Toy giant Mattel is launching a new range of dolls designed and marketed to appeal to boys and girls alike. Let Toys Be Toys campaigner Megan Perryman and her children take a look – has a major manufacturer really dared to rewrite the toy marketing script?
When I was a child there were three things I knew for certain about Barbie dolls:
1) Barbie was for girls.
2) As a clever, confident, rule-breaking girl that meant I shouldn’t want one.
3) I wanted one more than anything in the world.
As a parent that ambivalence continued. My daughter received a cluster of Barbies for her fourth birthday which she adored with all her heart. I felt torn. I didn’t want to be the parent to deny my child a toy they clearly got so much enjoyment from, but equally the highly made-up, scantily clad, anatomically-impossible dolls could not have been further from my scruffy four year-old in grubby playclothes.
When my son turned four, he neither asked for nor received any Barbie dolls.
But he played with his sister’s just the same.
So when Mattel contacted us about their new Creatable World line I was delighted to know they were working on a more inclusive approach to dolls, and also really interested to know how my own children would respond to them.
Why does it matter how dolls are marketed?
Dolls play an important role in child development; they foster empathy, develop communication skills, and allow children to role-play the world around them. At Let Toys Be Toys we believe that all toys are for all children and it’s the marketing that tells them if they are included or not: Mattel’s Creatable World dolls represent a really big step forward here.
Creatable World re-imagines the Barbie doll for the modern world. The dolls are more childlike in appearance (similar to Lottie dolls which are based on the proportions of a nine year-old child) and come with a range of clothes and hair options.
The doll can have long hair or short, wear play clothes or party clothes, and crucially the child gets to decide if it’s a girl or a boy. The dolls are jointed, like an action figure, giving children more options for how to play with them.
And Creatable World emphasises creativity: the idea is that this is not just one doll, it’s as many as a child’s imagination can dream up.
Inclusive toy marketing in practice
At Let Toys Be Toys we have four simple asks of manufacturers around inclusive marketing; the Creatable World dolls, their packaging and marketing, do really well against these criteria.
- Inclusive names and language – The packaging and promotional materials don’t mention boys or girls.
- Representation – The dolls themselves aren’t identified as boys or girls and come in a range of skin tones and hair types. There are no images of children on the boxes. (We hope that other marketing material will feature both boys and girls.)
- Colour without stereotypes – While most dolls are packaged in a wall of pink, the Creatable World packaging is a cool blend of mint green and bright yellow, and there is a mix of colours in the clothes, including an item in each which is splashed with bright paint splodges.
- Imaginative language and motifs – stereotyped symbols and language are often used to target toys by gender, but the boxes steer clear of both.
The kids’ response to the Creatable World dolls
My children are now eleven and seven. When I brought the dolls home I wasn’t sure if my eleven year old would still be interested in dolls, or if my seven year old had learnt enough of the world’s expectations for boys to reject dolls altogether.
I was pleasantly surprised. There were gasps of excitement as the dolls were unveiled and a fight soon broke out over who would play with which doll.
Interestingly, both children wanted a doll that looked like them; then as they began to play they became more imaginative. They played together for the first time in a while, sharing the clothes and accessories, and commenting on the different combinations each other made. They tried plenty of different options with both long and short hair.
My son said “I like how you can make it a boy or a girl. Well, it could be a boy or a girl either way actually.” He’s recently learned about the dancer Eric Underwood at school and his doll was soon posing in ballet moves whilst he told me all about him.
At Let Toys Be Toys we know that boys and girls are more alike than they are different, but it takes an inclusively-marketed toy like this to make that really apparent.
Gender and the toy industry
When Let Toys Be Toys first started out in 2012 we targeted toy retailers to great success; UK retailers no longer explicitly signpost toys to boys or girls in-store and there has been a 70% drop in web navigation by gender.
We always knew that manufacturers would be a harder nut to crack as this required a much more considerable investment in challenging stereotypes, even a rethink of how a company is structured. The Creatable World dolls are a good example of how changes to marketing and presentation are only part of the story – thinking inclusively may mean a chance to reinvent and refresh the whole product itself.
The concept of an inclusively-marketed doll is by no means new, but this move by Mattel should not be underestimated. As a major player in the toy industry this signals something that parents have known for a while – many children love dolls. They just need to know they are allowed to.