Who gets to play? Boys and girls in TV toy ads

words used in TV toy ads featuring girls: most prominent words magic, fun, beautiful, princess, glitter, style, hair, sparkle

We’ve been taking a look at TV toy ads to see how they show children’s play, and what picture they give viewers about boys and girls. The results are pretty depressing.

It’s that wonderful time of the year, when the toy industry goes into overdrive trying to convince children which toys they desperately need Santa to drop down the chimney. But many of Santa’s surprises will have been produced and promoted in the belief that boys and girls should have different toys and should be targeted separately. ‘Tis the season for excessively stereotypical selling practices.

Download the full research report: Who gets to play? What do TV toy ads tell children about girls’ and boys’ play? Dec 15

It was during the frustration of the Christmas shopping period that the Let Toys Be Toys movement began. In the run up to Christmas 2012, a group of parents on an online chat forum, fed up of the archaic gender stereotypes being fed to children, decided to tackle the toy industry. Our pilot survey uncovered some of the areas we wanted to change; over half the high street stores we visited used Boy/Girl signs to tell shoppers who toys were meant for. We decided to ask retailers to take down the signs and organise by theme instead. A year of campaigning later, our 2013 survey found a 60% reduction in gendered signs. In 2014 we found the use of gender categorisation across online shopping sites had reduced by 46% over two years.

This year we’ve been watching television adverts. Joy to the world.

Toy ads – what we found

Volunteers for Let Toys Be Toys watched 9 UK channels over 30 hours of programming to see how boys and girls are represented in TV advertisements for toys in the UK. 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.

words used in TV toy ads featuring boys. Most prominent: battle, control, power, adventure, blast, build, action, launch, rescue

More alike than different

We think boys and girls are more alike than different, which is something science backs up. We know that interests cross genders, so why do marketers persist in encouraging children to believe they should only have certain, gender specific, interests?

Why does it matter?

Marketing toys by gender limits children’s choices, limits their chances to learn and develop and feeds bullying.

Recent research by the Young Women’s Trust found that young women have more stereotyped views about the work that’s suitable for men and women than older women do. What are the chances that there’s a link between this and the fact that gender-stereotyped marketing to children has massively increased since the 1970s?

We’re asking for more responsibility from toy manufacturers. It’s past time they stopped using harmful stereotypes in their advertising and marketing. We’d like to see companies use their creativity and innovation to market toys in a way that helps children to grow up in a world that supports imagination, not limitation.

Download the full research report: Who gets to play? What do TV toy ads tell children about girls’ and boys’ play? Dec 15

What can you do?

Shop outside the box this Christmas! Don’t let narrow stereotypes limit our children’s choices.


  1. Sarah

    I’m really disappointed that I don’t see “challenge” and “learning” on the girls’ one at all. That really stuck out to me as the worst difference.

    If I think it’s important that my dog has intellectual toys that challenge her and help her learn, surely retailers realise it’s important for humans to have them too?

  2. Lesley Fielding

    Gendered toys are just part of the issue: books from pre-reading onwards emphasise different roles for girls and boys, women and men, and mothers and fathers.

    Thirty years ago it was only just occurring to publishers that books with strong female characters could be financially rewarding. It isn’t quite as difficult today with titles like The Paperbag Princess, but often by the time girls are able to read and understand those stories the ideas of the niceness of passive femininity has got a hold and girls then reject these books as being somehow wrong.

    So I say a big YES to undifferentiated toys for all children, but don’t forget about the ways books, tv and media work to reinforce the ideas that girls and boys are different. If we overlook these influences we will still see little girls wanting pink shiney plastic and boys wanting rugged action toys to the detriment of them both.

  3. Anne

    In addition to the concern about toys and books, children’s clothing/birthday cards are also a massive issue. Looking through stores, it’s difficult to find things “for girls” that don’t feature pink/purple, hearts, furry creatures or friendship themes, and “for boys” are predominately vehicles, heroes and action themes. I could not find anything featuring female characters which involved a career, but many of the items featuring male characters involved farming, firefighting, exploration etc.

  4. A recent advertisement for Ariel detergent in India struck a cord with many parents who want gender-neutral environment for their kids. The ad was lauded by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg as well.
    They Are What We Let Them Play

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