Could conscientious branding for children’s products end sexism on the playground — and beyond?

We’ve already explored the toll that the “pink tax” takes on women, but does gendered branding put girls (and boys) into boxes from early childhood? Designated department store aisles awash in pink and bursting with Barbies can leave little girls less likely to reach for LEGOs, chemistry sets, and action figures. Likewise, little boys are hesitant to pick out dolls, kitchen sets, and crafts.

Unnecessary gender-based product segregation (and manufacturing) can make children feel needlessly ashamed of their desire for toys, clothes, and bedding that fall outside of their gender’s assumed preference. Even worse, these early assumptions about gender preferences can keep children confined to outdated roles, discouraging women from pursuing traditionally male interests and careers (and vice versa) down the line.

A Marketing Ploy

But where did gender-based marketing come from? As Rebecca Hains, author of The Princess Problem: Guiding our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years said in an op-ed for the Washington Post: “It’s actually a throwback to a bygone era…Gender-based marketing only came into vogue in the 1990s, when companies realized they could convince parents of children of both sexes to buy twice as much stuff by introducing gender segmentation to kids’ products.”

In recent years, international parent-led grassroots organizations such as Let Toys Be Toys and No Gender December have helped parents and corporations understand the far-reaching social and psychological effects of gendered marketing. Despite their successes, major retailers still have a long way to go towards true gender parity.

Expect More, Pay Less

In August 2015, retail giant Target announced it would no longer be using gender-based signage, saying, “we never want guests or their families to feel frustrated or limited by the way things are presented…Right now, our teams are working across the store to identify areas where we can phase out gender-based signage to help strike a better balance.” They subsequently ceased using primary colors like pink, blue, green, and yellow to distinguish gendered sections in the home, toy, and entertainment department. Despite some to-be-expected dissent from traditionalists, this decision from the second-largest discount retailer in the U.S. signals an exciting cultural shift for gender equality warriors.

Still Room to Grow

Despite significant victories, other companies have been slow to catch on. Enraged consumers recently took to social media to berate children’s clothing retailer Gap Kids for producing a particularly egregious advertisement. The ad, which was sent out to customers in the U.K., displays side-by-side images of a “Little Scholar” (a boy) and a “Social Butterfly” (a girl). The jarring message is clear — boys are better suited for academic pursuits, while girls should stick to being, you know, girly. In a fabulously ironic twist, a spelling error appears on the male scholar’s shirt. Albert Einstein’s name is spelled “Einstien.”

Gender-stereotyped toy and apparel marketing is harmful. As Let Toys Be Toys explains, “Kids should decide for themselves what they think is fun.” Why must we put limits on them before they’re old enough to walk and talk? It’s time for retailers and parents to move forward, grant their children the agency they deserve, and watch a generation of kids explore their passions and interests beyond the pink aisle and the blue aisle.

Longneck and Thunderfoot offer thought leadership services to turn your company executives’ opinions and insights into authoritative content that starts meaningful sales conversations. Learn more about thought leadership here.

Author Hilary Krutt

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Hilary joined L&T after several years in the publishing industry at Simon & Schuster. As a member of the editorial board for the Off the Shelf book blog, her writing has been featured on the Huffington Post, among other major publications. At L&T, Hilary manages content quality and production, collaborating directly with writers, content managers, and clients to ensure every piece we write hits the mark every time. In her free time, Hilary is an avid reader and live music enthusiast. She hails from Boston but currently calls Brooklyn home.

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