Gender-Based Toy Marketing at Target and Wal-Mart

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Target's "boy" toy aisle

Today, we were at Target buying milk, eggs, baby food -- all the regular supplies.  We also needed to pick up a birthday gift for a friend of Annie Rose's.  Usually, I avoid the toy aisles like the plague when the girls are with me, or else I am besieged with requests for next year's holiday season, their birthdays, and every other gift-giving occasion.
Katie, whose birthday is in September, hit a new record in advance planning this year when it was October and she pointed out something that she wanted me to keep in mind for her next birthday.

Fortunately, today the girls were surprisingly not in an acquisitive mood as we zipped past the enticing toys, and we picked up a gift for a four-year-old girl easily.  We headed toward the checkout.  But then I wheeled my cart back around.
"Katie, look at the background behind the shelves of toys.  What do you notice?"
The background behind the Star Wars figures, Legos, construction toys and cars was blue.  The background behind the Barbies, kitchen toys, dolls, Disney princesses and dress-up clothes was pink.  Here was gender-based marketing, and I explained it to Katie.

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Target's "girl" toy aisle

"The store has grouped toys that are traditionally for girls in the pink section and toys that are traditionally for boys in the blue section.  So, if you are a girl who wants to buy a Star Wars Lego set, you are made to feel as if you are crossing into the "boys section" to get your toy.  This is one of the reasons why the boys taunted you for carrying a Star Wars water bottle - you stepped outside of the box." 

WalMart is slightly worse than Target, because they even have signs over the toy aisles that say "Girls" and "Boys," but the end result is the same - retailers are assigning a gender to toys.

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WalMart's gender-based toy marketing

Then I walked Katie over to an aisle that happened to be neutral.  It was the aisle that contained gift wrap for all occasions.  "What color is the background behind these shelves?" I asked her.  "Yellow," she answered, and we talked about how yellow is for everyone.

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Target's "neutral" gift wrap aisle

 "Why don't they have yellow or green behind all the toys?" she asked.

Yes, Target and WalMart, here it is out of the mouth of a young toy consumer:
Why don't you have yellow or green behind all the toy shelves?  
Or white? Or red?  We all know you chose pink and blue because those colors are associated with a gender. 

Target and WalMart and other mass retailers have spent a ton of money on consultants who have helped them create toy aisles designed to maximize sales.  There has been a (hopefully unintended) externality of the marketing campaigns.  Gender-based toy marketing fosters teasing and taunting among children as young as toddlers. 

Gender-based bullying is a reality in our country, and retailers have a responsibility to rethink the way they market toys. 

It takes courage to try something different.  But if you were an executive at Target or Wal-Mart, how would you feel if your son was crying because the other kids laughed at him for playing with a doll?  What if your company could make some easy changes that would impact millions of kids?  

Bullying prevention is a very difficult, multi-faceted process.  There are no quick fixes and no magic bullets.  But changing the color of the background in the toy aisles is some pretty low-hanging fruit.  Please suggest it to Target and WalMart the next time you are there.  Let's change the landscape and give kids a chance to choose for themselves which toy aisles they want to browse.

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  • I'm a woman who loves blue, always have. I appreciate that you emphasized to Katie that pink and blue was what somebody chose to determine girls and boys, and that many other people have followed that - but she doesn't have to.

    At times I get uneasy in discussions like this. Yellow is for everyone, for example, but so is pink and so is blue. I'd go for blue behind Barbie, and pink behind the Hot Wheels, and/or any combo of any color behind either. I know girls who really like pink, and boys who really like blue, and vice versa. We need to consider what the child likes, not just assume, and to teach them that blue, pink, yellow, green, red, etc. are only colors that they are free to like or dislike for themselves.

  • My four-year-old son still doesn't know that he's "supposed" to like all things blue and "boy" and that all things pink and girly are not for him. He has Legos and Star Wars toys and trucks but he also has a doll and stroller, a kitchen, and for his birthday we bought him a Princess and the Frog figurine play set because he really loved the movie and no one else would get it for him. Most folks in the family come over and see his "girl toys" and they raise their eyebrows and make comments in a voice that is slightly condescending but they don't dare tell him he's not supposed to have those toys because they know I would be angry at them for spoiling his fun and teaching him such a crappy lesson. I know it will happen someday, but I want him to love what he loves for as long as he can and hopefully no one will shame him out of it (yeah, I know that's not realistic). And now I have twin girls and I am so sick to death of pink. I like pink but why does everything have to be pink for them. They even make toys pink that used to be gender neutral - duplo blocks for example. I want the girls to love all colors and not be told that they have to love pink in everything they do and wear. I remember fighting this stuff when I was a little girl and it makes me sad that it's just as bad today. The best I can do is talk to my kids about it all, much in the same way that you do, and hope that they can feel confident enough to go ahead and like what they like and not what they're told they are supposed to like.

  • I agree with everything you've been saying about this subject for some time. But since I work for Target (store level) please share this with your readers. At store level there is nothing we can do about the colors so please don't ask or demand this there. The choices and changes must come down from corprate so PLEASE send all your requests to them. Bug them, annoy them, ask, plead, beg - whatever it takes for this needs to be changed! And perhaps if Target takes the lead then others (even Walmart) may follow. Hugg the girls for me!

  • Carrie, I love this post. Change happens when people stand up and speak out, and if enough parents speak out about inappropriate gender-based marketing, corporations will take notice!

    I wrote about McDonald's and their gender-based marketing in two blog posts:

    McDonald's, at the corporate level, is actually being quite progressive, and I commend them for that. But as their policy trickles down to the individual server level, it breaks down and servers tend to ask parents buying Happy Meals, "Boy toy or girl toy?" But maybe with your agitating, Walmart and Target will start to think about their corporate policy too!

    And...I voted for you :-)

  • Fellow CN blogger here- I write The New Gender.

    Thanks for this! It's super rad to see others thinking and talking about gender scripts. And you've done it in such an awesome way.

    I'd also like to add that this is how we not only teach boys and girls what do like/ play with, but also what gender is. Gender is that giant un-written rule book that says boys must be masculine and girls raise kids. For gender non-conforming kids, this kind of teaching at a young age can be devastating.

    Rock on,
    K. Sosin

  • These stores aren't marketing to the little kids, they're marketing to the adults who hold the money. Ms. Goldman, you even stated that you avoid these aisles when your kids are with you, which leads me to believe that your kids are not overly influenced by the color schemes. I for one, love the quick distinction so that when I'm buying a gift for my nephew or niece, I know which aisle to run in and out of quickly. Kids know the toys that they want and will continue to want them, no matter what color background the toy is hung against.
    I don't think this has to become a huge soapbox for teaching gender roles/equality/diversity and other big issues, it's nothing more than marketing, which is an industry that puts millions of dollars towards the study of colors, and how they influence buying decisions. Little Katie is adorable but I'm 100% positive that if she wanted a Barbie, she would want it no matter the color of the display and the same goes if she wanted a fire truck.

  • This argument is a reach, and beyond that, is contentious. I might add that it is a form of bullying. The idea that Walmart and Target are somehow an influence in bullying is preposterous. In order for that to be true, you

  • thanks - this was nice to find. i am teach an advanced art class at a small liberal arts college near chicago and tomorrow we are covering Judith Butler's "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution" essay. your comment relating to your daughter's experience with her Star Wars toy is a perfect example of how gender is constructed from an early age - i think i'll even reference saukrebl's comment about hospitals.

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