Toy Ads and Learning Gender

November 16, 2010

Created for Bitch Magazine’s Mad World Virtual Symposium

I recently watched afternoon cartoons on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and I was shocked to find a flood of highly gendered toy commercials. These ads not only market toys to children but it also promotes and encourages gender specific values that are very limiting to boys and girls in different ways.  The values and skills promoted in these commercials can play a critical role in the socalization of youth and their development of emotional expression, conflict resolution, the confidence to pursue various careers and the ability to maintain healthy relationships as adults.

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** This video is available to be translated into other languages by volunteers like you.  Please visit the subtitling page on Universal Subtitles and click TRANSLATE to get started.



Song: “I’m a Barbie girl in a fab world”

I recently spent some time watching afternoon cartoons on Nickelodeon and the Cartoon network, and look what I found.

“Nerf’s N-Strike arsenal has a specialized blaster for any mission”
“4 Ever Kidz pets. It’s snap on fashion play”
“Dirt, mud, we don’t care. These trucks go almost anywhere”
“…Barbie girls and we’re making the scene. Our jammin’ jeep wrangler is one glam machine”

Holy crap! What is going on here!?

Clearly it’s been a while since I’ve raced home after school to watch cartoons but I was amazed how highly gendered these commercials were. Have they changed or did I just not notice them before?

The messages being promoted in these commercials are deeply restricting and severely limit the development of boys and girls in different ways. The ads are actively demonstrating that boys and girls have different social roles and skills that are highly stereotyped and just outright sexist. So let’s take a closer look at ads targeted directly at boys.

“Battleground. Prepare to attack. Fire”
“Whose gonna win? Whose gonna win? YA”
“Arc light powered up. 3 in 1 repulser. Ready for action.”
“Close combat pistol. Rapid fire blaster”
“Always ready for action, G.I. Joe. Are you in?”
“Defend the castle! Imaginx Adventure”

Boys have power and get to be active and destroy things, YA!  These commercials directed at boys value competition, being in control, having power, and conquering and commanding. Those values restrict the acceptable options for what boys are allowed to express emotionally, I’ve yet to see a commercial where see boys being nurturing or caring.  They are limited in examples of how to react to problems and how to solve conflicts. They are taught to fight, to be competitive and to be aggressive.

I noticed that there are also a few other reoccuring messages embedded in ads targeted at boys.

“Bat cave building power. Trio building system lets you build the ultimate Trio bat cave. YA!”
“You can build the massive Neptune sub.”
“You can build up and customize your heavy duty truck with tons of parts”
“You decide how much firepower to arm your ships with then build your fleet and battle your way to victory.”

These ads encourage boys to build new worlds, use their imaginations and be creative. They are actively making and constructing.  These are the training blocks for creative and fulfilling adult lives.  The confidence that is fostered through the act of making and building and doing is something that is almost entirely lacking in girl’s toys commercials.

“The Liv girls have a flair for hair”
“I can make my own magic snow”
“Change the colour, change the style, ad the gel and look at the glitter”
“The easy way to make designer cakes. Bake your cake in the microwave in 30 seconds.”
“… beauty of the bride, share the gown and light up ring, handsome groom and everything”
“Go Go with me we’re walking round, Go Go with me we’ve hit the town.”
“Baby alive is so real, you can feed her. ‘I made a stinky.’ And then she leaves an uh-oh in her diaper.”

So girls get to play with sparkly glitter and bake cakes and changing stinky diapers, how fun! Commercials targeted at girls heavily focus on teaching child rearing, homemaking, domestic work, popularity, self image and an obsession with beauty. This restricts their imagination of what women are capable of and prioritizes appearance over intelligence.  They are not encouraged to be creative, to build and construct and really take control of there environments.  Girl’s toys are generally unimaginative and lack the creative element of play that is critical in the development of young people.

We can see this even in the way the same basic product is marketed differently to boys and girls.

“Moon Sand is the amazing moldable, squishable, buildable, demolishable sand that never dries out.”
“Moon Sand is the amazing moldable, holdable, decoratable sand that never dries out.”

Clearly this isn’t a coincidence since advertisers spend $17 BILLION dollars a year marketing to youth. That’s billion, with a ‘B’.  Young people are seeing more than 25,000 advertisements a year on television alone, and that doesn’t even include product placement which is so common on popular television shows. The enormous amount of money advertisers are spending isn’t just on producing and airing ads, it’s also spent on the latest neuroscience research to find out EXACTLY what images, feelings and representations will appealing the most to developing minds.

Although many factors influence our socialization such as family, peer groups, churches and schools, the media plays a highly critical role.  Advertising aimed at youth is especially dangerous because young children are unable to differentiate between television programming and commercials, they are still developing the necessary critical skills.

Youth may have a hard time recognizing that these commercials are teaching them what is expected, what is desired and what is possible for their genders, for their careers, for love, relationships and creative endeavors in the future.  These messages are so manipulative, deeply embedded and carefully crafted that it’s even hard for us as adults to recognize them.

As someone whose really interested in promoting and encouraging the use of technology in young women, I found a stark difference in the way technology is marketed to boys and girls.  Girls get a fun little purple computer that’s “hot” or a program that can help them cook and look pretty.

“It’s the Bratz laptop with over 100 games, you can have fun learning.  It’s fun, smart and hot.”
“In my fashion mall, make pizzas, do makeovers and more, and throw the ultimate pajama party.”

Whereas boys get to go online and play adventure games.

“Become a pirate and join thousands online. Captain your ship and command the sea.”
“Now you can be the hero and join your friends in an epic online adventure.”

One of the reasons that the gender specific marketing of technology is so concerning is when we look at the statistics of adult women in technology fields. Only 3% of open source programmers are women and only 11.5% of video game developers are women.

Although as I stated, there are many factors that affect the jobs and careers people enter, it is not hard to connect gendered advertising at such a young age to the socialization of women who don’t feel confident or supported within heavily male dominated and male identified tech fields.

I was originally going to say that “We need to hold the media accountable for what they are teaching our young people” but no, really, advertising directed specifically at young people needs to STOP altogether, no exceptions.  A precedent has already been set to implement these types of restrictions. Quebec has banned print and broadcast advertisements for youth under the age of 13 and Sweden has banned advertisements for youth under the age of 12.

In the mean time we need to encourage critical media literacy skills in people of all ages. I’ll leave you with an amazing remix created by some female youth at Reel Grrls during a workshop with Jonathan McIntosh. They were able to actively resist these harmful media messages and really begin to talk back to the media by simply swapping the audio and video of gendered commercial.  The results are hilarious and very illuminating.

“Nerf’s N-Strike arsenal has a specialized blaster for any mission.  You can improve your blasting speed with the maverick rapid fire blaster.  While the night fighters night beam targeting system allows for pin point accuracy.  And you can nail targets from long distance with Nerf’s long shot blaster.  Two blasters in one, quick fire clips and detachable scope, everything you need to blast your skills to the next level.  N-Strike, blaster sold separately, batteries not included. Nerf.”

27 Responses to “Toy Ads and Learning Gender”

  1. Hey there.

    I’m 31 years old, and I’m from Germany.
    I have seen ads on Nickelodeon-like TV-channels in the late 80s / early 90s.
    We didn’t have Nickelodeon at that time, but the ads were the exact same as the ones in the US, only (poorly) dubbed (that’s why I pointed out that I’m German).

    You were asking: “Have they changed or did I just not notice them before?”
    They haven’t. You just didn’t notice. It’s been like this as long as I can remember. Barbie, Baby Born, Polly Pocket, etc pp.

    Interesting sidenote: In my memory the girl-oriented ads are more prominent. As in more awkward. Although I do remember the Nerf stuff, all kinds of He-Man crap, and the likes, memories of boy-oriented ads are somewhat foggy.
    Being (kind of) male, I really do think I was educated to find the boy-oriented ads being “normal” and the girl-oriented stuck in my mind as being “off”.
    So there’s some programming for you.

    I _really_ like your videos, though I don’t always agree with your points. But one minor thing: that looking to your left every second moment? I find it really distracting, it’s the visual counterpart to someone saying “uhm” all the time. Sorry, it just really drives me nuts.:-)


  2. Here via Sociological Images (where they’ve linked to a post of yours from August instead of this one, oops). Great video, thanks for pointing out the differences so clearly.


  3. And PS thank you so much for having a transcript! I don’t use assistive technology to access the web myself, but some of my readers do, and I appreciate transcripted videos so much.


  4. Of course, I know transcripts can be useful for many people. I also have captions on my video files as well, and some have been translated into other languages. I want to encourage making online video as accessible as possible.


  5. […] via Lauredhel/ Sociological Images: Anita Sarkeesian, Feminist Frequency: Toy Ads and Learning Gender, dort mit komplettem Transcript. Auf Wunsch fang ich an, an einer Übersetzung zu […]


  6. I feel extremely lucky to have been raised by relatively gender neutral parents. What I liked was my choice.
    When it came to toys I had a little from both columns. Barbies would go camping with Aliens. I made furniture for my littlest pet shop toys out of legos. Barbie never got pregnant, nor had children. The only baby doll I ever had was a waterbaby (it was wiggly! How cool is that?).
    I liked mermaids, yes. But I actually called Mattel at the age of 6 (with the help of my father) and asked why they didn’t make mermen.
    It was my decision.
    Today I am working to be in the game industry. But, I also enjoy cooking and dressing up. It took me a while to be okay with my interest in these things. I had to really look close to see that I wanted these things not because I was socially trained to think I needed to know how to bake but, because baking is actually science that you can EAT.


  7. […] Feminist Frequency: Toy ads and learning gender […]


  8. Unfortunately, this has always been the case and is nothing new. I remember very clearly getting a gift from my mom – I got a new doll outfit for Barbie and my brother got a Rubik’s Cube. I was sooo disappointed.


  9. Yeah, advertisements were like this back even when I was a kid. I'm blessed to have a twin brother. Because of that, I grew up loving transformers and power rangers,and he grew up playing barbies and house with me.


  10. The theme is interesting, thanks you very much. Happy New Year!


  11. […] some more opinions on gender stereotyping in children’s toys and advertising, check out this great video and browse the posts of the thought provoking Sociological Images […]


  12. I can’t help but wonder why building toys are not marketed to girls and boys equally. I’m pursuing a career in engineering now, and I think a large part of my inspiration came from building spaceships with LEGO for hours on end.
    When I’m in the toy department where I work, I am disturbed by the degree to which toys are separated. One one side you have dolls and tea sets and makeup kits, and on the other, you have toy guns, RC cars, and cheap heaps of plastic that are passed off as “spy gadgets.”
    There’s another issue here than gender disparity; many men are permissive of toys modeled from warfare for children, because as boys they themselves played with green army men and had BB guns. People are quick to blame violent video games for gun crimes in schools and the like, but they seem to turn a blind eye to G.I. Joe.


  13. Great video. I wish, though, that you would consider how limiting these stereotypes are for boys, as well. True, glitter, baking, and developing social relationships aren’t everything, or enough; but they are good, fun parts of life, parts which little boys, via imposition of gender roles, are routinely told they’re to stay out of.

    Not only are the boys’ ads limiting, but they are overwhelmingly violent. This is disturbing on any number of levels.

    And let’s not stop at the ads: the toys themselves are routinely sorted by gender as well. As the mother of a young child I frequently find myself selecting toys for the birthday parties of children I don’t know well – and, for fear of offending parents, avoiding both the “boy” and “girl” aisles and selecting inoffensive, gender-neutral board games.

    Let’s go further. I worked at my son’s day care, where parents of toddlers sent their boy children to school in sports shoes and their girl children to school in pretty sandals. I spent many an afternoon helping two-year-old girls remove playground grit from inside their shoes. This is a gender norm that is literally, physically handicapping.

    The children themselves pick up on these norms, which they perceive and reinforce as irrevocable rules. One little girl in my five-year-old’s pre-k class kept running tabs on behaviors which did or did not fit into her version of gender rules, and would criticize and ridicule anyone who stepped out of line.

    During this period, my son and I were playing a game of imagination, describing our superhero personas. “Girls can’t be awesome,” he told me. “They have to be pretty. You be the princess.”

    Obviously this didn’t go over well.

    During this same period, however, there was a breath of fresh air. On Mothers’ Day, the children were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their mothers. One of the questions was fill-in-the-blank, and read, “My mother is as pretty as a…”

    My son wrote, “My mother is as pretty as a dragon.”



  14. I showed this video to my class of high school juniors in US History II. Well into the video, some girls were so angry that they told me to turn it off. they kept saying how true it was. thanks! what a great educational resource!


  15. Check out Pink Stinks who campaign against just such things.


  16. So, in a previous comment I said I wouldn’t get started on media for kids, but since you brought it up😉

    First: yes advertisement targeted at kids under 13 is prohibited here in Sweden, but still there is a lot of it poorly disguised as targeted at parents or older young people. Also, with regards to television many channels air from brittain where such laws don’t exist so they are still full of it.

    Secondly I wish to make a point on the difference between ads and actual content. While it is true that the ads are more fierce in their propaganda (probably due to the time constraint) most content is equally if not more harsh (as it can be slightly more subtle) in designing gender roles.

    The bechdel test can be applied to this too, and the outcome is gross. One thing that particullary disgusts me is that almost everything where there are any female characters at all has the over-arching theme of heterosexual coupling.

    In the end it doesn’t really matter how complex the female characters are, they will end up in a pair. (The male characters are mostly not even tried to be pictured as complex – but largely posses only the traits outlined in the above video)

    Keep up the good work,


  17. More interesting data supporting your findings: Toy Ad Vocab Word Clouds


  18. I’m 47, American, and I grew up in a blue-collar household. I played with dolls because I genuinely liked them (I never had kids as an adult), but was lucky that my parents never thought it odd that I liked erector sets, action figures, and the like as well. I just liked what I liked. A few years ago I dated a guy who had a 10-year-old son. I’d ridden my bike to their house, and I was fixing something, and the son said, “you like things that boys like.” I told him, “I like things that *I* like.” He thought about it and smiled.


  19. […] this heavily color-coded world of children’s play, policed through gendered toy ads, catalogs and cartoons, this J. Crew advertisement comes as a breath of fresh air.Without eliciting […]


  20. […] this heavily color-coded world of children’s play, policed through gendered toy ads, catalogs and cartoons, this J. Crew advertisement comes as a breath of fresh air.Without eliciting […]


  21. This is EXACTLY why I wanted boy’s toys as a kid in the 80’s. Girl’s toys were lame and vapid.


  22. My father put me in front of a computer when I was four. I grew up playing Tomb Raider and Age of Empires and fighting with wood-swords with my friends. And now I study computer science (and I plan on joining the 3% of women in Open Source Development) and I enjoy video games as much as I enjoy dressing up.
    So my point is, I watched those commercials as a kid. But my parents always made sure I could play with and do whatever I enjoyed most. I truly believe that if you give a kid the choice, he’ll be smart enough to figure out what he likes. My brother and I used to play with the same toys, we turned out okay (at least I like to think so).
    Anyway, I’m not saying that there isn’t an issue with these commercials. But I think that parents should maybe turn off the TV sometimes, and let their kids play with whatever they want. Why not buy both “kinds” of toys and let the kid figure out by himself ? It worked for me.


  23. I found your article interesting, I don’t know how advertising affects other kids but I remember how I reacted to it. I must say I didn’t feel it limited me. I have parents who from early on taught me to always distrust ads, but apart from that, I just found the girly stuff weird and entirely didn’t relate to it, because it was so pink and fluffy that it just didn’t interest me. So I can’t say it limited me.

    I was interested in the boys stuff or the unisex stuff (zoos and circuses and stuff, which are marketed to both sexes), and I didn’t feel as if it was restricted to boys, even if only boys were featured in the ads.

    What I do agree with is that parents should restrict their kids TV intake and especially of commercials – but of all kind of commercials, because the much bigger danger I see is that they get the idea that you can buy yourself happiness. Forbidding ads under 12 is a brilliant idea, they should do that everywhere. Another idea would be that you might have to have a gender quote for ads, so if you advertise a product with a group of kids, you have to use at least one boy and one girl.


  24. A perfect example is She-Ra and how she was handled by two different companies. Mattel despite wanting to further cash in on the large [and unexpected] market of female he-man fans relayed on “barbie” marketing. Despite Mattel’s marketing many boys had She-Ra “dolls” [myself included] BECAUSE she was He-Man’s twin sister! The cartoon producers (and originators of the idea to spin off from he-Man) really understood the mind of children and crafted positive pro social messages in their programming.


  25. […] Toy Ads And Learning Gender from Feminist Frequency (a video) Article | 0 Comments January 16, […]


  26. My mother had many lessons for me while growing up, but the biggest one was “don’t get brainwashed by advertising”. It’s nice to hear someone echo my mother’s teachings.


  27. Do you know this great game ? :
    Totally gendre neutral and totally entertaining ! It was really popular in France when I was little, I don’t know if it’s well-known in the US.



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