Monday, August 3, 2009

Blog Assignment #3 Toy Hunt

“Relationships between and among the major information-diffusing, socializing agencies of a society and the interacting, cumulative, socially accepted ideological orientations they create and sustain is the essence of hegemony.” – James Lull1

For this blog assignment I looked at what toys were marketed toward ten year old boys, as well as how they were marketed. I shopped for five types of toys on his hypothetical wish list, Transformers, Mario video games, LEGO toys, action figures, and toy cars. Two things struck me as important: First, the advertisements came from many directions at once. We see advertisements from TV, comic books, in movies, and some products even advertise each other. There is a synergy of advertisement, leading to multiple streams of revenue for the companies and multiple ways to introduce a potential buyer to their products. Secondly, many of the toys marketed solely toward young boys could easily be considered gender neutral. Many of the toys are not gendered, that is they don’t play to gender stereotypes, in their essential features. The characters of Transformers, the game mechanics of Mario games, the basic LEGO brick, the main attraction of action figures, and styles of play that toy cars lend themselves to are all independent of gender stereotypes. This preferential marketing may be because in our patriarchal culture the archetypal person is male, and so things without gender identifiers are commonly labeled male. These two observations are interesting because they are contradictory. Synergistic advertising expands markets while not marketing ungendered toys toward all children closes off half of the potential market.

Transformers toys are action figures you can rearrange into different configurations. These configurations are usually a vehicle mode and a robot mode. There are certain characters that pop up in every toy line, including the leaders of the two warring factions Megatron of the Decepticons and Optimus Prime of the Autobots. The characters are not usually given specific genders, being robots and thus asexual, but they are commonly assumed to be masculine in the fandom. Possibly this is due to their profession as warriors and their technological nature. All the movies, TV shows, and comics are advertising for the series. Hasbro orders old characters killed off when their toys don’t sell well, and orders new characters introduced to go with new toys.

Mario video games feature a nominally Italian plumber named Mario who saves various girls, most commonly Princess Peach. While there are enemies that can kill you and that you can kill in a variety of ways, most of the danger comes from the environment. That most of the danger comes from the environment means that a mode with a female character who has all the same abilities as Mario could easily be implemented. Additionally to the “main line” Mario games, there are a number of spin off games that feature the various characters getting together to play sports and other game-like activities. In the general plot of the games, Peach gets kidnapped and Mario rescues her, reinforcing the hegemonic position of dominance of the male over the female. Nintendo advertises Mario games on the strength of the Mario brand name, all they have to do is announce that a Mario game is coming out. There has also been a movie that features the Mario brothers saving the Mushroom kingdom from Bowser. Nintendo has also licensed a large variety of Mario products, including everything from clothing to lunchboxes to lawn ornaments. While there have been games with Peach as a player character, she is usually the “easy mode” character. Clearly, the Mario games place females in the victim category, while males are the ones who get things done.

LEGOs are building block toys. While the basic LEGO brick is the most gender neutral toy imaginable, LEGO has expanded and now has many different product lines. These lines include licensed products like Star Wars, as well as original lines like Bionicle. These non-brick lines show all the usual targeting preference toward boys, with weapons and fighting as major aspects of the ads. I was unable to find any recent commercials for the basic brick, but the old ones that I was able to find only had boys. This implies that men build, and by omission, that women don’t. Concerning Bionicle, among the heroes there is only a single token female character. This implies that for every one girl who is competent, you can find five boys who are competent. The Bionicle ads also show the characters as warriors, a clear bias toward men. The marketing efforts of LEGO go far beyond mere advertisements, there are LEGO stores and theme parks. There are LEGO games, where all the characters are made out of LEGO Bricks.

Action figures are ubiquitous in our culture. There are action figures for nearly every form of entertainment medium, almost every movie, TV series, comic book, video game, and even some books have action figures. Most action figures are advertised on the strength of the series the characters come from, and almost always in groups of opposing characters that fight. Almost all action figures are of male characters. Even in shows where the female main characters outnumber the male ones, like Avatar, action figures of the females are incredibly hard to find. This is because the common conception is that boys buy action figures while girls buy dolls, and that children won’t want action figures/dolls of a different gender than themselves. The sheer ubiquity of action figures implies that they speak to us in some way on a very deep level, I believe this is the level where people do things vicariously. Action figures let a child beat up the Joker through Batman in a way that simply watching or reading a fight between them can’t match. With action figures you move their limbs and decide their actions, they are your avatars in worlds of imagination. The action figures, however, are not blank slates, and the stories and worlds of imagination are to some degree predefined.

Toy cars are nearly as ubiquitous as action figures. Toy cars are also marketed almost solely toward young boys, with girls never appearing in any of the commercials. This could easily be explained by the commonly held opinion that girls have no real interest in cars save as a means to get from one place to another. Possibly this cultural opinion is because cars are held to be technological and thus masculine. Certainly, guys and cars have been identified with each other since Ford sold his first Model T. This is in spite of the fact that in 2004 more than 52% of new cars were bought by women and they influenced more than 85% of all car sales.2 Toy cars are commonly made in the image of real cars, so that they advertise each other.

The advertising techniques for all of these toys differ, but have in common the approach of multiple mediums. Most obvious is the case of Transformers, where everything Transformers related is advertising for the toys. Mario games are advertised in television commercials and on the internet, and many of Nintendo’s games feature characters from their other franchises. Nintendo games advertise themselves basically. LEGO has, in addition to television commercials of its toy lines, put out video games that feature LEGO’s as a central part, everything from LEGO Star Wars to racing games. Action figures use the series they’re based on for advertising. Most TV ads for action figures are simply letting the children know that it is possible for them to own Batman or Superman or Hulk Hogan or whoever. Toy cars are advertised every time a child sees a car on TV or in real life, and car companies get license revenue from every toy version of their cars that are sold. Each of these toys use advertising synergy to sell, “Synergy refers to the dynamic where components of a company work together to produce benefits that would be impossible for a single, separately operated unit of the company. In the corporate dreams of media giants, synergy occurs when, for example, a magazine writes about an author, whose book is converted into a movie (whose CD soundtrack is played on radio stations), which becomes the basis of a television series, which has its own Website and computer games.”3

Many of the toys are not gendered in their essential features. Cars are not people, they have no sex or gender, yet they are considered masculine and marketed almost solely toward boys. Action figures could easily be made of Katara or Toph from the show Avatar, yet it wasn’t until the show’s third season that any of the female characters on the show actually got action figures. As noted earlier, the basic LEGO brick is possibly the most gender neutral toy imaginable. LEGO toys are still marketed almost solely toward boys, with the themed sets having usually masculine themes like spaceships or pirates (even though two famous pirates are Anne Bonny and Mary Read who both escaped hanging by claiming pregnancy). The Mario games, and games in general, are not gendered save in plot, yet the plots of almost all video games have females as subordinate or less capable then men. Transformers is a particularly obvious display of gender bias, the characters are all officially asexual robots, yet nearly all of them are commonly regarded as male. Transformers toys are also marketed almost exclusively toward boys, possibly because of the war themes. Perhaps this defaulting of marketing gender neutral things toward boys is because we live in a patriarchal culture and as Johnson says, “Patriarchal culture includes ideas about the nature of things, including men, women, and humanity, with manhood and masculinity most closely associated with being human and womanhood and femininity relegated to the marginal position of ‘other’.”4

As I said earlier, these two observations are contradictory. The multiple advertisement venues are trying to expand their markets as much as they can, attracting new consumers and new money. The patriarchal denial of girls as a solid market for gender neutral toys denies half of the population as a potential source of revenue, essentially shrinking the market into half of what it could be. This is surprising, capitalism and greed are often considered the most powerful forces in American culture, yet even after the Cold War capitalism in America isn’t strong enough to overcome patriarchal prejudice.

Works Cited

1 Lull, James. (2003) “Hegemony,” pp. 61-66 in Gender, Race, and Class in Media, edited by Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications

2 Road and Travel Magazine (2004) Female Buyer Study Women’s Automotive Market,

3 Croteau, David and Hoynes, William (2003) “The New Media Giants, Changing Industry Structure,” pp. 21-39 in Gender, Race, and Class in Media, edited by Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications

4 Johnson, Allen (2009) “Patriarchy, the System: An It, Not a He, a Them or an Us,” pp.91-98 in Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspective edited by Gwyn Kirk. McGraw-Hill Companies

5 All images found on Wikipedia and fall under Fair Use.