit does not supersede our children’s rights to grow up without having profit-motivated limits placed on their imaginations, aspirations, and ambitions. But there is no reason the removal of these limits and the industry’s profits cannot happily co-exist. If anything, it will become necessary for both parties to flourish.

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Oh, for another perspective on this issue, please read this excellent post from someone who is at the frontline of all this – working at a toy shop! His point is a very perceptive one that has lead me to question how I would shop as a parent in this situation.

LEGO Adds New Female Scientist Toys After Fans Demand Them

As someone who was heavily involved in the campaign to raise awareness of this project, I’m stoked that they’re finally a reality. 😀

7 ways for Hasbro to sell more Star Wars toys (hint: girls)

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My daughter giving her Hasbro Leia doll (courtesy Emily) a blow-dry

Hasbro, the primary Star Wars toys licensee, has a brand developer vacancy for their Star Wars line.

Like Disney, they still see Star Wars as a boys brand – but using Hasbro’s job ad as a guide, here are 7 ways the new Brand Manager can impress their new employer by improving sales, decreasing costs, and ultimately raising profits – as well as addressing the gendered marketing issue.

In fact, it’s the solution:

The primary Duties & Responsibilities of the Star Wars Brand Development role:

1. Finding innovative ways to grow higher margin businesses.
A: An innovative way to grow higher margin businesses would focus on marketing Star Wars to girls as well as boys. This will increase sales with minimal additional costs.

2. Drive product innovations to better meet consumer demands.
A: Innovate by creating Star Wars products with girls in mind, meeting their additional consumer demand. Also market the entire brand to both girls and boys – girls will also buy existing products that are currently (but erroneously) deemed as ‘boys’ toys, and boys will purchase many products you might think of as being for ‘girls’.

3. Develop overall go-to-market product strategy.
A: The strategy needs to focus on the fact that Star Wars is a brand that appeals to both boys and girls, as well as their Star Wars fan parents. Create product for, and market the brand to all of them.

4. Find ways to decrease development costs and gain efficiencies.
Decrease development costs by marketing current products to girls as well as boys. Efficiencies would be gained by selling an already existing product to a new market with minimal additional cost.

5. Keep up to date on modern manufacturing trends, technologies and competitive practices.
A: Be competitive – and modern – by marketing Star Wars to girls as well as boys.

6. Work with global brand strategy & marketing team to develop special and exclusive products.
A: The global brand strategy for the development of all special and exclusive products must include marketing the Star Wars brand to girls as well as boys, to increase sales.

7. Become the global insights expert and leverage learning across product lines.
A: An insight that Hasbro must learn – the Star Wars brand is in an almost unique position as, despite Hasbro’s insistence that it’s a ‘boys’ brand, it actually appeals to girls too. Additional product made with girls in mind can certainly be produced, but the overall brand is unisex. In addition, today’s parents would have grown up with Star Wars, back when it had overt cross gender appeal, so parents of boys and/or girls will be be primed to purchase product for the daughters as well as their sons. Hasbro should be including, rather than excluding girls from the Star wars brand, as it will lead to increased sales for the entire line. 

OK, it’s not really 7 ways – they all have basically the same answer: Girls.

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‘I am the way’

But you have to admit, the plan has a singular clarity to it.

The successful applicant can now arrive as saviour, with a bold game changing strategy that benefits all.

Or to put it another way, the Chosen One can finally fulfil the prophecy of bringing (gender) balance to the Force.

I posted an earlier version of this piece here.

Despite #WeWantLeia, Star Wars is still a ‘Boys’ only brand according to Hasbro

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My daughter giving her Hasbro Leia doll a blow-dry

Not only does the Disney Store have Star Wars pigeon-holed as a boys only brand, it seems that main toy licensee Hasbro does too.

In this job ad (courtesy of Natalie Wreyford and , Hasbro states it has “immediate need for a detail-oriented, brand developer… for Star Wars” their “Boys Licensed brand”.

Sigh.

The ad lists seven key aspects of the job, but reading them it seems to me that a plucky applicant could successfully address each of these bullet points by addressing the gendered marketing issue too.

So, if you’re a detail-oriented, brand developer candidate – who is “proactive”, “responsive”, “creative”, and with “analytic based judgement” – looking to make a name for yourself, you could try this approach. I am after all a marketing guru (:s).

Primary Duties & Responsibilities of Star Wars Brand Development role:

1. Lead cross-functional teams to execute key brand initiatives, including finding innovative ways to grow higher margin businesses.
A: An innovative way to grow higher margin businesses should involve marketing Star Wars to girls as well as boys.

2. Drive product innovations through the system to better meet consumer demands.
A: Innovate by creating Star Wars products intended for girls, meeting their additional consumer demand, and market the entire brand to both girls and boys.

3. Develop overall go-to-market product strategy.
A: Create product and market the whole brand to both boys and girls.

4. Partner with global supply chain to identify programs to decrease development costs and gain efficiencies where applicable.
A: Market existing products to girls as well as boys.  Efficiencies gained by selling an existing product to a new market with minimal cost.

5. Maintain current knowledge of modern manufacturing trends, technologies and competitive practices.
A: Be competitive by marketing Star Wars to girls as well as boys.

6. Collaborate with global brand strategy and marketing team in the development of all special and exclusive products.
A: Suggest the global brand strategy includes marketing Star Wars brand to girls as well as boys.

7. Become the global insights expert and leverage learning across product lines.
A: Your insight should involve the need for marketing Star Wars to girls as well as boys. If not, this should be learned.

So there you go. You’ve got that application nailed! Why not apply using this as your template? If you can’t beat them, join them. Then beat them.

Failing that, tweet them at @HasbroNews, or email them at hasbrobrandpr@hasbro.com, and let them know that Star Wars is a galaxy for girls too – because they obviously didn’t get the #WeWantLeia memo.

Is Father’s Day for all dads, or just the ones with jobs?

Our playgroups put on new kiddy crafts each week. When a specific celebration comes around, they will usually revolve around that. So this week it was making Father’s Day cards.

Unlike the mums who were helping/directing their children to create them, I just let my daughter do her thing – it seemed odd commissioning one from her.

A 'shirt & tie' Father's Day card is still a thing
A ‘shirt & tie’ Father’s Day card is still a thing

What was also odd were the actual cards they were supposed to end up with. Two playgroups opted for the same concept – the front of the card had been cut and folded down to look like a shirt collar, and there was a cutout tie to glue into place. The inference was clear (despite the fact I have only ever worn a shirt & tie for weddings and funerals): A father’s role in the family revolves around having a job. This is also the role that retailers like to cast us in.

Gendered marketing to children is an issue I take great interest in, unhappy as I am about commercial interests defining, from even before birth, what they think a boy or girl should be. But what about gendered marketing to adults? How does that affect us?

I adore my current role in life as one of the growing army of stay-at-home dads. It has come about mostly from my long-held desire to do this, with financial circumstances supporting that choice (ie. My wife earning more than me). Frankly, it’s been a blast.

Out & about doing baby & toddler things with my daughter, I’ve gotten to know some dads, but mostly mums – and the fact is that in terms of being a parent I have far more in common with the at-home mums I meet than most working dads.

The offering around Mother’s Day tends to be all about ‘giving mum a break’ – from cooking, cleaning, childcare, etc. Brunches and pampering packages abound. What about Father’s Day? Traditional gifts revolve around either ‘work’ related gifts like smart socks, shirts, and ties, or ‘play’, things that are thought to keep men sane during the 9 to 5 – booze, sports, and gadgets. But there’s no sense that fathers like me – stay-at-home dads – also need a break from their routine and responsibilities.

By packaging the days in this way, retailers are reinforcing the idea that being the homemaker is a mother’s role, while that of breadwinner is still the father’s. I think these marketing driven definitions contribute to the guilt that many mothers feel about wanting to return to work, and lessen the chances of men admitting they would dearly love to be stay-at-home dads. Society follows suit – while we have the term ‘working mother’, the male equivalent would be recognised as ‘father’.  I’m a ‘stay-at-home dad’, but for female counterparts ‘mum’ seems to suffice as a label.

I have generally felt ambivalent about Father’s Day since childhood, and I continue to do so as a father. Perhaps because my birthday is also only a few days away, and it seems greedy to have 2 ‘special’ days in one week. My cynical side also tends to judge Father’s Day as a way to package and sell more stuff, much like Halloween.

We have no out of the ordinary plans for the day – I will spend it with my wife and daughter, like most other ideal Sundays.

Then again, perhaps there is a purpose to ‘Father’s Day’? It has serendipitously coincided with the start of the 2014 Football World Cup. I could cynically take advantage of it to watch a couple of back-to-back games? Reverting to stereotype, I am a dad that likes watching football.

And having a break from my routine and responsibilities.

Father's Day, stay at home dads, stay home dad, being a stay at home dad,
Another playgroup card. Clichéd perhaps, but…