TOP-TOY Group, a licensee of the Toys “R” Us brand, has published a gender-neutral toy catalog for the Christmas season in Sweden. The publication includes images of girls playing with toy guns and pictures of boys playing with toy blow-dryers.
The change is driven in part by the Swedish government's efforts to require “gender equality” through the law, but also by some societal trends. Since the 1970s, some experts have claimed that children are biased toward certain behaviors because of societal standards, not biology. The change in Swedish toy advertising is the latest manifestation of that belief system.
However, the theory remains debatable. A story at the Huffington Post, hardly a conservative outlet, reported that research done with monkeys in 2002 and 2008 found that male adolescent monkeys preferred to play with wheeled vehicles while the females preferred dolls. This would suggest biological factors, not the “macho” expectations monkey parents have for boys, were the cause.
Writing at Parenting magazine's website, psychologist Anita Sethi noted that as a “post-feminist Mom” she strove to avoid giving her children gender-stereotyped toys, “offering glittery finger paint to my son and trains to my daughter. But it didn't matter: My son turned his doll's crib into a race car and my daughter was obsessed with shoes.”
Even as some groups insist on a strict gender-neutral approach to selling children's toys, those marketing to adults aren't as constrained. The Wall Street Journal recently noted airlines are finding men and women have very different preferences when flying. The carriers are adjusting service to appeal to women, who now represent a much larger share of frequent-flier travelers. Delta Air Lines is considering menu changes to in-flight servings. Hyatt Hotels is changing the brands of bathroom products it uses.
Gender differences also are being noted in political campaigns. President Barack Obama's re-election effort famously used data-gathering to micro-target certain voters, gathering more than 80 pieces of information about citizens — including, you guessed it, gender. Time magazine described one of the campaign's data-driven approaches to women in stark terms, saying the “backroom number crunchers who powered Barack Obama's campaign to victory noticed that George Clooney had an almost gravitational tug on West Coast females ages 40 to 49,” making them “far and away the single demographic group most likely to hand over cash” for a chance to dine with Clooney and Obama.
“So as they did with all the other data collected, stored and analyzed in the two-year drive for re-election,” wrote reporter Michael Scherer, “Obama's top campaign aides decided to put this insight to use.”
Typically, those with a liberal worldview are more likely to argue that gender differences are societal constructions, while those with a conservative worldview tend to view them as perfectly natural. Obviously, environment (parenting) plays a huge role in child development, but we suspect most people will see the Top-Toy Group's catalog as a sop to political correctness rather than a serious effort to encourage children to develop a wider range of interests.
If the campaign of Barack Obama, the most liberal political candidate in a generation, believed voters' gender differences justified different marketing approaches, then is it really so ridiculous for toy companies to assume certain products will appeal more to girls than boys and let their advertising reflect it?