Make It Blue, Make It Pink: Manhattan’s Toys “R” Us And Gender-Based Marketing

Last week, toy retailer Toys “R” Us made headlines by committing to a gender-neutral marketing strategy in their UK stores, bowing to the UK and Ireland-based campaign Let Toys Be Toys. The company says it will implement the goal of gender-neutral marketing by depicting boys and girls playing with the same toys in advertisements, as well as removing explicitly gendered language from their stores. The decision came after Toys “R” Us Sweden’s similar move last year to issue a gender-neutral Christmas catalogue, after being cited for gender discrimination.

But what of the company’s strategy here in its headquarters, the United States? NYU Local headed to Manhattan’s two franchises to investigate.

Toys “R” Us states that its strategy is to organize its stores by product type, not gender. (The same cannot be said of its website, however, which has sections clearly labeled “Girls’ Toys” and “Boys’ Toys.”) The international flagship store in Times Square, of indoor Ferris wheel fame, seems to live up to that statement. Barbie dolls and Marvel action figures are adjacent on the top floor, while the Thomas the Tank Engine bookshelf neighbors the Dora the Explorer bookshelf. “Role play kits,” or costumes, all hang on the same rack. The company is true to its word — in this store, at least. But does that mean the store is gender-neutral?

Not if the toy manufacturers themselves have anything to say about it. Products are grouped together, but the color-coded segregation is pervasive. Toy cars labeled My First RC come in a fancy Ford blue and a retro pink. A children’s imitation iPad, Innotab 3s, is available in blue and in pink, with a Pixar row of blue car- and superhero-themed games and a row of pink Disney Princess and fairy-themed games to match. This is the common theme in the store: two differently colored versions of the exact product sit on the shelf together.

The other seemingly universal trope in these manufacturers’ toy advertising is the use of both boys and girls to advertise “blue” or “male” products, as if gender-neutral, but to exclusively show girls playing with “pink” or “female” products. The same Little Tikes basketball hoop comes in blue and pink; the blue hoop shows a boy and a girl facing off, while two girls use the pink hoop. Similarly, Nerf guns still sell their classic blue-and-black design under the plain name “Nerf,” while their pink gun is marketed as the “Nerf Rebelle.” The “male” version gets no qualifier, but the “female” version has a special name — boys are gender-neutral, girls are a special category.

While the anecdotal evidence gathered in the trip to the flagship store would seem to fault the manufacturers alone for creating this blue-and-pink gender divide, a visit to the much smaller Toys “R” Us Express in Manhattan Mall clears up this misconception. One half of the store is overwhelmingly blue and the other pink, and the trend of male preference masquerading as gender-neutrality continues. Action figures are on the other end of the store from baby dolls, and neither female-marketed action figures nor male-marketed dolls are available. On the blue half of the store, sports products are stocked: a TotSports T-Ball Set sits atop something in faded pink called a TotSports Girls’ T-Ball Set. On the pink half of the store, domestic products from dollhouses to play furniture are stocked: the Minnie Patio Set is a pink table advertised by a pink clad girl, while the Construction Table next to it is a similar table in primary colors not shown with a child at all. In the back middle, the boy half of the store and the girl half of the store merge at Legos: superheroes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the Lone Ranger in blue face off against the monolithic “Lego Friends” in pink (advertised with girls, needless to say).

Toys “R” Us is not responsible for the deeply ingrained manufacturing decision to portray boys’ products as neutral and girls’ products as, well, girls’ — after all, English is a language where “mankind” is somehow gender-neutral. But why the disparity between the polished, integrated approach of the flagship store and the blatant segregation of the local store as well as the website? The retailer evidently cooperates with the ongoing marketing strategy of manufacturers, and is no mere messenger.

Even if the removal of gendered vocabulary has yet to effect visible change, the news coming out of the UK speaks to the power of popular campaigns in motivating companies to change policy. It will ultimately be down to American customers to decide whether to pursue more options for their children in a similar manner. But for now, the blue-and-pink divide is here to stay.

Photos by Julia Wang.



One Comment

  • Randall
    September 30, 2013

    Catherine, I think you brought up a very valid point. If we are going to change the stereotypes about toys, we really need society to change. It can’t just be the toy stores. It’s got to also be the manufacturers. We have a long way to go, but the efforts in the UK are a good start.

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