Toy Commercials

Looking Deeper into Gender Roles in Toy Commercials

When looking at things through a semiotic lens, we have to assume that everything is potentially meaningful. Doing so is no chore when looking at the following children’s toy commercials. Many toy commercials contain blunt messages for the gender roles and socialization of children and the following videos are shining examples.

In this commercial for the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, six girls go through a montage of cooking with the product while dancing synchronously in matching aprons. The first striking thing about this commercial may be that the girls—at least in their early teens—are far older than the target buyer of the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, which Hasbro states to be as young as eight. It’s pretty safe to assume that these girls left their Easy-Bake Ovens in the attack a few years back.

Interesting so far. Let’s dig deeper.

At twelve seconds into the commercial, an older woman, who is clearly meant to represent a mother, turns around to the girls cooking and gives an approving smile as she works on a cooking project of her own—presumably the same pastries the girls are making. The next time we see her, which is also the last time, is at twenty-one seconds wherein you only see her from behind walking away, leaving the girls completely on their own.

So what does a girl, say eight or nine years old, see? In this case, you don’t need to be a girl to see. A bunch of cool-looking older girls using the Easy-Bake Oven. Furthermore, the mother of these girls happily lets them do it by themselves—granting them not only womanhood, but the proper womanhood. Through two higher generational layers—those of the hip young teenagers and the wise mother—the eight or nine year old has absorbed a rather blunt message: This is what women do. This is where you belong.

This next commercial for Robocop and Ultra Police action figures is another gender role-reinforcer—this time for boys. Unlike that of the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, this commercial does not show a role as specific as that of a housewife. It does, however, promote a value message which, in itself, implies multiple kinds of roles.

The commercial starts off with footage from the original Robocop movie, which introduces/reminds the boy viewers to the character in which these action figures represent. The commercial then presents its own narrative split from the movie footage wherein the action figures, through no other agency than firepower (the action figures do not ‘walk’ or ‘run’ anywhere). As the commercial states, “The Ultra Police, protected by robo-armor, bring Robocop even more fire-power.”

As the good guys claim victory over Head Hunter and Nitro by no other virtue than fire-power, an ethical message is formed: justice and righteousness is ultimately attained through violence. The role of the boy, by that value, is can be narrowed down by a process of elimination of any other problem solving: negotiation, pacifism, reason, etc. Furthermore, the toys that the characters represent serve as models for the boys–physically ideal (muscular and touch-looking) to translate into them as ethically and methodically ideal characters: problem solvers by means of violence.

Keeping it Innocent

When I watched this commercial for the Mattel Tommy Burst Toy Gun from the 1960’s, I had the same initial reaction most any other viewer would have in the year 2014: There’s no way this commercial would make it on air today. The child wields two toy guns that could easily be mistaken for a real guns at a distance–something most post-Columbine Americans would feel iffy about. On this surface level, though, the commercial is still considerably innocent: just a kid playing with a toy gun the same way most children do at one point or another. But on a deeper look, there are forces acting to keep it innocent.

Note the serial positioning effects of this commercial (or meaningfully tactical order in which its elements appear):

  1. The father begins reading the Dick Tracy comic to his son. As viewed today, this part of the scene screams To Kill a Mockingbird: the father, complete with Atticus Finch glasses and comb-over, reads to his son on their couch. Of course, this resemblance might not have seemed so apparent given the style of the sixties, but the nature of these elements—suggesting innocence and wholesomeness—is nevertheless highlighted in what follows.
  2. The son engages himself in the comic’s plot by taking out his toy guns, the Dick Tracy Snub Nose .38 and the Dick Tracy Tommy Burst. As the boy speaks of “blasting” his “way out” of Dick Tracy’s situation (playing the role of Dick Tracy), the father laughs light heartedly—gesturing that he is not only unalarmed by his son’s acting, but approves of it.
  3. The two sit together on the couch and look to their television, which follows up on the product’s name, price, and displays the company’s emblem.

There are two narratives happening here: one in the child’s immersion into the story and another, more subtle one in the placement of these parts. I’m particularly interested in the latter.

The father is meant to address the values of parents who might be skeptical if this toy is safe or appropriate toy for their children. His clean-shaven, kind, and attentive demeanor make him a moral authority for viewing parents to not only accept, but to abide by. When the son pulls out his toys and acts out “blasting” through his enemies, the father approves, ultimately deeming the toy okay. He ultimately says this toy is okay without really saying it.

I can see two clear sources of moral authority in this commercial. The first, as previously stated, comes from the culture/pop culture of the 1960s and the father’s appeal to the dominant values and aesthetics of white, middle-class America of that time.

The second comes from the Dick Tracy comic. Dick Tracy is a tough-guy cop who defeats bad guys through his wits and frequent gun fights—a bolstering of the strength and unambiguous righteousness of American law. As the guns bare the icon of his face on the packaging like a badge, questioning the moral value of these toys would be questioning American law itself. The package, furthermore, asserts that the toy will help mold the boy into a good citizen.

LeapPad Educational Toy as Myth-Sustaining

Children’s toy commercials are semiotic and rhetorical goldmines–not just for kids, but also for parents. As I was recently surfing through different educational toy commercials on the internet, this one caught my attention.

This commercial was obviously made for a very specific audience (parents) at a very specific time (holiday shopping season). The appeal is clear: the LeapPad is a safe and educational alternative to the tablets they themselves likely use on a frequent basis. But there might be a deeper message embedded in this commercial’s delivery.

First, consider the stylistic similarities between LeapPad’s Christmas commercial and this one:

LeapPad’s similarity to the Apple iPad extends beyond its design and practical purposes. The distinct style and format of the iPad commercial, stemming from earlier iPhone commercials, is inconspicuously mimicked by LeapFrog: the tablet’s placement at the center of the shot, the hands of the unidentified user(s) set stably on the sides throughout their demonstration, etc. Here, LeapFrog not only assumes that the viewers (parents) are aware of iPad/iPhone commercials, but also that they have accepted the technological myth that tablet technologies will be a crucial tool–and thus literacy–of their children’s futures. It says, This is what your child needs to be successful and consequently, A child without this tablet is at a disadvantage.

We shouldn’t see any parent that buys their child the LeapPad as a ‘sucker’ for buying into this technological myth–at least not any more than the LeapFrog company itself. By appealing to this contemporary technological myth, largely perpetuated today by Apple and its rivals, LeapFrog has forfeited the infinite array of other design and marketing possibilities for one that subscribes to the tablet code.

The myth, simply put, is the consumer demand for tablets, and the code is the design and function of a tablet: touch-screen, graphic icons, application use, etc.

If this myth pushed by Apple, LeapPad, and almost every other tech company isn’t an attempt to convince consumers and future consumers of a sort of technological determinism, it is at the very least an assertion (or concession) to the technological dominance of tablet technologies and interfaces.