Should all marketing to children be gender-neutral?

Should all marketing to children be gender-neutral?
Should all marketing to children be gender-neutral?

The Marketing Society Forum: Marks & Spencer has pledged to make its toy marketing gender-neutral in response to criticism about its "Boy's Stuff" and "Little Miss Arty" lines.

Each month The Forum questions members of The Marketing Society on a hot topic. For more on membership, visit



I think Marks & Spencer has done the right thing, but does changing some on-pack branding and not grouping toys by gender mean retailers have embraced gender-neutral marketing? Of course not.

Let's be realistic about the art of the possible here. True gender-neutral marketing would go much further than this and, in my view, would have questionable value.

We know the choices we make as consumers are shaped by marketing messages; that applies to children as well, but it is much more complex than that. Our make-up and life experiences have a massive impact. The environment in which we bring up children needs to nurture their interests, whatever their gender, but also make them ready to face the world independently.

All marketers should have a strong moral compass when it comes to the messages we put in front of children. We know we can do better, but turning everything gender-neutral won't achieve that.



Let toys be toys, I say. But a difference should be acknowledged between how retailers categorise and sell toys and how brands package and market them. Stores like Hamleys have redesigned their layout from separate girls' and boys' floors, which divided some products from others on gender lines.

But it would be strange for Mattel to redesign Barbie's packaging and marketing to appeal to a gender-neutral audience with a female doll. There is a vast chasm between implicit gender stereotyping and categorisation, and products being created to appeal to specific demographics.

Target audiences for products are necessities, but don't exclude an item's potential to appeal to other users. How products are perceived by customers and welcomed into their lives (or not, as the case may be) is a matter more of societal influence rather than marketing persuasion.



The big risk for all of us is that nervousness about this issue results in dumbing-down toys and entertainment for children.

At Merlin, enjoyment and fun are gender-neutral - it's all about playing, using your imagination and sharing experiences with friends and family. And now more than ever - given how much digital entertainment involves solitary activity or virtual interaction - this face-to-face "sharing of fun" feels essential to childhood.

Each of our 100 attractions worldwide provides daily feedback, and we hold regular focus and feedback groups. Time and again these prove that our customers defy categorisation: thrill-seekers come in all shapes, sizes and ages - and definitely both genders.

So instead of overreacting to it, maybe we should use this customer pressure to create brilliant toys and messaging that speak to children's imaginations and the sheer fun of playing with others, not their gender.



Differences (between what boys and girls like to play with) pre-date the influence of marketers and their brands, but expecting marketers to ignore basic and profound differences in their audience seems ill-conceived and impractical. It is also very hard to see where you would draw the line on strict gender-neutrality in marketing.

Having said that, it is clearly unacceptable to market to children in a way that reinforces negative prejudices and limits their ideas of what may or may not be their possible aptitudes or future careers.

The really great kids-targeted brands (from Lego to Harry Potter) appeal to both genders, and children can be refreshingly impervious to adult-imposed "rules" about which toys are for them. But surely there will always be a place for gender-specific toys, gender-specifically marketed, in a way that celebrates gender diversity without undermining equality.



Our continuous research among school-age children for our comics and magazines only serves to highlight the differences between boys and girls - how they learn, how they interact with peer groups, even their perceptions of self. By failing to acknowledge these differences as marketers we would fail to understand our audiences effectively and deliver the services and products they want.

Whether those differences are down to nature, nurture or genetics, we should celebrate them while not limiting our children's choices. Activities and careers should not, of course, be labelled as gender-specific, but the widening of the gaming market, such as by Nintendo with Nintendogs, and the growth of baking among boys, inspired by Paul Hollywood, only goes to show that gender-targeted messages and products can be huge drivers for positive change.

Homogenising messages to children surely does them a disservice by failing to acknowledge their unique characteristics.



From their earliest days we dress up our boys as dynamic superheroes and our girls as passive princesses. Then, by colour-coding toys and packaging, we further fuel boys' desire to compete and achieve, and girls' to nurture and collaborate. So, we shouldn't be surprised when men dominate leadership roles in society and women the caring professions.

The "pinkification" of marketing is problematic for society, but it's a missed opportunity for the retailers, too. Gender-neutral marketing broadens the appeal of products to another 50% of the potential target audience.

Having been to the recent Advertising Association "Lead 2014", I was much struck by the discussion about the roles, rights and responsibilities of advertisers. This is not just about a legal right to market as companies choose, it is also a question of them taking their responsibilities seriously.


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