Sociology of Gender and Toy Advertising

Sociology PhD student Elizabeth Sweet writes for the New York Times that gendered toys were “remarkably absent” from toy advertising at the beginning in the 20th Century, but appears around WWII. It declined by the early 1970s only to rise again in the 1990s. Today it’s almost impossible to find gender neutral toys (I can attest to this when I tried to buy science toys for my niece over Christmas. I will share my photos soon.) Why did gendered toys take hold? Sweet writes:

There are several reasons gender-based marketing has become so prevalent. On a practical level, toy makers know that by segmenting the market into narrow demographic groups, they can sell more versions of the same toy. And nostalgia often drives parents and grandparents to give toys they remember from their own childhood.

Such marketing taps into the deeply held beliefs about gender that still operate in our culture; many parents argue that their daughters and sons like different things. This is particularly true for boys: parents tend to stick with gender-typed toys for boys, either because they understand that the social costs for boys who transgress into the “pink” zone are especially high in a homophobic culture or because of their own desire for gender conformity.

This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle: as toys have become more and more gender segregated, the social costs of boundary crossing and the peer pressure to stay within the lines are huge, for kids and parents alike.

Read the article.