If you get your hands on a Swedish Toys R Us Christmas catalogue this year you will notice something different. The children have all swapped their traditional gender roles. This is an effort by Top Toy, franchise-holder for US toy chain Toys R Us, to appeal to a market that has become increasingly aware of gender roles and stereotypes. The Swedish toy market has become so sensitive to these that previous Top Toy catalogues have fallen under criticism for depicting boys and girls in their traditional gender roles. The catalogue also depicts boys and girls playing together with the same toys.
"For several years, we have found that the gender debate has grown so strong in the Swedish market that we ... have had to adjust," Jan Nyberg, director of sales at Top Toy said. Nyberg's company was forced to rethink their entire advertising strategy in Sweden. They were reprimanded by Sweden's advertising watchdog, Reklamombudsmannen, in 2008 for using discriminating advertisements in their toy catalogue. Their wrongdoing? Launching a catalogue which depicted girls as princesses and boys as superheroes. According to the watchdog, this reinforces gender stereotypes.
This is not the first time that one of their sanctions catches the media's attention. Last year they decreed that an advertisement featuring a man in boxers was "offensive to men in general" because it portrayed them as "mere sex objects". But Reklamombudsmannen is only a reflection of the Swedish culture. Advertisements interpreted as reinforcing gender roles can find themselves on the wrong side of public sentiment in Sweden.
In fact, this has become such an important issue in Sweden that the release of a book, "Kivi and Monster Dog," by popular Swedish author Jesper Lundqvist in January sparked further debate on the issue. The children's book eliminated the use of the pronouns "he" and "she" and substituted them with "hen," a gender-neutral pronoun that has been proposed in Sweden as a substitute for gender-based pronouns. This is part of an effort to promote gender equality in Swedish schools. In 2008 the government spent $16.3 million on this goal and legislated requirements for teachers to actively reverse students' gender roles.
Faced with such a pro gender-neutral market, it would not have been wise for Top Toy to ignore Reklamombudsmannen's advice. According to Nyberg, "we have found that the gender debate has grown so strong in the Swedish market that we have had to adjust." He also explained that, "With the new gender thinking, there is nothing that is right or wrong. It’s not a boy or a girl thing, it’s a toy for children."
Here are some of the images from the Swedish catalague. First, a girl plays with a laser rifle. Second, a boy plays with a doll. And third, a comparison of Swedish versus the Norwegian and Danish Toys R Us catalogue images, respectively.
Top Toys went beyond gender roles and also took color into consideration. In the Swedish catalogue, few girls are seen wearing pink. They are wearing blue or more neutral colors like black or green. The same goes for the boys.
This represents a milestone in marketing and advertising. Top Toys may have only done this in Sweden but this reflects a general trend in Western culture to move away from traditional gender roles. It may occur consciously or not, but because of the complexity of life in the 21st century and its effects on family, gender roles are not as black or white as they once were. And as life becomes increasingly faster and more complex, as even more women join the workforce, and some fathers begin to stay at home these roles will become increasingly eroded.
The Swedish toy market may be ahead in this transformation, but other markets in other Western cultures will soon follow. We don't know which market will be next or in which country. We don't know how fast this change will occur, but we do know that it is happening and will change marketing as we know it. Marketers will have to change how they see gender roles in marketing. They will play a lesser role than traditional marketing is used to dealing with. This will also open up markets for more gender-neutral products than before. But a final word of caution, and one that Top Toy has already learned, as this change occurs marketers must be very attuned to the different markets and cultures. Some will change faster than others and what may be seen as acceptable in one may seem unsavory to others.