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The gender agenda: is it time for Kiwi brands to stop perpetuating stereotypes?

This weekend my mailbox was inundated with catalogues from big retailers telling me about their current toy sale. Apparently ‘tis the season. As I flicked through one of the catalogues I began to notice just how gender-specific it was. In the “play and pretend” section (it is a sea of pink) there are little girls playing with Barbie glam pools and day spas, or wheeling around a shopping trolley (with food no less). Or, they can take their pick from one of the kitchen, supermarket, pots and pans or laundry playsets. Flick a few more pages, and you’ll find the pink ‘craft and creativity’ section, or the blue ‘action and adventure’ section.  You get the picture.  

A couple of weeks back, I watched a television commercial in which the voice-over claims  “Girls are all about pink, princess pink….while boys are all about roughing it up with Monster Jam Monster trucks”. And it got me thinking, are these stereotypes something brands should continue to perpetuate? Now, I don’t think they were actually trying to raise any eyebrows. After all they’re just reinforcing the relatively innocuous “girls like pink, boys like blue” stereotype. Aren’t they?

These brands might want to take a look at Lego’s recent foray in to gender-based marketing, where it introduced Lego Friends, a “girlified” version of their beloved building blocks. Lego Friends are Olivia, Stephanie, Mia, Emma and Andrea—appropriately ethnically diverse, shapely mini-figures that lock into pink, purple and pastel green settings, such as a dream house, a splash pool and a beauty shop [here's an interview in BusinessWeek with Lego's market research manager about the rationale behind it. 

“This is the most significant strategic launch we’ve done in a decade,” said Lego group chief executive Jørgen Vig Knudstorp. “We want to reach the other 50 percent of the world’s children.” 

Best intentions and all that, but there's been a fair bit of controversy and a pair of 22-year old activists for girls has started to petition the company to commit to gender equity in marketing. Apparently girls liked the original Lego blocks just fine. The irony of course is that Lego is a brand that has a long history of trying to break down stereotypes by getting girls to build things. 

Riley Maida (age four) has become a proxy spokesperson for the movement. Her rant on YouTube has become a sensation. "Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses, some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses. So why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different color stuff?" she asked. The bottom line is that almost 60,000 people have signed the petition and Riley’s rant has almost four million views. Which can’t be good for sales. 

Loads of businesses assign gender to toys. It’s not new. You only have to walk through retail stores in New Zealand and know that there is a “girls section” and a “boys section”. If a girl wants to buy a Star Wars action figure, she has to “cross the line” to the boys section (and vice-versa). Some schools of thought will argue that gender-based marketing contributes to gender-based bullying. The problem, as pointed out by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, is “socialisation does such a thorough job of teaching little girls their proper role that by the time they reach adulthood, they believe that their gender-appropriate impulses and behaviors ... are intrinsic expressions of their personalities rather than learned behavior.” 

I wonder whether it’s time for New Zealand brands to step up and not perpetuate stereotypes? Brands, take heed, hell hath no fury like a mother whose kid is put in a limiting (gender-specific) box.

Rachel Ellerm has recently returned home and set up a new agency, Frock Marketing, a research-based strategic consultancy that aims to help businesses better understand what makes women tick and what this means for their marketing efforts.

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