Toys Ads and Distorted Children’s Play

What do kids learn about gender from watching TV ads?

What do kids learn about gender from watching TV ads?

A group of powerful children’s advocates in the UK, Let Toys Be Toys For Girls and Boys, studied television commercials for toys and found that boys and girls are painted very differently by marketers. While marketing directly to children is questionable to begin with, using marketing gimmicks steeped in sexism is even more so. 

Let Toys Be Toys’ study  revealed how sexism and gender roles are directly marketed to our youngest members of society:

The results should be no surprise to those parents who watch commercial television with their children; a majority of TV adverts show boys and girls playing separately, in very stereotypical ways.

  • Boys were shown as active and aggressive, and the language used in adverts targeted at them emphasises control, power and conflict. Not one advert for baby or fashion dolls included a boy.
  • Girls were generally shown as passive, unless they were dancing. The language used in the ads focuses on fantasy, beauty and relationships. Out of 25 ads for toy vehicles, only one included a girl.

Ads targeted at boys were mainly for toys such as vehicles, action figures, construction sets and toy weapons, while those targeted at girls were predominantly for dolls, glamour and grooming, with an overwhelming emphasis on appearance, performing, nurturing and relationships.

Ads that featured boys and girls together were usually in categories such as action/board games, art/craft materials, interactive toys and soft toys. The action games we watched all had boys and girls playing together, although boys outnumbered girls 3:2, and these ads all had male voiceovers.

Some ads that featured boys and girls together showed them as adversaries, for example the girls screaming and running away from the boy’s Wild Pets remote control spider, or the boy trying to break into a girl’s secret journal.

The full report can be found here, but an easy synopses to use with children to make them better aware of these issues are the word clouds LTBT made from boy and girl commercials:

LTBT Boys Cloud

Let Toys Be Toys boys’ cloud from television commercials, 2015.

LTBT Girls Cloud

Let Toys Be Toys girls’ cloud from television commercials, 2015.


The findings are not shocking to anyone aware of the gender stereotypes children face as they try to navigate childhood, but they are important because:

1. We can compare/contrast this with findings from a similar study in 2011 – despite all the advocacy and media attention around this topic, has anything changed? You can also compare/contrast the 2015 word clouds by LTBT to the 2011 word clouds Crystal Smith (author of “Achilles Effect: What Pop Culture Is Teaching Boys About Masculinity”) created from her study:

Achilles Effect word cloud from boys' commercials, 2011.

Achilles Effect word cloud from boys’ commercials, 2011.

AchE Girls

Achilles Effect word cloud from girls’ commercials, 2011.

2. The word clouds from both studies serve as an excellent teaching tool to use with kids when practicing media literacy. You can also include music, sounds, tone of voice, and colors used in toy advertisements to break down how toy companies are trying to shape boy consumers and girl consumers. Push the kids to use critical thinking around whether or not those depictions match up to their own play interests and those of children they know.
(Example: My daughter was very upset my son got a remote control car from Santa but she did not, and accused Santa of being sexist. She delighted in borrowing aforementioned remote control car to run over an obstacle course of Peanut gang figures and Princess magna-clip dolls.)
3. We are given insight into how marketers and society at large views children. We can take time to contact these offending companies and ask them to do better. We can also take time to contact the companies who are getting it right and make sure we sing their praises to friends, family, and social media circles.
We can then take this information and subvert the messaging within our own families and become better informed consumers. When our children grow up seeing boys and girls as equals and unique individuls, they become better informed people.
{Thank you to Let Toys Be Toys – For Girls and Boys and Achilles Effect for all of your hard work!}

Melissa headshot 1 fb sizeMelissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009

Find her at You can connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals) and Pinterest (Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies).