Even as the concept of gender equality gains attention, children’s toys, clothes, films and books are still entrenched in rigid gender roles. But change may be on the horizon: Getty Images’ research and data shows more brands are choosing to blur gender lines, particularly with the photos they select for their advertising and communications needs.

According to research by University of California at Davis postdoctoral scholar Elizabeth Sweet which ran in The Atlantic, “the marketing of toys is more gendered now than even 50 years ago, when gender discrimination and sexism were the norm.”

But Getty Images’ top-selling images of children show a different story. Photos of girls jumping in muddy puddles, climbing trees and riding plastic motorcycles and pictures of boys playing with teddy bears, baking and playing dress up have risen to the top of the bestseller list, becoming popular with a broad range of customers.

 

 

Customers are keen to the visual messages these pictures convey. When choosing images, brands should embrace images that break clichés, and avoid relying on stereotypes.

Escaping clichés

Beyond brands, academic research supports this kind of gender-blending makes sense, as studies find little innate difference in the preferences of boys and girls.

“If you want to develop children’s physical, cognitive, academic, musical, and artistic skills, toys that are not strongly gender-typed are more likely to do this,” according to an interview with Professor Judith Elaine Blakemore by The National Association for the Education of Young Children. The research clearly shows that relying on gender stereotypes only serves to limit children’s choices, their chances to learn and develop, and also opens up the potential for bullying.

Innovative Advertising Examples

This heavily shared Lego ad from the early 1980’s shows a young girl playing with Lego, which now seems incredibly modern. The evidence is strong; avoiding gender stereotypes in marketing to children (and their parents) helps brands to connect.

leog ad

So why are there currently only a few great examples out there that do just that?

The few cases of gender-neutral kids’ clothing have gained popularity and praise. Brands like Polarn O. Pyret sum it up perfectly – they state on their site: “There is really no reason to design different models and fits for small boys and girls since there is no great difference in the way their bodies are shaped…. We primarily want to offer children and parents freedom of choice.”

Swedish toy company Leklust published a catalogue a few years ago where they mixed up traditional girl’s and boy’s toys – imagine boys in Spiderman costumes pushing pink strollers. The catalogue was met with surprise and praise. Yet, the fact that this was considered so groundbreaking is a bit sad – a boy pushing a toy buggy or a girl playing with a plastic dragon shouldn’t be so shocking.

leklust ad

What’s also unfortunate is that we haven’t seen much like this since.

There are signs of things slowly changing – Lammily, a ‘realistic fashion doll’ with believable body proportions (including muscles) has just been launched, and the kids playing with it say she might be “a gymnast, a teacher or work with computers” as opposed to Barbie who they say is probably a model or “fashion star.”

The hip kids clothing line Mini Rodini doesn’t mention the words “boy” or “girl” anywhere. Their playful and graphic prints are simply categorized into “tops,” “bottoms” and “outerwear.” Many toy stores like Hamleys in London have similarly started to re-categorize their departments – not into “boy toys” and “girl toys,” but simply into “dolls,” “cars,” “dress-up play” and “craft.”

The impact on commercial imagery

What it’s all about is choice – we need to give children the freedom to choose – we need to widen the range of options available and allow children to explore and develop their skills and interests – and they need to do this unconstrained by expectation and gender stereotypes.

Imagery choices by brands need to reflect these shifts.

Discover modern and authentic imagery of children