Let Toys Be Toys: Increased targeting has led to a lazy, stereotype-driven approach

Brands are missing out on customers by continuing to think about products by gender, according to Let Toys Be Toys campaigner Jess Day.

John Lewis launched a gender-free children’s clothing range earlier this year

Our campaign kicked off in response to how extreme gendered marketing has become in the toy sector. We wrote to major retailers, most of which didn’t respond. But we do get a response when we tweet an example that is particularly outrageous.

To a certain extent we have been treated as an annoyance from the outside, which is frustrating because when we have had direct contact with marketers it has been really constructive.

Fairly early in the campaign we had a response from The Entertainer and Toys R Us. We met with senior people about our concerns over how toys are labelled, and those have led to real change. There has been massive progress in terms of what we want to see in Toys R Us shops, with toys grouped by product type rather than gender.

Lego announced recently that it is going to start testing products with mixed groups and I was shocked it didn’t already do this.

Jess Day, Let Toys Be Toys

The furore about John Lewis’s new genderless children’s clothes is interesting – the range came in earlier this year, but it was only when the retailer made a public statement about its desire to avoid stereotypes that it stirred up such a fuss.

Clearly, some people get uncomfortable when terms like ‘gender-neutral’ are used, but it’s just about allowing children to choose clothing and motifs they like. Changing the way ranges are commissioned and designed is an important step – boys and girls are more alike than they are different.

Making a difference

This isn’t going to kill your business. When we first researched it, 50% of the shops we surveyed had ‘boys’ toys’ and ‘girls’ toys’ signs and in our most recent survey last Christmas we found none – they had gone. And people are still buying toys. When we first started there was resistance to making any changes, but as those changes have happened, they haven’t been too difficult.

Within organisations there are lots of people who do see the problem and want it to be better, but feel under immense pressure that if they do something different, they are doing something risky. What we have seen is that actually this isn’t risky. People recognise that what you say to children about what it means to be a boy or girl really matters.

Telling boys and girls they are supposed to be different has real consequences in terms of their development.

clarks dolly babe
Clarks was accused of everyday sexism for its ‘Dolly Babe’ shoe for girls, while the boys’ version is called ‘Leader’

The recent BBC documentary ‘No More Boys and Girls’ did an exercise where they asked children how they saw gender and the results were shocking. There was massive under-confidence among the girls about their abilities in maths and anything physical; the boys were unable to find vocabulary for emotions other than anger.

One of the arguments we constantly get is: ‘The insight tells us consumers need this’. There are issues about how this research is done because if you go in with an assumption of difference, you will find it. Children want to perform correctly and give the right answer.

US broadcaster PBS did a piece of research talking to a group of boys and asked if they watched the Powerpuff Girls cartoon. All but one said no. Then they asked them all to look down so they couldn’t see each other, and put their hands up if they watched the Powerpuff Girls, and seven out of eight of them did.

Lego announced recently that it is going to start testing products with mixed groups and I was shocked it didn’t already do this. If you only give products to single-sex groups, you are going to draw conclusions differently.

If you have decided the primary target is a boy aged 7 to 9, do you need to assume that excludes girls?

Jess Day, Let Toys Be Toys

Gradually, targeting by gender has become targeting exclusively by gender. Everybody has been sucked into a marketing bubble where gender targeting seems like a perfectly sensible thing to do, and consumers are sucked into the idea that this is just how it is. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

It goes right back to the product concept. If you have decided the primary target is a boy aged 7 to 9, do you need to assume that excludes girls? The increase in segmentation and targeting seems to have led to a lazy, stereotype-driven approach.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – Only crap marketers mistake stereotypes for segments

There were great examples last Christmas of ads from retailers that had obviously made a conscious decision to do something different. Tesco, WHSmith and Chad Valley – the Argos own-brand – have made ads showing boys and girls playing together, playing with non-stereotypical toys. This isn’t rocket science and these aren’t radical ideas – it’s deciding you’re not just going to follow a script and apply some creativity.

It’s down to marketers to make a difference

We have never called for political intervention. Marketers and the industry have to choose to move on this and I don’t believe legislation would be helpful. Where we are happy to see changes in those areas is where we have shared our research with the Advertising Standards Authority’s work on gender stereotypes.

READ MORE: Tackling gender stereotypes – Are new ad rules the answer?

We were happy to see a strong outcome from that, recognising that stereotypes in advertising are an issue and that the industry needs to be more responsible. We are looking forward to seeing how this pushes marketers to be more creative, instead of following the same boring script.

When companies insist on thinking by gender, they miss out. Most of the really viral toy crazes – Hatchimals, loom bands, Pogs, Klackers, fidget spinners, Tamagotchis – have been massive with both boys and girls.