One of the clear ways in which social media has enhanced humankind is by providing a platform for the righting of past wrongs in terms of conduct and behaviour. For those of us who were in the toy business before the internet revolution, we can remember times when you could get away with mistakes more easily because the chance for consumers to vent their disapproval were more limited, less instant and less damaging to brands. Today though there is literally no hiding place for any brand with social media and online reviews counting for so much.
A major challenge that the toy industry faces in terms of approach to gender and toys is that we are caught between a strong (and long overdue) mood of social change and empowerment for women and the actual day to day reality of mass consumer behaviour and attitudes. If we as an industry had any part to play in limiting what girls and then eventually women thought they could do with their lives then we were wrong. The challenge though is that like all consumer product industries we are driven by demand and what we think our consumer wants to buy. If parents (who are our customers) choose to buy products which perpetuate a certain situation and social attitude is it our responsibility to change their views? Wouldn’t parents reject such an intrusive approach?
The absence of toy labelling
Labelling toys as for boys or for girls is mostly gone from retail now – although not from some toy company divisional structures. The issue with gender labelling is that it arguably tells young boys or girls what they can and can’t do or be. In these times when you can choose your own gender regardless of biological facts, this type of prescribed path through life is increasingly counter to the trend for openness, political correctness and the general recognition of minority viewpoints and attitudes. Though the challenge for toy companies is that traditional fashion doll or action figure play help boys and girls to develop their sense of identity, gender and way of dealing with the world. If we take that away, then we remove a major developmental aid to children as well as a massive source of fun.
Let’s move away though from theoretical debate and look at the hard reality of what happens at retail. The following example is taken from a Toys R Us store in the UK around Christmas 2017, but if you visit toy specialist retailers around the world, I suspect that you would find much of the same thing. I observed a father walk into the ‘Fashion’ aisle of Toys R Us and say out loud in a puzzled tone of voice “Is this the Girls aisle then”. So even though we took the label away, in this case the consumer was still looking to be told what toys were for boys and what were for girls.
Search patterns in the online retail
Don’t think though that this apparently regressive consumer behaviour is just limited to bricks and mortar retail. If you look at some of the top searches on Amazon in multiple markets around the world many of the most popular search phrases are things like “toys for 7 year old girl” or “toys for 5 year old boy”. The facts don’t lie, many toy purchasers are still looking for toys from a gender-based perspective.
Children and the nature vs. nurture debate
Way back in time at University I studied Psychology for a minor part of my degree. A key element of the syllabus was the nature/nurture debate, i.e. are people born a certain way, with certain prominent behaviours, attitudes and temperamental factors or does the world they encounter shape them? The only rational answer is that both have an effect, but that we can debate the degree to which each has an impact.
One more practical observation I would make is that having conducted more than 1,200 focus groups with children of both genders and parents is that from 1998 when I first conducted focus groups with children to 2020, I have observed no discernible difference or change from what I first found. That being girls tend to be softer and more nurturing – regardless of the changing societal narrative around gender and child development and boys tend towards more physical, aggressive and boisterous play. Of the dozen or so expensive toy prototypes which I have seen being broken in focus group playtesting over more than 20 years, every broken prototype was damaged by an over exuberant boy. Not one was broken by an over exuberant girl.
Freedom of choice for the children
To be clear though, that isn’t to say that boys or girls should behave a certain way, or that girls don’t have every right to take part in any activities or play with any toys they want, and vice versa for boys, but there are some generalised realities that logic reinforces. And for mass market consumer product companies it is a generalised view of reality that pays the bills and keeps millions of people employed, it isn’t the 1 or 2% outliers, or even the 10% and that is why the gender and toys debate is so difficult.
Majority of voice vs. majority of consumer decisions
To conclude, we can surely all agree at this point that we should try where we can to empower each child, and we should make sure that we are having as positive and nurturing an impact as possible for the children who play with our toys. We should also though reserve the right, regardless of online noise to make pink fashion dolls if that is what parents and children want, and if that is therefore what sells in the fashion dolls category, and in doing so we have to accept that a minority of parents will choose not to perpetuate the ‘pink thing’ and will backlash against our industry accordingly. We also need to be more aware of the difference between online backlash and consumer attitudes and behaviour. The loudest voices and social movements do not always reflect the majority of people, and the majority of people is where the commercial opportunity is. So heading further into the age of the internet successful toy companies will become better and better at picking trends which are mass adopted while doing everything they can to make a positive impact on children and society in general.