Girls, Boys And Toys: Rethinking Stereotypes In What Kids Play With
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now let's talk about toys, an important subject in any holiday season, especially important to one 13-year-old in New Jersey. Her name is McKenna Pope. Her little brother loves to cook and wanted an oven. And she noticed something about Hasbro's Easy Bake Oven, and she made a video to take the company to task.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
MCKENNA POPE: Why don't they have any boys in the Easy Bake Oven commercial?
GREENE: McKenna's campaign raises some interesting questions about toys and gender. And so we called up veteran toy analyst Sean McGowan to talk more about this.
SEAN MCGOWAN: I remember when I started covering this industry in the mid-'80s. There were a couple of action figure lines that were surprisingly popular with girls. And once they became very popular with girls, they actually lost appeal for boys because boys didn't want to be seen playing with a girl's toy and the girls didn't mind being seen playing with the boy's toy. You know, maybe the thinking is a little bit more progressive on that. And there's a very interesting experiment going on, you could call it that, in Sweden, I think, with gender-neutral advertising for toys.
GREENE: And tell me a little bit about that campaign.
MCGOWAN: Well, the campaign was really forced by the regulatory authorities who govern advertising that did not want to see gender specific targeting in ads. And a Toys "R" Us affiliate, I think it's called Top Toys in Sweden, actually shows boys playing with vacuum cleaners and blow dryers and girls playing with Nerf guns. It will be interesting to see how this changes the attitudes of parents and the kids over time or whether or not it does. You know, there may be some hardwired differences.
GREENE: Well, what exactly was the Swedish government worried about, you know, on a broader level?
MCGOWAN: I think what they were worried about was causing gender identification needlessly. In other words, to turn off paths of learning, paths of expression, you know, down the road even paths of economic opportunity for girls, you know, if they felt like they couldn't do something, or boys, if they felt that they couldn't do something because of societal norms. So they're really trying to create opportunities and to further equality and then further economic opportunity.
GREENE: You know, one Scandinavian company, speaking of that part of the world, Lego, has a pretty successful ad campaign going right now and it seems like there's no doubt that they're trying to reach girls. Let's give a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
STEPHANIE: Lego friends, welcome to beautiful Heartlake City. I'm Stephanie. I'm going to a party at the new cafe with my friend Olivia.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: That's me. I just finished decorating my house. Time to chill with the girls.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: At the beauty shop, Emma is styled and ready to go. That's just because you're so much fun.
GREENE: Sean McGowan, what do you think? I mean is this a positive decision for a company like that to try to go after the other gender or is this something the Swedish government would say hey, hey, hey, this is exactly what we don't want?
MCGOWAN: Yeah, I think the Swedish government might have some issues with the marketing itself because it is pretty gender specific. You know, Lego's a Danish company but I would give Lego enormous amount of credit not just because they're marketing to girls; this product was developed with eight years of solid intensive research behind it to figure out how to crack that nut of how do you get girls interested in Lego toys. You know, girls tend to gravitate towards more cooperative play, more social play, more communicative play, you know, and the boys are more about the outcome and the building and destroying and, you know, fantasies that are maybe outside of themselves. So it really comes down to - this product, the most important thing is the distance and the figures.
The figures in Lego's Friends are bigger. They have more parts that are interchangeable. They're more realistic, if you will, to the extent that a, you know, couple-inch plastic figure can be realistic. And what they learned from their research was the girls really see these figures as avatars of themselves. It's a way to express themselves, whereas the boys tend to think of the figs - as they call him - as their guys. They're just, you know, they're just guys - good guys, bad guys, they fight each other. So by unlocking that mystery - what is it that the girls are looking for out of the play - you know, Lego was able to get a lot of girls, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue just in one year, whereas they couldn't get that before.
GREENE: Well, I guess that raises the question - is there something about toys that make them hard to try and market for girls and boys at the same time?
MCGOWAN: Vive la difference, right? I mean there is a difference. We may wish that there weren't sometimes and we may celebrate the difference at other times. I don't think anybody here is kidding themselves thinking we're going to get girls to like all boys' toys and boys to like all girls' toys, but I think it's a noble effort to say, you know, I have a product here that I believe in that I think is good for kids, what can I do to make it more attractive to more of those kids?
GREENE: Sean McGowan is a senior analyst at Needham and Company. Thanks so much for speaking to us.
MCGOWAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.