Should Marketers Stop Gender Specific Marketing?

Does it make sense to target gender in today's business environment?


A recent survey of 8,000 adults conducted by the Fawcett Society has found that people do not want to be ‘boxed in’ on gender issues by retailers, and called for an end to the marketing of products specifically towards males or females. They argued that such marketing enforced gender ‘stereotypes’, and almost half of respondents expressed the belief that gender was more ‘fluid’ than simply being confined to men and women.

This has long been in an issue in children’s toys, and a number of companies ended gender-biased marketing in their toy departments some time ago. Toys R Us pledged to stop marketing toys as exclusively for boys or girls back in 2013, while WalMart, Amazon, Tesco, and many others, have done the same. Towards the end of last year, Target decided to join them, albeit arriving slightly late to the gender neutral party. This has brought the issue to the fore once again, and raised the heckles of conservatives who believe that in doing so, Target is helping to erode family values.

A statement by Target set out their reasoning simply, saying: ‘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.’

How toys are labelled and displayed affects consumers’ buying habits, with many parents uncomfortable buying a pink toy for their son, or their daughters one labelled as ‘for boys’. The impact of color is dramatic, and can taint whether or not a child will play with a toy they may otherwise play with if it was marketed differently. This was reinforced by a 2014 paper co-authored by Dinella, which argued that color can be used to manipulate children’s perceptions of what toys they should play with, and found girls far more likely to opt for traditionally male toys if they were pink. This is not a preference that we are born with. Most cognitive research suggests that all babies actually prefer blue, and any preference girls may have for pink is conditioned, usually arising around the age of 2 years of age, and becoming more pronounced through early life.

Forcing gender roles has many problems, and can hinder child development in ways that have long term implications for society as a whole. Dr Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist studying children and gender inequality at the University of Californian, noted that: ’studies have found that gendered toys do shape children’s play preferences and styles. Because gendered toys limit the range of skills and attributes that both boys and girls can explore through play, they may prevent children from developing their full range of interests, preferences, and talents.’ This has tremendous implications, and correlates directly with inequalities seen later in adult life. Research shows that by late primary school age, children have already assigned job roles that boys do, and job roles that girls do. These sort of ideas do not leave you easily. Social scientists further argue that toys designed to encourage spatial awareness, which are traditionally targeted at boys, encourage children to go into careers in math, science or engineering. The negative impact of this is already seen in STEM, where women make up as little as 20% of the IT industry and just 13% of all STEM occupations - compared with approximately 40% of the total global workforce.

It is not just from a scientific sense that gender neutral toys make sense, though. Walmart and Target are not, after all, charitable organizations whose primary duty it is to enforce or get rid of gender roles. They want to make money. As Target noted in its statement, customer habits have changed. Consumer surveys have shown that when it comes to two-income households, it is fathers who are increasingly buying the toys over mothers, meaning a bigger push towards construction toys and the like, as they evoke strong feelings and emotions in men. Across marketing, we are also seeing a push to give more power to consumers, and Tom Meyvis, a professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business, notes that removing gender labels from toys hands more control to the customer, allowing them to ‘decide for themselves what is the ideal product for their son or daughter, rather than being told this is the category your child falls into.’

This is a controversial and emotive topic. The comments section of various conservative publications, such as the Daily Telegraph, are filled with people who believe that a gender-neutral shopping experiences is part of some Marxist conspiracy to erode traditional family values. However, if undertaken for business growth reasons, then perhaps it has less to do with family values and more to do with common sense.  

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