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Ethics, marketing and children

January 22, 2014

Dr Emma Rush lectures in philosophy and ethics at Charles Sturt University. Her research on the sexualisation of children is nationally recognised. Emma was the lead author of two papers on the sexualisation of children released by the Australia Institute in 2006, which prompted considerable public debate and ultimately led to a Senate Inquiry into the issue.

Emma continues to write and speak about ethical issues relating to children and the media, recently presenting a session entitled ‘The ethical implications of gendered toy marketing’ at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics in Canberra. She is currently working on a paper with Cordelia Fine about this issue.

We spoke with Dr Rush recently about her work.

TH: Thankyou so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to discuss the issue of gendered marketing of toys to children. Your previous work in raising the issue of the sexualisation of children in marketing and media created a lot of discussion around this practice, including instigating a Senate Inquiry into the issue and the subsequent harm caused to children.

You gave a talk in Canberra recently about the ethical implications of gendered marketing of toys – during the presentation you mentioned you are writing an article with Cordelia Fine ,can you tell me a bit about the ideas you’ll explore in this paper?

ER: The talk in Canberra was based on an early draft of the article with Cordelia, which is still a work in progress.

Marketers have a general ethical responsibility to promote positive outcomes and minimise negative outcomes for children.
Some people argue that gendered marketing of toys simply responds to children’s natural (biologically-based) gendered preferences. But the scientific literature does not clearly show that there are any such natural (biologically-based) gendered preferences – and even if there were, it would not necessarily be the ethically right thing to do to promote them. It is difficult to determine what counts as ‘natural’ when it comes to human behaviour, and what is ‘natural’ may not always be ethically ‘right’ (for example, if anti-social qualities like aggression and selfishness were natural preferences, that would not make it right for us to promote them).

Research shows that children become aware of their gender identity around the age of 2 years. Research also shows that across all ages – including early childhood – people tend to conform to established gender norms, and that one significant motivator for this is fear of being ostracised by the social group. This tendency to conform to established gender norms – which looks like a free choice, but which is significantly driven by fear of social repercussions – is called ‘self-stereotyping’. Gendered toy marketing affects not only children themselves, but also affects adult preferences about what toys children play with. Given that the fear of negative social repercussions strongly encourages gender-conforming behaviour across all age groups, it is hardly surprising that children exhibit strongly gendered toy preferences by age 3.

TH: Can you explain some of the ways in which gendered toy marketing might be ethically considered to be bad for children? And the ethical obligation which would follow on from that for marketers to reduce or cease gendered toy marketing practices?

ER: The basic reason that such strongly gendered toy preferences are a problem is that all human beings have a diverse range of capacities, and gendered toys tend to promote the development of one particular set of capacities over another set. Toys for girls tend to promote a focus on domestic activities or appearance, and promote co-operative traits. Toys for boys tend to promote a focus on action, construction or weapons, and promote competitive traits.

Some people dismiss this concern about human development, arguing that children are “just having fun” with toys. This is only half true. Children are having fun – but they are not “just” having fun. A great deal of informal learning occurs through play activities, and this lays the foundation for later formal learning in schools and elsewhere. Children deserve equal opportunities to develop strong foundations for learning in all areas, so that they can discover their individual passions and talents, both in childhood and later on. Gendered toy marketing undermines such equal opportunity.

A further concern about gendered toy marketing is that once children form strong preferences for gendered toys, opportunities for mixed-gender play are likely to decline as girls and boys cluster around their preferred sets of toys. Children have many individual qualities and the relative limitation of likely friendships to one or the other gender means that each child may miss important social learning opportunities (not to mention just the plain old joy associated with time spent with a good friend!) Moreover, given that gender norms are still very much operational, and as such, boys and girls are likely to have developed different qualities to different extents, each gender may be able to learn particular things from the other during play activities. But these opportunities are undermined by the gender norms that are reinforced by gendered toy marketing.

Marketers have a general ethical responsibility to promote positive outcomes and minimise negative outcomes for children. Gender-neutral toy marketing would fulfil this responsibility much better than currently gendered toy marketing!

TH: Is there a link between the ethics involved in considering the practice of gendered marketing and your previous research about the sexualisation of children?

ER: In both cases, inappropriate marketing practices have brought with them a range of risks for children, and marketers have been insensitive to these risks. I believe that the insensitivity in both cases has arisen because marketers have not taken seriously enough the right of children to healthy development and the responsibility of everyone in the community – including the business sector – to promote this.

Most people in the business sector are not experts in child development, and nor do they need to be. But if they took the rights of children seriously, they would incorporate the aim of promoting child development into their consultation with such experts rather than limiting such consultation to the aim of selling things to children.

TH: Do you see a link between the toys a child is encouraged to access, their sense of identity and the way they are able to conceive of themselves as they grow into adults?

ER: Firstly, each child is an individual, just like each adult. A more gender-neutral environment in childhood would be very unlikely to lead to ‘everyone being the same’! Instead, it would be likely that we would see some girls still preferring domestic- and appearance-focused toys, and some boys still preferring action-, construction- or weapons-focused toys; but we would also see the opposite, as well as ‘mixed’ toy preferences (for example, as a child, I preferred domestic-, role-play and construction-focused toys), and we would also see children who enjoy all kinds of toys equally.

Secondly, once we recognise the important role of play for informal learning, I think we need to acknowledge that there are some toys which might promote negative or otherwise limiting learning opportunities to any child. ‘Negative or otherwise limited’ learning opportunities are those which if over-emphasised are unlikely to contribute to psychological health and broader life satisfaction in the longer term. Examples include narrowly appearance-focused toys, for example, beauty sets currently marketed to girls, and war or other toys promoting aggression currently marketed to boys. Such toys and related play activities might have some intrinsic appeal for children, but I would argue that they should be balanced with a broader range of toys and play activities if a child is to be given the best start in life.

TH: What do you think we as parents or concerned citizens can do to combat both the gendered marketing of toys and the sexualisation of children in marketing and media?

ER: Obviously we should try to minimise the extent to which we buy ‘gendered’ or ‘sexualised’ toys for the children in our lives (even in my local independent toy store, this means that I reject a lot of the toys as candidates for purchase because they are quite gendered). But we should also sign up to groups who are working for change more broadly in these areas. Australian examples include Play Unlimited to combat gendered marketing of toys, and Collective Shout to combat the sexualisation of girls in marketing and media http://collectiveshout.org/. If we limit social change to making good choices ourselves, we will see very little change in our own lifetimes. We need to improve the choices that are on offer for everyone.

TH: What is the most effective way we as parents or concerned citizens can counteract the gender stereotyped messages children are exposed to?

ER: Limit screen time (all kinds of screen) and supervise what kinds of things children view when they are on screen. (In my experience, the more gender-neutral things tend to be more high quality all round.) Challenge gender-stereotyped messages when you can (there are so many of them that you might quickly exhaust yourself if you challenged all of them). Be a role model yourself. And sign up to groups who are working for change more broadly in these areas (Australian examples include Play Unlimited to combat gendered marketing of toys).

TH: If you had a magic wand, what would you change about the way toys are marketed?

ER: Most things! All toy stores or toy aisles would look like my local independent toy store (but even less gendered), with beautiful creative toys sold for every child. Toys would be arranged by age group (e.g. baby, toddler, 3+, etc) and by category (active, role-play, construction, etc.) and there would be a full range of colours used in the toy design and (environmentally friendly and minimal) packaging. (Well, you did offer me a magic wand! That was fun!)

TH: Do you see the way retailers advertise and market their products changing in the future, becoming more sensitive to their social responsibilities?

ER: Yes. When you think about it, it’s quite astonishing how disconnected the toy industry has become from the broader changes in society – but this means that it would now be quite easy for the industry to make some major changes quite quickly.

In 2013, almost all women drive cars, for example, yet toy cars are still primarily marketed to boys. Many men help to care for their children, yet dolls are still primarily marketed to girls. Marketing gender-neutral toys (like cars or genuinely child-like dolls) in a more gender-neutral way would be quite easy. (Another example: Lego. I am still deeply appalled by the advent of ‘girls’ Lego’ – Lego was one of my favourite toys, and back then it was for everyone – get rid of the ‘girls’ Lego’, I say!)

Arranging toy aisles (or websites) in terms of activity type and child’s age would also be relatively easy. But then you have the harder issue of toy design – making some toys more gender-neutral is certainly possible, but it would take a bit more effort. For example, with action figures (many of which look steroid-pumped and very unhealthy, I might add) there could be more female figures added to the range. With fashion dolls (here the issue is a different kind of unrealistic body shape, which is similarly unhealthy), there could be more male figures added to the range. Personally, I feel unenthusiastic about these kinds of toys, mainly because I think they promote a focus on aggression in the one case and appearance in the other, neither of which is particularly desirable. But it would certainly be possible to re-design them – or design additional pieces for the range – so that the range as a whole was more gender-neutral.

TH: Would you support the idea of a gender neutral approach being adopted in the early childhood learning environment? (In order to promote awareness of gender stereotypes to those teachers and carers working with children, encouraging them to challenge those beliefs in themselves and in the children with whom they have contact?) By Preschools, schools and sports institutions for example?

ER: I would have hoped that gender-neutrality was already the norm in the early childhood learning environment! (My mother was a pre-school teacher for almost 30 years, and she ran a gender-neutral mainstream kindergarten the whole time. But then she started in the late sixties and early seventies, when everyone was sensitised to the importance of gender-neutrality as the result of the success of second-wave feminism.) Yes, yes, yes, all round. The move to mixed sports teams – for example, my son plays in an under 12s soccer team which has both girls and boys – is a positive step forward.

TH: Dr Emma Rush, thanks once again for making time to talk with me. Your perspective on the ethics of gendered marketing to children has been enlightening. I very much look forward to reading the paper you and Professor Fine are working on together.

Post By Thea Hughes (16 Posts)

Thea spent more than a decade working in a heavily male-dominated industry, inspiring her to begin her formal studies in gender at Sydney University and found Play Unlimited. As a mother, she is passionate about diminishing the impact of gender-based marketing on the next generation.

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