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Toying With Gender-Neutral Labels

In mid-August Target made headlines after announcing a phase-out of gender-based signage in certain children’s sections of its store. The move came after an Ohio mom called out the retailer on Twitter for gender designation in its toy aisle, noting signage for “Girls’ Building Sets” next to regular “Building Sets”. Target took action after other consumers joined in the dialogue:   

“Over the past year, guests have raised important questions about a handful of signs in our stores that offer product suggestions based on gender. In some cases, like apparel, where there are fit and sizing differences, it makes sense. In others, it may not. Historically, guests have told us that sometimes—for example, when shopping for someone they don’t know well—signs that sort by brand, age or gender help them get ideas and find things faster. But we know that shopping preferences and needs change and, as guests have pointed out, in some departments like Toys, Home or Entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary. We heard you, and we agree. Right now, our teams are working across the store to identify areas where we can phase out gender-based signage to help strike a better balance.”

Target announced it will begin by removing reference to gender in the Bedding and Toys aisles, including the use of pink, blue, yellow or green paper on the back walls of its shelves.

Recently we’ve written about the concept of gender neutrality as it relates to fashion, apparel, and accessories. In response to an emerging segment of consumers in support of gender fluidity, many brands and retailers are blurring the lines and offering apparel that can be worn by anyone, irrespective of gender.

When we consider gender in the context of toys and children’s products, it brings into question that age-old “nature versus nurture” debate. Do girls like dolls in pink dresses because that’s what stores market and sell to them? Do boys like blue trucks because that’s what they’re encouraged to like when they receive them as gifts from Grandpa? Or is there something innate in humans that accounts for the 96 percent of doll purchases gifted to girls and 90 percent of action figure purchases gifted to boys?  

Consider the fact that boys once wore pink. In the mid-19th century, pastel pink and blue were added to the formerly all-white baby palette. Around 1918, a department store proclaimed that pink was for boys, and blue for girls—as pink was considered a stronger color, and blue more delicate. In the 1940s, this color assignment was swapped in response to manufacturer and retailer color interpretations. So this blue/boy pink/girl association was happenstance.

We decided to look at how parents feel about this debate today. In an online poll of U.S. adults conducted through The NPD Group's partner CivicScience, we asked respondents to what degree they agreed with the statement “The toy industry perpetuates gender stereotyping and should be marketing every toy to both boys and girls”.

We found 31 percent of respondents strongly disagreed, 28 percent didn’t have an opinion on the issue, and the rest were divided pretty evenly between strongly agree (14 percent), somewhat agree (14 percent), and somewhat disagree (13 percent). So among the general population, most respondents (44 percent) disagreed with the statement, in favor of marketing toys differently to boys and girls.

However, responses to this question differed drastically for particular segments. For example, 36 percent of females either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, compared to only 18 percent of men. Millennials were even more supportive of gender-neutral toy marketing, with 40 percent in agreement with this statement.

Responses to Question by Segment

There were some other notable correlations in the data. People who think toy companies should practice genderless marketing to kids are 166 percent more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. They’re more likely to support same-sex marriage, be concerned about climate change, and worry about income inequality.

They’re also 136 percent more likely to consume most of their TV content via streaming service, 34 percent more likely to rate price over brand in making a purchase decision, 45 percent more likely to use Facebook daily, and twice as likely to use Instagram daily.

So what does this mean for big box retailers like Target? The proof is in the data. While today most adults may take no issue with gender stereotyping within the toy industry, as Millennials begin to have children of their own and purchase items with kids in mind, retailers would be wise to start adapting their marketing strategies to this segment’s set of evolving wants and needs.  

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