Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Pink and Blue Toy Aisles Part 2: Messages about girls and boys

Tinker Toys for Boys

Tinker Toys for Girls

A lot of people are making a big deal out of Target’s plan to get rid of gender coded toy aisles. I have to ask, what’s the deal with the pink and blue division in the toy aisle? When I was growing up, there were construction toys like TinkerToys, Legos, and Lincoln Logs, but they were all the same color. My older brother, twin sister and I all played with the same toys. They didn’t have to be color coded for us to know which were appropriate for each of us.

But these days, there are very clear lines drawn in advertisements directed to children between what toys are “for” boys or girls. Packed into these advertisements are consistent messages about behaviors, interests, and activities that are appropriate for girls and boys. Research has found that television commercials for children overwhelmingly present gender stereotypes, with pastel colors, cooperation, and indoor play associated primarily with girls and competition and outdoor play associated with boys (Kahlenberg & Hein, 2010).

In a study conducted by Johnson and Young (2002), the researchers examined the themes of gendered voice and words present in children’s television commercials. Clear gender patterns were found in the types of verbs that were used:

  • Action, competition and destruction rating high in advertisements that featured boys and boy-targeted products.

Wordle by Crystal Smith from Achilles Effect

  • Verbs that focused on limited activity and feelings and nurturing rated high in advertisements that featured girls and girl-targeted products.

Wordle by Crystal Smith from Achilles Effect

Another pattern that was found involved the use of verbs of agency or control. These words were found more often in boys-oriented advertisements than girl-oriented advertisements, with a ratio being over 4:1.

When we consider the use of the word power and related words, 21% of boy oriented advertisements used the words power or powerful, but in all of the girl-oriented advertisements, there was only one incident of the word “power” being used, and it was in the context of identifying the maker of a Barbie car (Power Wheels). Johnson and Young conclude

“Toy makers and their advertisers either make no effort to associate or may consciously avoid associating girl-toys with power or their potential to transfer power to their users” (Johnson & Young, 2002, p. 477).

My oldest daughter and I saw this for ourselves when we were shopping for clothes one day. She pointed the differences in these two ads out to me. The one by the boys clothing says, “Wear it Proud.” The one by the girls clothing says, “Wear it Flirty.” I wrote a whole post about the fact that these ads exemplify the way that marketing targeting boys promotes agency, while marketing that targets girls often promotes objectification. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself. Listen to the words used in ads that target the different genders, write down what you hear, and you’ll see that the messages sent to boys and girls are often very different.

Ad for Boys
Ad for Boys
Ad for Girls
Ad for Girls

Hilliard, L.J. & Liben, L.S. (2010). Differing levels of gender salience in preschool classrooms: Effects on children’s gender attitudes and intergroup bias. Child Development, 81, 1787-1798.

Johnson, F.L. & Young, K. (2002). Gendered voices in children’s television advertising. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19, 461-480.

Kahlenberg, S.G. & Hein, M.M. (2010). Progression on Nickelodeon? Gender-role stereotypes in toy commercials. Sex Roles, 62, 830-847.

Miller, C.F., Lurye, L.E., Zosuls, K.M., & Ruble, D.N. (2009). Accessibility of gender stereotype domains: Developmental and gender differences in children. Sex Roles, 60, 870-881.

Pike, J.J. & Jennings, N.A. (2005). The effects of commercials on children’s perceptions of gender appropriate toy use. Sex Roles, 52, 83-91.

One comment on “Pink and Blue Toy Aisles Part 2: Messages about girls and boys

  1. Pingback: LEGO Objectifying Little Girls: Makeovers for the under 12’s | Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

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