Branding gender neutrality to children?
The launch this year of the Cannes Glass Lion (an advertising industry award to recognise work that addresses issues of gender inequality or prejudice) definitively heralded the arrival of marketing into the gender equality and gender neutrality debate. This in turn poses challenging questions about the role brands can and should play within this arena. It’s easy to be cynical given the commercial opportunity presented by gender stereotyping; after all, surely the marketing community has an inherent interest in maintaining the gender stereotype status quo that it has built over the years, and which boosts its chances of selling two items rather than one (especially to children)? Yet as the new Cannes award indicates, business and brands are waking up to the gender debate but it’s not always an easy path to tread.
We can all applaud campaigns that directly challenge gender inequality, such as Sport England's ‘This Girl Can':
Things may be a little more complex, however, when it comes to tackling the marketing of gender neutrality, especially within the sphere of children. Perhaps it's because it feels that this debate hasn’t fully played out to a socially accepted, normative view in the way that gender equality has.
Progressive modern parents may nod along to the principles of campaigns like Pink Stinks:
But it's hard to shake an unvoiced unease that no amount of gender neutral parenting is going to tear Jasmine away from her Hello Kitty nightie or Joshua from his Nerf gun. Equally, most of us instinctively recoil at the thought of an equivalent to Sweden’s ‘hen’, a gender neutral alternative to ‘he’ and ‘she’, ever crossing the North Sea.As well as being unclear where we sit on the nature vs nurture debate, there is also something vaguely uncomfortable about involving our children in the incubation of a political point of view (be that wearing the gender neutral clothing range or being given an obligatory doll, etc.) Shouldn’t childhood (and parenting with it) be a little more carefree and effortless?
The role of brands in this arena should be what it has always been: to make choices easier without the moral angst. The trailblazer in this sphere (perhaps unsurprisingly, given its progressive, Scandi roots) was arguably Lego. We may not have realised it at the time, but back in the early 1980s it flirted with being the ultimate gender neutral toy. Sadly Lego appears to have steered a path towards a more gender targeted approach of late:
Perhaps the best guidance for brands who want to play in this space comes from children themselves, who simply don’t see the stereotypes and so have no need to comment. Research conducted by Scrubbington’s, a new children’s personal care brand, asked primary school aged children to produce collages of their interests – the differences between the genders were surprisingly minimal:
Scrubbington's response to this research was to produce a gender neutral range of kids toiletries, but they didn’t feel they should preach a political agenda, as founder Emma Cranstoun explains: “We really tried to learn from the children we spoke to, and so we created a character, Professor Scrubbington, who mirrors the straightforward, unbiased perspective of his audience – he has no awareness of stereotypes and is simply focused on empowering all children to keep themselves clean. When that’s your focus, you don’t see the need for a pink and blue one”.