The Stereotype Business

by Dan H

Dan H pontificates on how businesses can ignore large potential markets without going bankrupt.
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So in the playpen recently, Arthur linked to this transcript of an interview between Paul Dini and Kevin Smith about the cancellation of Young Justice, Green Lantern: the Animated Series and Tower Prep.

The article and its comments include a lot of people raising the same point people often raise in this kind of conversation “how can it be good business sense to ignore half your market?”

Now I increasingly have a policy these days, which is to assume that if people behave in a particular way, they probably have a rational reason for it – not necessarily a pleasant or non-assholey reason for it, but a rational reason. To put it it another way, capitalism has massive, massive flaws as a social system, but “leads to large corporations missing out on major opportunities for profit” is not one of them.

So in this article I'm going to ramble a bit about why I think businesses get away with pursuing marketing strategies which exclude large parts of their potential market, and why the free market on its own can't be relied upon to correct itself. I'm then going to talk more specifically about gendered marketing of toys and stuff. As always, I should add that I know crap all about any of this, that I'm basically just making it up as I go along, and that my reasoning here is probably way off base. But it makes more sense to me than assuming that thousands of high-flying executives in multinational companies ignore easy and obvious ways to make money.

Unconscious Cartelization

Consider a population of consumers. Let us assume that 70% of consumers belong to Group A and 30% of consumers belong to Group B. Insofar as Group A and Group B have different requirements and preferences one would expect that, in a perfectly competitive system, 70% of goods and services would cater to the needs of Group A while 30% would cater to the needs of group B. If more than 70% of a given good or service was aimed at group A, there would be a strong incentive to target new goods and services at Group B where competition would be proportionally smaller.

To take the example of the moment, suppose for example that the market for superhero toys consists 70% of boys and 30% of girls (these numbers are made up). Since there are currently basically no superhero toys being marketed at girls, any company that wanted to could start marketing its toys at girls explicitly, and in theory would immediately snap up a huge segment of the market that is not currently being served (even if the numbers are closer to 90/10 or even 99/1, a guaranteed 1% of a billion-dollar industry is still pretty good money).

The thing is, it doesn't really work this way. Time and again we see companies completely failing to market their products at groups of people who make up a large part of their potential customer base, instead focusing on competing for the attention of a market that is already over served.

To work out why this is, we probably need to look in more detail at what consumers want. Of course part of the problem here is that consumers are very bad at admitting what they want. Very few white people, for example, would admit that they'd be less likely to buy a book with a person of colour on the cover, but … well … we are. Given the choice, people will buy products marketed at people like them.

But “given the choice” is the crucial issue here.

In our hypothetical market consisting of 70% members of Group A and 30% members of Group B, the majority of products will naturally target members of Group A because group A is more numerous. In theory this should eventually balance out, because as more products compete for Group A's attention, it becomes more lucrative to sell to Group B directly. But in practice there's a catch. Because it only becomes lucrative to sell to Group B if Group B is given the option not to buy products targeted at group A.

As long as producers arrange not to market anything at Group B, then members of Group B will be forced to buy products marketed at Group A, and everybody can make more money than they otherwise would have because nobody has to choose to sacrifice their appeal to the more lucrative Group A. And what's interesting is that producers can manage to arrange to do exactly this without even bothering to communicate. A combination of cultural inertia and genuine prejudice combines to effectively cartelize industries and conspire to exclude sections of the population from effective market participation.

Which means that when companies ignore potential customers they aren't – as many people would like to think – naively throwing away potential profits. Rather they are (consciously or unconsciously) perpetuating a system which undermines competition and allows their industry to continue to be profitable despite its failure to deliver appropriate value to large segments of its market. In essence they sustain their industry in an extended state of market failure.

If this state of cartelization continues, it completely distorts the standards of the whole industry. “Targeted at Group A” comes to be seen as an intrinsic part of what the product is all about. Products that do try to target Group B suddenly find themselves fighting the whole culture of their industry. And a lot of members of Group B naturally resent the idea that they should be interested in a product merely because of their identity as a member of Group B (members of Group A, who simply accept as natural the fact that products will be marketed explicitly for them, have no such concerns).

Although I've used an example in which Group A and Group B are numerically different, all you really need for cartelization to occur is for Group A to have greater social power. For example, two of Disney's most recent “princess movies” - Tangled and now Frozen have been deliberately de-girlified because girls will still watch a “boy movie” but it's very hard to get boys to watch a “girl movie”.

Which brings me to my next point.

Boys and Girls

This article was inspired by a post about the fact that cartoon companies apparently prefer to court the attention of boys rather than girls, because boys buy their toys and girls do not.

And once again, people in the post and its comments claim that by failing to capitalise on the popularity of these shows with girls, the cartoon companies are throwing away the chance to make easy money. And again, I am suspicious, because big corporations are really good at making money, and if they think you can't get money out of people it's probably because you can't.

I'd notice that the example of Boys and Girls is slightly different to the example of Group A and Group B above, in that here you have two groups which are roughly numerically equal, and which are both marketed at aggressively. They're also different because here we're talking about children, and children operate very differently as consumers for two important reasons:


  1. They are not in charge of their own finances

  2. Adults project identities onto them



People get crazy conservative around children. The trendiest, most liberal, most leftie, most countercultural parent in the world will still baulk at the idea of putting their son in a pink tee-shirt, or painting their daughter's bedroom blue. As a child, boyness and girlness are often the only identity you really have, and for adults, gender is one of the few concepts we can really use to engage with small children (“Why hello young man/lady, you're looking very gender-normatively appropriate today!”).

One of the things I found very interesting (in a depressing, gender-essentialist way) about the demise of Young Justice et al was that it implied a strange discontinuity in how gendered different activities are. Girls are clearly happy to watch “boy” cartoons – and perhaps more importantly, their parents are happy to let them – but the idea of buying a girl an action figure is clearly completely alien. Somehow, when it comes to what we buy for our children, we freak out if we're asked to think past the 1950s.

You only have to walk into a toyshop (particularly at this time of year) to see how stuck in regressive, normalising iconography the toy industry (and – and this is what is so peculiar – almost exclusively the toy industry) is. You get whole aisles of girl toys all helpfully colour coded in bright pink, followed by whole rows of boy toys, helpfully colour coded in, umm, all the other colours. Again, I don't believe that the whole industry has just failed to keep up with decades of progress on gender issues – there's far too much money at stake – it seems that we really do just take a far more gender normative approach to our children than we do to adults. Which is ironic really, because you'd expect children to be be more open to fresh ideas than grownups.

Things aren't quite as hopeless as they may seem. I was quite pleased to notice that the current Littlewoods advert for the Micro Scalextric Pro Grid uses two boys and three girls to sell a product which I'm pretty sure would have been boys-only in the 1990s. And while it's still following a very “pink for girls” pattern, I'm interested to notice that at least one company is putting out science kits marketed explicitly at girls. But overall the toy department is still a ruthlessly gendered environment, and I can't believe that this doesn't reflect real market preferences.

I suspect – as I vaguely implied above – that a big part of it is that it's very hard for an adult to relate to a child on any but the most superficial levels. It's very hard to conceive of a child as an actual person with preferences and opinions and things, and so we fall back on the few things we know. Which much of the time is “are they a boy or a girl?” This gets particularly true around Christmas, when people find themselves having to buy gifts for children they meet maybe once a year. Is it any wonder that we default to buying things in either pink or blue boxes, and that toy companies sell us their products on that basis.

Obviously it would be great if television companies commissioned cartoons on the basis of something other than the number of toys they can flog to kids, but I think the fact that girls who watched Young Justice still wound up buying (or perhaps more to the point being bought) the same dolls in pink boxes as girls who didn't watch it says something interesting about the way we raise our children. The implication seems to be that you can like whatever you want to like, just as long as you don't show it.

You can argue, I suppose, that television corporations, toy manufacturers, and advertising agencies are in a unique position to take a stand against these kinds of stereotype. But I don't think you can convincingly argue that they would make more money if they did.
Themes: Topical
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Comments (go to latest)
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 02:36 on 2013-12-18
Um - interesting. I don't know the show, but I vividly remember being a tomboyish girl. And when you say, "you'd expect children to be be more open to fresh ideas than grownups.", all I can think is: would you? which children? at what age?

Because school-age children in about the 6 to 9 year old group are herd animals, and often very conservative. They can be extraordinarily cruel to anyone they see as different. Somewhat younger children can, I think, be more open, but this age group typically isn't. Not in my experience.

Just my two cents! Your economic analysis is fascinating.
James D at 09:11 on 2013-12-18
Good points, Dan. This also definitely applies to the video game industry - male gamers are so used to being catered to that they'll flip their shit if it's even suggested that maybe a Mega Man lookalike could be a woman (as with the whole Might No. 9 drama), while female gamers are so used to swallowing their distaste over video game sexism that they'll often complain about it and end up buying the game anyway (as with a friend of mine who complained at length about the overt objectification of the female characters in Dragon's Crown, but bought the game anyway and had a lot of fun with it).

In the case of big-budget cartoon shows based around huge industries like DC comics, they probably can't afford to deviate from the gender-essentialist norm. Still, there have been smaller-budget shows like the Powerpuff girls that found a good middle ground, so maybe that's where the future lies.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 12:30 on 2013-12-18
Nice article and an issue that has been much on my mind recently. But I don't think you should necessarily make the sort of disclaimers that you do at the beginning of not knowing anything, since your argument seems to depend on the logic of how economics might function rather than specific knowledge of a certain marketplace. It just seems that rhetorically your just providing an excuse for people to dismiss the whole thing out of hand.

But another thing:

I suspect – as I vaguely implied above – that a big part of it is that it's very hard for an adult to relate to a child on any but the most superficial levels. It's very hard to conceive of a child as an actual person with preferences and opinions and things, and so we fall back on the few things we know.


While it is true that people will use gender judgments as a short hand for kids personalities, as you said and especially with kids you don't know well, it is a source of great wonder to see how quickly the person of a child develops and how strong it gets, and how many of these gender preferences are learned at a very young age from sources that are beyond the control of the parents. Other adults, relatives, media other kids in day care and elsewhere all offer a greater social world beyond the family, which the kid will begin to acculture itself into as soon as it learns to communicate and those predilections for gendered roles appear very fast. Children seem to have an inner impulse to form categories and classes of entities and gender is one of the attributes which is very quickly adopted, even with kids under the age of three.

The option would be to isolate the child from most outside influences, which seems to be bad for the child in other respects. So the problem is not only that adults treat children as passive, but that children will actively learn and re-enact social structures immediately upon noticing that they exist, before they have any understanding of what they are. But their need to play along with these rules and do what other kids do is very strong, which combined with the speed and earliness of that development is no doubt a reason why some people think that gender roles are more strongly determined than they actually are. In a sense, the development of a distinct personality in the first place is born out of this social learning, or at least the beginning of that development. Of course, marketing to children is probably very aware of how children work in this respect.

Like my cousin likes to relate how they never gave their son guns as toys or anything like that, but that the kid started to make guns out of sticks as soon as it could, like three years old, so clearly boys will be attracted to warlike pursuits. But of course it raises the question of where ever did the kid learn of the existence of guns as objects in the first place?
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 12:56 on 2013-12-18
Your point that targeting girls with either content or marketing can alienate boys, and thus cause a net loss even if girls are being successfully marketed to, is well taken. However, I'm pretty dubious about this:

big corporations are really good at making money, and if they think you can't get money out of people it's probably because you can't

Which I suspect credits businesspeople and marketers with being far more rational than they actually are. Corporations are made up of people, and people have their prejudices and blind spots. I can easily believe in a situation in which corporate officers and marketers have a genuine aversion to trying to market to girls, because they, like the market they're trying to manipulate, have been trained to see girl-oriented products as foreign and lesser.

I also suspect it's significant that the top tiers of most corporations are male-dominated, and in particular I would expect a company like DC to be staffed by people who were, as children, avid consumers of the kind of boy-oriented merchandizing that is their bread and butter. These are not necessarily the sort of people who would be comfortable marketing to girls or would even know how to do so, so again your assumption that if there was a way to sell to female audiences DC would have found it strikes me as questionable, and maybe a little too caught up in the myth of the free market's wisdom. That's what I think Smith is talking about in the podcast when he mentions t-shirts and umbrellas. Even if girls aren't interested in action figures, and even if trying to interest them in those figures would alienate boys, that doesn't mean there aren't different, girl-oriented revenue streams that have gone completely untapped, and which could be exploited in parallel to the boys' merchandizing (because, as you say, there's pretty heavy segregation between the boys and girls sections in most toy stores).

But I really don't think this discussion needs to employ such hypothetical terms. All it takes to suggest that DC's approach may not be the most rational, profit-maximizing one is a look at Marvel, who are courting female audiences (however paltry you might think the results have been) and have set a standard of financial success and cultural penetration that DC could only dream of.
http://alula_auburn.livejournal.com/ at 18:07 on 2013-12-18
That interview is interesting. I worked in an independent/upscale children's book and toy store for a few years, and there is definitely a lot of odd gender currents in marketing. On the other hand, I was mostly under the impression that in a lot of facets of the industry, the accepted idea is that girls WILL buy "boy" stuff fairly easily, but not vice versa. (Incidentally, my fifth grade (age 9 or 10) teacher essentially told me this when I asked why every book we read in class had a boy protagonist, even books where all the characters were animals. Girls will suck it up and read about boys, and manage to relate to them, but if boys have to read about girls they just won't, or they will shrivel and die, or something.)

I wonder if some of this is a particular intersection of video game culture/assumptions (which I know very little about) magnifying what are considered truths about toys and gender--for instance, that toys marketed to boys tend to be more about mastery/competition and to girls tend be about socialization/nurturing. (I don't always agree with Nostalgia Chick, but this one is pretty on point.)

Anyway, part of my job was often putting together displays, and we pretty much always had to have a "boy-centric" display that had, iirc, spy gear, pirate stuff, magic tricks, science experiments, and "boy-friendly" books, on the grounds that boys were harder to shop for, or something, and also read less. I was occasionally allowed to set up other displays about "science" or "magic" or whatever, but the boyzone had to be stocked first.

Also, not sure if this is noteworthy--the play foods we sold at the store I worked with were packaged quite gender-neutrally, IMO--basic primary and bold colors, pictures of both boys and girls on packaging when there were pics at all. (Tea sets still tended to be pink/floral, but this was stuff like fruits and veg, pretend pizza, pretend sushi, all made from sustainable wood and so on.) But I noticed the plastic food sold in the drug store toy aisle (about $5 for a big box versus the stuff we were selling at $12-20) was in pink packaging with a little girl modeling on the back. Not sure if that's a socioeconomic factor or not.
http://alula_auburn.livejournal.com/ at 18:34 on 2013-12-18
eta: I actually know video games and comic books are not the same thing; I don't know why I wrote video games above.
Dan H at 19:48 on 2013-12-18
Wah! Many comments. Been in London all day.

@mary-j

Because school-age children in about the 6 to 9 year old group are herd animals, and often very conservative.


Fair point, and I probably phrased that quite poorly. I agree that small children are often extremely conservative, but what they're conservative *about* is something that has to be learned on some level. I don't believe for a second that children will just *spontaneously* decide that pink is for girls without learning it from somewhere.

I think what I find difficult is that we seem to *reinforce* this conservatism in young children because we seem to have this idea, as a culture, that conservative ideas are somehow more natural than progressive ones. Parents who would never *dream* of suggesting that they wouldn't want their daughter to grow up to be an engineer of a physicist will never the less shy away from buying her construction toys as a child, because they want her to fit in at school.

There's this weird idea, even amongst people who see themselves as very liberal minded, that conservative social values are something which children should be taught to abide by until they're old enough to decide for themselves whether they want to opt out.

@James D

while female gamers are so used to swallowing their distaste over video game sexism that they'll often complain about it and end up buying the game anyway (as with a friend of mine who complained at length about the overt objectification of the female characters in Dragon's Crown, but bought the game anyway and had a lot of fun with it)


Pretty much this. It becomes even more of a problem because, since the vast majority of industry resources go towards competing for the attention of an already oversevered population, and because competition really does work when it's allowed to, products targeted at the majority/most socially powerful group tend to be genuinely really good. In gaming, for example, the big titles in any genre are usually ones which serious gamers will want to play regardless of their gender because, well, if you're into gaming then you're into games, and you want to play the big releases.

@Janne

Children seem to have an inner impulse to form categories and classes of entities and gender is one of the attributes which is very quickly adopted, even with kids under the age of three.


This is certainly true (see my response to mary-j above), but I suspect that part of the *reason* it's so quickly adopted is that we (and as ever by "we" I really mean "the elements of western culture with which I am personally familiar") push it really, really hard. I mean we train children in gender identity *literally* from birth.

But obviously you're right that a lot of the influences on children come from outside the home - my parents tell exactly the same story, my mother never wanted us to play with guns as kids, but we picked up sticks and pretended. But as you say, clearly we must have learned that guns existed from *somewhere*, and I think the same is true of gender stereotypes, they don't just come out of a vacuum - I don't for one second believe that girls have a *biological* predisposition to prefer the colour pink (because seriously, what *possible* evolutionary advantage would that entail).

I don't think it necessarily follows that boys will automatically be attracted to warlike pursuits in the absence of a cultural environment that tells them - even by the age of three - that they are *supposed* to be attracted to warlike pursuits. If nothing else, we're looking at two data points here, and there's massive confirmation bias to deal with. If a boy picks up a stick and pretends it's a gun, his parents say "oh well, boys will be boys", if a girl picks up a stick and pretends it's a gun, her parents freak out because she isn't behaving "normally."

@wrongquestions/Abigail

Corporations are made up of people, and people have their prejudices and blind spots. I can easily believe in a situation in which corporate officers and marketers have a genuine aversion to trying to market to girls, because they, like the market they're trying to manipulate, have been trained to see girl-oriented products as foreign and lesser.


I see where you're coming from, but what I struggle with is why that argument wouldn't apply equally well to - say - Mattel or the Disney Corporation.

I also suspect it's significant that the top tiers of most corporations are male-dominated, and in particular I would expect a company like DC to be staffed by people who were, as children, avid consumers of the kind of boy-oriented merchandizing that is their bread and butter. These are not necessarily the sort of people who would be comfortable marketing to girls or would even know how to do so, so again your assumption that if there was a way to sell to female audiences DC would have found it strikes me as questionable, and maybe a little too caught up in the myth of the free market's wisdom.


I really don't want to be all smug and "gotcha" here, but I did a quick check online and the current president of DC Entertainment is ... umm ... this woman here. As far as I can tell her background isn't in comics at all, but in general brand management - her previous projects included Harry Potter, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Happy Feet. Perhaps I'm prejudging, but I don't think she's the sort of person who would be put off a potential money-making opportunity by girl cooties.

And of course it's probably also worth pointing out that the although the title of the blog post ("Comics Companies Don't Want Largely Female Audience") makes it sound like this was a DC-level decision, digging deeper it actually sounds a lot more like it was a Cartoon Network decision. The show that apparently replaced Young Justice isn't even a DC Entertainment show. DC is *definitely* losing out on this one no matter how you cut it. So really the article should be entitled "Large Media Conglomerates See Comics as Serving Only To Attract an Audience of Young Boys."

So actually I stand even closer to my original argument. Would DC have made more money if Young Justice had stayed on the air? Almost certainly, because running a show is better than running no show. Would DC have made more money for AOL Time Warner? Almost certainly not, because AOL Time Warner will make more money from Level Up. If I had to guess, I would be pretty sure that the Cartoon Network has a very well calculated set of goals for how many boys and how many girls they want watching their programs that they will use not only to sell their own merchandising but also, I suspect, to sell advertising space. Young Justice no longer fit their target demographic, so they axed it and replaced it with something that did. You can say that this is cold, cynical, artistically moribund and gender-essentialist. You can even say that it's bad for DC and for comics in general, because it is almost certainly all of those things. But what it *isn't* is a bad business decision on the part of Cartoon Network.

@alula_auburn

On the other hand, I was mostly under the impression that in a lot of facets of the industry, the accepted idea is that girls WILL buy "boy" stuff fairly easily, but not vice versa.


I'm trying to work out if this contradicts or reinforces the position taken by the Cartoon Network executives, and I'm coming down on "a bit of both."

I suspect that what it means to say "group X will buy product Y" is very different in a corporate/marketing context and a shop floor/direct sales context. From a corporate perspective, what it really means is "this product will sell best if it is marketed at group X" whereas on the shop floor it means "a customer, who is part of group X, will buy this product." Since girls will buy products that are marketed at boys, it follows - paradoxically - that girls *don't* buy those products, from a corporate perspective. A girl who buys products marketed at boys is, from a marketing perspective, buying as a boy.

So again you wind up with a peculiar situation in which even though girls *watch and enjoy* a particular show, that show cannot usefully be used to *sell products* to girls. This seems strange but having spent the last day and a half picking over the downright bizarre way we sell products to children, I suspect it's also almost certainly true. Part of advertising, after all, is about telling people the sorts of things they are *supposed* to want, and girls learn from a young age that they are supposed to want things in pink boxes. Some of them *will* buy products that don't come in pink boxes - those are the girls you sell to on the shop floor - but those girls haven't been "sold to" in the wider advertising and marketing sense.

I noticed the plastic food sold in the drug store toy aisle (about $5 for a big box versus the stuff we were selling at $12-20) was in pink packaging with a little girl modeling on the back. Not sure if that's a socioeconomic factor or not.


I'd be inclined to say yes (although of course I'm very much finding my hypothesis in my data here) in that I suspect higher-income households will be more inclined to see that kind of thing as either Educational (tm) and therefore suitable for boys, or else a way of inspiring future Michelin-starred chefs.
Shim at 19:56 on 2013-12-18
This is arguably one of the advantages of hanging on to stuff. I inherited a lot of my toys and books. As the previous generation featured mostly girls, me and my brother ended up playing with dolls alongside Meccano, and reading Claudine at St. Claire's and Noel Streatfeild stuff as well as Biggles. I don't think the family were unusually non-gender-essentialist when they did buy us stuff, but all those heirlooms seem to have helped.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 21:59 on 2013-12-18
I don't for one second believe that girls have a *biological* predisposition to prefer the colour pink (because seriously, what *possible* evolutionary advantage would that entail).

And any biology behind that is easily disproved by other cultures and even fairly recent history. A quote from the article: "For example, a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw's Infants' Department said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” Other sources said blue was flattering for blonds, pink for brunettes; or blue was for blue-eyed babies, pink for brown-eyed babies, according to Paoletti."

I agree, that most such stereotypes are cultural, but there are aspects of culture that seem very hard-wired and strictly accepted as natural in humans. An evolutionary ideal would be for the children to learn the norms of the society quite speedily, to fit in, but the differing environmental and societal circumstances would, I would argue, demand much more plasticity for cultural roles than normally assumed. It all becomes a rather self-fulfilling prophecy though. On the positive side, the roles assumed by (young)children are very fluid and seem to be very much about form and experiment rather than any strong semiotic content or fixed meaning, which is where a great difference can be made I believe(and hope), by encouraging that it is acceptable to try acting differently and that there are no gendered, or other similar boundaries. Hopefully it makes a difference.

So while our daughter demands(very forcefully) stories with herself as a princess, it seems that the word princess contains little except headgear of any sort as a crown and the presence of the word princess. So I'll either try to divert the topic to another favourite, foxes, or have the princess do fun stuff or quite often just fall asleep very well-behavedly. It would feel weird to try to force issue with her, even if we are a very republican(as in not monarchical) family.
Dan H at 23:55 on 2013-12-18
It would feel weird to try to force issue with her, even if we are a very republican(as in not monarchical) family.


"Once upon a time there was a little princess whose authority derived from an ultimately unsupported notion of divine appointment, whose ancestors actually had little to do with the land over which she presently reigned, and whose legislative and executive powers were fast being devolved to a parliamentary and bureaucratic superstructure."

Yes, I can see why you might not want to go down that road...
Arthur B at 10:35 on 2013-12-19
I think another part of the issue is that on one hand if you put your kid through the school system they are going to be exposed to the cultural assumptions that other parents have passed on to their children, and when you are that small peer pressure is a ferociously powerful force.

At the same time, arguably part of the point of sending your kids to school is so that they can get access to ideas which you personally wouldn't agree with; I don't see raising progressive kids as being much of a victory if they never had a choice to be anything other than progressive - if anything, making progressive attitudes a family tradition is the fastest way to turn those ideas into the new conservativism.

I guess it all comes down to actually listening to your children when they tell you what toys they want to play with - and why they want them. If they're telling you they want the pretty pink tea party playset because their friends will laugh at them if they don't have one, maybe it's time for a talk about peer pressure, if they're telling you they want the pretty pink tea party playset because they are really excited about serving tea to their stuffed animals then you kind of have to accept that this is what they're into (or at least what they're into this week). Ultimately, you can keep the door open for your child to defy social expectations, but it's got to be their choice as to whether or not they go through it.
http://angmar-bucket.livejournal.com/ at 16:53 on 2013-12-20
"Which I suspect credits businesspeople and marketers with being far more rational than they actually are."

I worked in marketing and sales and I wholeheartedly agree. In my last year or so at a market research agency we pretty much allowed no black men to participate in the studies. It wasn't my decision (I was a nobody) and it made me angry, but the people in charge had their ~reasons~
Jamie Johnston at 15:53 on 2013-12-22
This post from How not to suck at game design has an analysis that I think somewhat fits with yours, Dan, and also tries to explain why it could seem rational not only to focus marketing exclusively on boys but also to deliberately design those marketing messages to be positively anti-girl.
Sonia Mitchell at 18:04 on 2013-12-23
Interesting article.
As I manage a toy/gift shop (albeit in a specific niche) I'm a bit biased and will try not to wade in with too many opinions, but I do have a couple of things to throw in to the discussion.

Firstly, I think it's pretty important to keep in mind what we mean when we talk about gendered toys. For example, they can be:
- Toys that are specifically packaged and marketed at a gender. (The ones Dan specifially talks about in the article)
- Toys that we [the onlooker] assume are for a specific gender. This particularly covers toys if they come tagged instead of boxed - could be toy cars, unicorns, dolls.
- Toys that would appear gender-neutral to the onlooker but are brought predominantly by/for one gender.

The distinction becomes more important when you're not in a 'boy aisle/girl aisle' situation and looking at individual toys, because it's not always the same person who decided that the toy is a boy/girl toy.

I also just want to point out that the chain of people making decisions is usually pretty long. You've focused on the people within the manufacturing company, but there's also usually a wholesaler and or sales rep who has their own agenda on what toys to push and how to sell them alongside the rest of their range. Then you have the retail buyer, who likewise has their own ideas about which gaps in their stock need filling. Then you have the people who actually arrange the merchandise in the shop thereby creating or not creating segregated boy/girl areas, which is a corporate decision for big chains but very much an individual choice for independent shops.

Excluding manufacturers with their own shops, the customer for a manufacturer isn't the child - it's the person who will be selling the toy. The marketing, therefore, works twofold – to encourage the child to ask for the toy, and to reassure the retailer that children will be asking for the toy and that putting in a big order will be worthwhile. Which is another barrier to manufacturers trying something different – if retailers don't get behind a new strategy and stock the toy, it won't be sold. Retailers might order things in once a trend starts, but generally if people can't find a specific toy for a child they'll buy something different rather than request a special order.

I go to trade fairs as part of my job, and it's fascinating to see how people pitch things as 'the latest trend'. If you're not careful you can go away convinced you've been missing out on a bestseller for years, because the marketing that's ostensibly for children is really aimed at the retailer.
Axiomatic at 09:50 on 2013-12-25
It makes sense for me to market my toys to boys and girls if I'm Laser Dinosaur Adventures ltd., a company with one product to sell and market - Laser Dinosaur Adventures, the adventures of a bunch of laser dinosaurs. I want boys and girls to watch Laser Dinosaur Adventures and buy my Laser Dinosaur Adventurers, because that means more people buying my stuff, and that means more money.

But I'm not Laser Dinosaur Adventures ltd. I am actually MegaToyCorp, a massive international toy megacorporation like Omni Consumer Products and TriOptimum Corporation and Weyland-Yutani.

And I own many cartoons and franchises, not just one. And I don't want ONE of them to be wildly successful, I want ALL OF THEM to be. That way, I have the most money, and the shareholders are pleased.

So, it makes "sense" for me to have boy shows and girl shows, and to actively discourage boys from watching girl shows and girls from watching boy shows, because if the girls are watching my boy shows, then I'm actively hurting the marketing of my girl shows by reducing their viewership, just to promote my boy shows.

That's why I'll cancel Boys Punching Bad Guys if I discover that it has a female viewership - because I know, deep in my corporate heart, that that means I could have more viewership of Princess Pink Parade Party if those damn girls could only be convinced to watch the RIGHT SHOW. Instead, BPBG is making PPPP be less successful than it could be, so BPBG has to go, and I'll just replace it with Only Men Can Into Spaaaaaaaace!
Arthur B at 09:55 on 2013-12-25
And yet Hasbro persists in tossing in the occasional dose of pandering to bronies...
Axiomatic at 10:04 on 2013-12-25
Well, they've kind of figured out that bronies aren't being stolen from the Pound Puppies* viewership. If they thought bronies WERE a target demographic of a different show Hasbro was selling, and they were watching My Little Pony instead, they'd totally try and get rid of bronies as a thing.
Axiomatic at 10:05 on 2013-12-25
*secret but fun
http://scipiosmith.livejournal.com/ at 10:09 on 2013-12-25
Yeah, exactly. Hasbro doesn't have any other shows for College students, so it makes sense to try and take their money somehow.

Not to mention that Hasbro doesn't actually make any of its shows itself, it subcontracts to an animation studio and the pandering comes from them.
Arthur B at 10:14 on 2013-12-25
If they thought bronies WERE a target demographic of a different show Hasbro was selling, and they were watching My Little Pony instead, they'd totally try and get rid of bronies as a thing.

True that, though I am surprised they don't go after all the pony porn with more ferocity.
Daniel F at 12:55 on 2013-12-25
True that, though I am surprised they don't go after all the pony porn with more ferocity.


If I were them, I'd be very afraid of the Streisand Effect. The last thing I'd want would be for parents to discover that the cute little pony show their daughter loves has stacks of porn floating about.
Arthur B at 13:08 on 2013-12-25
True, but haven't there already been incidents of young kids looking for pony stuff online stumbling across pony porn?
zephyrean at 17:07 on 2013-12-25
The trendiest, most liberal, most leftie, most countercultural parent in the world will still baulk at the idea of putting their son in a pink tee-shirt, or painting their daughter's bedroom blue.

Nope. And that's just the most prominent example of "normal" people who simply happen to love their son; there are militant progressive parents who answer to "Do you have a boy or a girl?" with "What's wrong with you that you're interested in my child's genitals?"

Parents who would never *dream* of suggesting that they wouldn't want their daughter to grow up to be an engineer of a physicist will never the less shy away from buying her construction toys as a child, because they want her to fit in at school.

Heh. In my school, construction toys were mandatory for everyone. I hated hated hated the crafts classes that featured construction -- because like half the parts were missing from every kit, and yet I was expected to make something complex to be deserving of an A. It also caused friendship breakups, rows, tantrums and other classroom drama as kids fought each other to get the most complete set.

I grew up to graduate with high honors and a degree in physics and engineering, but it turned out the no parts problem applies to grown-up science, too (and maaaaan did the university students fight for lab equipment). So now I'm an office technician.

(I had to wear clothes that felt wrong until I was ten. There are precious few experiences I can recall with 100% clarity and vividness, but putting on the right clothes for the first time ever is one of them.)

Perhaps I'm prejudging, but I don't think she's the sort of person who would be put off a potential money-making opportunity by girl cooties.

People tend to stereotype other people, especially groups of people. And CEOs really don't want to have to answer for their unconventional business practices when these practices don't bring profit. It's basically xkcd's girls suck at math on a corporate scale.

The president of DC being a woman doesn't magically justify things; in fact, it might work the other way entirely, make her reluctant to market to girls because any failure of an unconventional tactic will be compounded by her being a woman. "Woman tried to drag feminist agenda into comics and failed" is trollbait and CV poison in a way "CEO hedge fund manager bankrupted his company and lined his own pockets" isn't. So, an exec -- even a female exec -- might honestly believe there's no money to be made from the "mass" of "sheeple" girls, even though she herself might have charged lazors and sharded purplz through her childhood; or they might be simply risk-averse.

And that's how things are with girls and manly awesomeness. As for boys and girly stuff, even the Rainbow Mom I linked above thinks boys with dolls in toy catalogs make Americans uncomfortable.

"Once upon a time there was a little princess whose authority derived from an ultimately unsupported notion of divine appointment (...)" Yes, I can see why you might not want to go down that road...

I loved such books when I was a kid. I'm serious: my Santa figure sold toys to parents on a preorder basis because that was her day job, and my space adventures came with a scathing critique of laissez-faire capitalism (and yes, I'm talking preschool here; I entered first grade knowing what a stock market was and how to scam shareholders). The only royalty I respected was Alexander the Great, because the book made it clear he was awesome above, beyond, independently of -- perhaps despite -- having been born a prince.
Dan H at 20:49 on 2013-12-26
Nope. And that's just the most prominent example of "normal" people who simply happen to love their son; there are militant progressive parents who answer to "Do you have a boy or a girl?" with "What's wrong with you that you're interested in my child's genitals?"


But surely that proves my point. The very fact that this woman thinks the fact that she lets her son play with dolls if he damn well wants to is worth blogging about is evidence that her views are strictly in the minority. Hell, you point out youself that even she thinks showing a boy with a doll in a catalogue would freak the hell out of most Americans.

Similarly, the *reason* you get militant progressive parents who have a go at people for asking if they have a boy or a girl is that "do you have a boy or a girl" is *the first question most people ask*. And this is clearly true *even in very progressive circles*, or else people wouldn't be experiencing this problem.

People tend to stereotype other people, especially groups of people. And CEOs really don't want to have to answer for their unconventional business practices when these practices don't bring profit.


The key point there being "when those practices don't bring profit".

Again, the *only* claim I am making here is that a failure to market superhero toys to girls does not represent a significant loss of profits for comics companies (or, more precisely, for the entertainment conglomerates that *own* comics companies). I've argued why I think this is the case at some length, and the link Jamie provided above provides another take on the same idea.

The president of DC being a woman doesn't magically justify things


Umm ... I don't think I said it did.

I said that it made it very unlikely that she was - as Abigail suggested - ignoring large potential profits because of a subconscious distaste for products that are marketed at girls, on the basis of having grown up on boys' action stories.

I'm not saying that the fact that she's a woman means that DC Entertainment can't be sexist. I'm saying that the fact that she's a woman who came to DC through Warner Brothers, who continues to hold a position of authority within WB as well as being president of DCE, who has previously worked on a wide range of properties, none of them particularly masculine, and who used to work for the Walt Disney Corporation means that she probably doesn't have a strong emotional investment in the content of comics.

So yes, I think she'd market to girls if she thought it would make more money. I think she'd probably market to *Nazis* if she thought it would make more money. Because she's a suit working for a massive entertainment conglomerate and she's probably really good at her job. She's not some neckbeard who's afraid of girls ruining his childhood dreams. She's a brand manager whose job is to squeeze money out of an IP by whatever means possible.

So basically what you say is exactly right: she probably honestly believes that there's no money to be made from marketing to girls *and she is probably right*.

Would marketing comics to girls be good for comics and for girls? Almost certainly. Would it lead to DC Entertainment producing more profits for AOL Time Warner? Almost certainly not. The alternative is to believe that the course of action which produces the greatest social good is always necessarily the one which produces the greatest profit for multinational corporations, which seems unlikely to me.
http://alula_auburn.livejournal.com/ at 18:25 on 2013-12-30
Dan, I think you're probably right about how marketers might measure girl-buyers and boy-buyers in a way that seems contradictory to actual sales experience (lol, I work for lawyers, I should be used to words not meaning common sense). But I do think in general this is complicated by being less of a true binary than it might seem, because I think socially/culturally speaking people, at least nominally progressive people, have become much more comfortable with girls doing "boy" things than boys doing "girl" things--and I see far more little girls dressed in navy blue than boys in pastels. "Tomboy" has been reclaimed, so to speak, much more than "sissy." (And as a corollary, there's less snide commentary that those traits map on to sexual orientation for girls, at least among parents. I have never, ever heard, a progressive parent comment even jokily that a daughter who loves sports and building things might be a lesbian; I HAVE heard that about boys who play a lot of dress-up games.) And being a daddy's girl can at least sometimes be an non-pejorative, while being a momma's boy rarely if ever is. (And when "daddy's girl" is used negatively, IME, it's not because a girl is too "masculine,"; it's used to suggest she manipulates her dad in a stereotypically female, vaguely sexualized way. Which, ew.)

One of the results of this, IMO, is the tendency to further devalue stereotypically feminine things (which is why it's more okay for a girl to play with boy toys than vice versa) and to this extent I sometimes think Barbie and Disney Princesses get an excessively bad rap. (This is in part though because no matter how much marketers try, they can't actually control what kids do with the toys once they have them. I think my Barbie and princess play was much more shaped by the books I read and by being raised by a feminist mother; the fact that I liked pink didn't mean my female characters weren't the ones going on adventures.) The "pink stinks: a campaign for real role models" rubbed me the wrong way for this reason--I just really think there has to be a way for it to be okay for all kids to play with a big variety of toys. (Which is clearly why I'm too soft-hearted to be a marketer, except for my Big Evil Law Firm.) As it was, I was a neurotic enough kid to occasionally feel guilty because I DID like girly stuff, like I was letting down the cause, especially because I also sucked at sports and lost my confidence in math early on. (Although that was less because I couldn't do math than because I couldn't physically write fast enough for those damned speed tests which were the heart of my early math classes).

On a very far-off tangent, for an admittedly a bit dated look at the flip side, M.G. Lord's book about the history of the Barbie doll is amazing and often hilarious. But Mattel was one of the first toy companies to get in on pyschological (Freudian) marketing, and hired Ernest Dichter to run their first focus groups--and honestly, I can still see the assumptions of some of his conclusions in today's commercials. (Even if you were never into Barbie, I think it's a pretty great book about cultural history.)
Dan H at 16:41 on 2014-01-01
But I do think in general this is complicated by being less of a true binary than it might seem, because I think socially/culturally speaking people, at least nominally progressive people, have become much more comfortable with girls doing "boy" things than boys doing "girl" things--and I see far more little girls dressed in navy blue than boys in pastels.


This is true, but I think the key point here is the phrase "at least nominally progressive people." Big advertising companies aren't aiming for a nominally progressive market, they're aiming for as wide a market as possible, and that tends to mean leaning towards conservatism. As I think some recent playpen posts pointed out, there *have* been examples of toy stores ditching gendered marketing after complaints, but at the same time "ditching gendered marketing" has - in practice - mostly meant removing the words "boy" and "girl" from boxes, but still having pink boxes with pictures of girls on them and blue boxes with pictures of boys on them.

To put it another way, I think there's sort of a spectrum with "utterly socially taboo" at one end and "too lucrative to ignore" at the other. We've gone past the stage at which giving girls boys' toys is an absolute social taboo, but I suspect that we're a long way from the stage at which girls who buy boys' toys are too lucrative to ignore.

Again, the problem here is that it isn't in the interest of big corporations to serve the needs of even quite large segments of the market, as long as the whole industry can collaborate to leave that market segment unserved.

The "pink stinks: a campaign for real role models" rubbed me the wrong way for this reason--I just really think there has to be a way for it to be okay for all kids to play with a big variety of toys.


Yeah, I can see that. And you'd like to think that there should be a way to campaign for social progress without making people feel - as you say - like they're letting the side down just by liking what they like. I remember feeling similarly ambivalent about the genderflipped book covers thing, which seemed to suggest that "girly" covers were inherently inferior to "boyish" book covers.

And obviously, whichever way you cut it, by axing a bunch of superhero shows for appealing to too many girls the Cartoon Network is being Part of the Problem. I just don't think being Part of the Problem is going to lead to them selling fewer pieces of overpriced plastic.
Robinson L at 15:30 on 2014-01-24
Interesting argument, Dan. You make good points, but I'm also inclined to sympathize with the arguments put forward by Abigail and others above.
I think one of the consequences of capitalism's hyper-rational ethos (or is it mythos?) is that the extent to which even the most economically successful actors make decisions based upon highly non-rational factors such as prejudices, cultural biases, and the like, tends to be occluded. And I also think it's important to point out there's a vast gulf between "is incredibly good at working the market to make profit" and "is able to work the market perfectly to make profit." So I can imagine that even fantastically successful corporations will overlook potentially lucrative markets for any number of reasons.
The alternative is to believe that the course of action which produces the greatest social good is always necessarily the one which produces the greatest profit for multinational corporations, which seems unlikely to me.

To me, as well, but I don't see how this follows. As I see it, the argument is only that sometimes the greatest social good will also produce greater profit for multinational corporations, which seems at least theoretically possible even to me.
I guess I fall somewhere in the middle, in that I don't think superhero comics companies are missing out on this vast, untapped market by failing to target more product towards women and girls; but I do think there's a significant possibility that they're missing out on a lot more than they realize.
the *reason* you get militant progressive parents who have a go at people for asking if they have a boy or a girl is that "do you have a boy or a girl" is *the first question most people ask*. And this is clearly true *even in very progressive circles*, or else people wouldn't be experiencing this problem.

I think people were jumping on the hyperbole more than anything else - you did say "The trendiest, most liberal, most leftie, most countercultural parent in the world will still baulk at the idea of putting their son in a pink tee-shirt, or painting their daughter's bedroom blue," and, well, my parents are only moderately countercultural, and they had no problem whatsoever dressing me in a pink shirt and trousers (at my request) when I was around 8-10 (I was quite enamored of the color pink as a boy), and I'm sure they wouldn't've batted an eye at the thought of painting one of my sisters' bedrooms blue. Nevertheless, the point is well taken.
James D: male gamers are so used to being catered to that they'll flip their shit if it's even suggested that maybe a Mega Man lookalike could be a woman ... while female gamers are so used to swallowing their distaste over video game sexism that they'll often complain about it and end up buying the game anyway

Uh-huh. My sisters are quick to point out sexism in the character designs/story elements of the games they play, but seem to love anyway. It's a shame they have to put up with that crap.
Dan H at 20:30 on 2014-01-24
I think one of the consequences of capitalism's hyper-rational ethos (or is it mythos?) is that the extent to which even the most economically successful actors make decisions based upon highly non-rational factors such as prejudices, cultural biases, and the like, tends to be occluded.


That's a very fair point, but at the same time I think it's important to realise that just because a decision is made for non-rational reasons that doesn't automatically make it bad for the person who makes it. Indeed you could argue that part of the reasons that unjust systems perpetuate is that the irrational decisions of people in power reinforce that power just as certainly as if they had acted rationally in order to increase their own power. I think the same is true of profits.

Indeed a big part of the thrust of this article is the argument that the unconscious, irrational prejudices of large corporations will allow them to effectively cartelise, maximising their profits at the expense of consumers.

To me, as well, but I don't see how this follows. As I see it, the argument is only that sometimes the greatest social good will also produce greater profit for multinational corporations, which seems at least theoretically possible even to me.


That's theoretically possible, but I think I would argue that the cases in which it is possible are the cases in which it has already happened. For example, UK tabloids are a lot less homophobic than they used to be (the Sun and the mail were both quite supportive of Thomas Hitzlsperger) presumably because they think there's more papers to be sold bashing Muslims and immigrants than homosexuals.

As society's worst impulses become incrementally better, the people who make their fortunes pandering to those impulses become incrementally less repulsive.

I guess I fall somewhere in the middle, in that I don't think superhero comics companies are missing out on this vast, untapped market by failing to target more product towards women and girls; but I do think there's a significant possibility that they're missing out on a lot more than they realize.


Possibly, but remember that this isn't really about *comics*, it's about vast media empires which include a single subsidiary that sells comics.

The job of Young Justice wasn't to sell comics to a wider younger audience, it was to sell advertising space to toy companies who want to sell their cars and robots to nine-year-old boys. In that sense it failed to do its job, no matter how many girls it got interested in superheroes.
ah! after reading this article I am finally able to understand something that has been bothering me since April.

I watched Once Upon A Time since the beginning (season 1) and I really enjoyed the story. unfortunately, starting at season 3 the great story being told took a back seat while some of the prettier actors and actresses were getting more "screen time" even though they did not really add to the overall story or even advance the plot!

this caused season 3 to be a bit boring but the story was still kick ass and the winter finale was epic. so I still wanted to keep watching this amazing show.

now after seeing the second part of season 3 I completely lost interest in the show because they turned this beautiful story, a true work of art, into a teen flick or a kissing contest or whatever brings up TV rating these days...

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