By Matthew Schwartz
Ken and Barbie, move over. Meet Mattel’s Creatable World, a customizable doll line that encourages kids to create their own characters. Each kit includes one doll, two hairdos, and countless styling possibilities. But the most notable aspect of the dolls is that they do not conform to gender norms, reflecting a growing shift among consumer brands to transcend prescribed notions of gender in their marketing and advertising.
In one ad for Creatable World, various dolls are shown on a split screen, displaying myriad fashions in rapid succession. A young narrator touts how kids can “mix and match for hundreds of looks,” as a girl with multicolored braided hair trades dolls with a boy decked out in a fedora, followed by a diverse group of children showing off their own creations.
Mattel incubated the product line for 18 months before introducing the dolls in late 2019, and spent a good deal of that time conducting focus groups with more than 250 families, including cisgender kids, trans kids, and gender-fluid kids, according to Kim Culmone, SVP at Mattel Fashion Doll Design.
“We discovered that kids have wanted the option to create characters that represented the world around them, and that happens to include gender diversity,” Culmone says. “This was about serving kids through a fundamentally positive and unique experience, not about checking a box for a particular community. And when we did that, we landed on something that was inclusive and beneficial to all.”
Mattel’s Creatable World enables kids to create their dolls in an endless number of stylings, sans labels connoting gender. The doll line, which debuted in 2019, is just one example of how more and more brands are starting to shatter gender stereotypes in their marketing and advertising. Mattel/YouTube
Creatable World, which TIME magazine named one of the best inventions of 2019, isn’t the only way Mattel is taking a more nuanced approach to marketing its toys.
Not long before the company introduced Creatable World, Mattel partnered with automaker Mercedes-Benz to create a Matchbox replica of the Mercedes-Benz 220SE commemorating Ewy Rosqvist, the first woman to win the Argentinian Grand Prix.
In an ad promoting the program, titled “No Limits,” young girls react to an assortment of toys. When handed a toy car, the girls dismiss it as being “for boys.” But after seeing a short film about Rosqvist, each of the girls show a noticeable change in attitude. “Girls can be racers, too,” one says.
“Play is how children learn,” says Jess Day, a campaigner at Let Toys Be Toys, a U.K.-based consumer advocacy and market research group that persuades retailers to stop categorizing toys by gender. “Different play develops different skills, so it’s really important that all children have access to a varied play diet.”
As a result of the organization’s efforts, more than a dozen U.K.-based retailers, including multinational retailer Marks & Spencer, have in the past few years adopted more gender-neutral marketing practices and eliminated signage for “boys” and “girls” from their toy departments and online platforms.
Turn and Face the Change
The various efforts illustrate dramatic and ongoing changes in gender-related marketing, in which ads no longer adhere to pink-and-blue protocols. An increasing number of companies realize that moving beyond the binary is not only good business, it cultivates brand affinity among communities that might not otherwise pay attention to their products and services.
“The real challenge for companies is to get to a place to say, ‘This isn’t going away,’” says Lisa Kenney, CEO of Reimagine Gender, which works with several major brands on how gender is evolving. “Not only is it global, it’s happening at a really accelerated rate.”
Kenney stresses that brands must provide their employees with a frame for thinking about how gender is evolving and how to talk about it internally.
“Once they have a gender lens, then things will make sense in terms of marketing and messaging, but also provide a broader lens for every customer touchpoint and how gender is being inserted in a way that may be exclusionary or unnecessary,” Kenney says. “Brands make a mistake when they think about gender in terms of women or transgender issues when, in fact, everybody — including men — is affected by constructions of gender.”
Younger generations are fueling the changes. More than 12 percent of U.S. millennials identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming and 20 percent identify as LGBTQ, according to GLAAD.
A Pew Research Center study found that about one in five Americans (18 percent) say they personally know someone who goes by nonbinary pronouns, such as singular “they,” rather than “him” or “her,” while 22 percent say they have heard a lot about preferences for such pronouns.
Major brands are evolving to meet the changes in how society sees gender identity. Take Mastercard’s “True Name” effort, which offers customers the option to put their chosen name, rather than their legal birth name, on their credit card. The move addresses a pain point for many nonbinary and transgender people.
Introduced in 2019, Mastercard’s “True Name” program gives members of the nonbinary and transgender community the option to use a credit card that features their true name, rather than their legal birth name. Mastercard News/YouTube
The program rolled out in the U.S. in 2019 and debuted in Europe last June, and it is starting to catch on with suppliers. BMO Harris Bank, for example, announced earlier this year that it has expanded access to Mastercard’s True Name across all of its consumer and small business debit, credit, and ATM cards. Citi began offering True Name cards to its customers in October.
“Part of understanding your consumer base is understanding gender,” Kenney says. “Not in a performative way and not in a cursory way, but in a way that says we want to grow our business and want to be more successful, and this is a key driver.”
P&G, the world’s largest advertiser, whose brands include Gillette, Pampers, and Pantene, has been taking a proactive approach toward breaking down traditional gender stereotypes.
Gillette’s “First Shave,” for example, shows a transgender man getting his very first shaving lesson from his father and sharing his story. The campaign was based on a core human insight: For most people shaving is a huge rite of passage, transgender or not, says Brent Miller, senior director for global LGBTQ+ equality at P&G.
“By seeing a transgender man in this situation, it causes two things,” Miller says. “From a brand perspective, it caused consumers to think about who you are and the service you provide in a new way. It also creates a connection with the transgender community, which a lot of people haven’t made before.”
In Gillette’s “First Shave,” a transgender man gets his first shaving lesson from his father. The ad “creates a connection with the transgender community, which a lot of people haven’t made before,” says Brent Miller, senior director for global LGBTQ+ equality at P&G. Gillette/YouTube
Pantene’s “Power to Transform” campaign, which debuted in 2019, plays off the brand’s famous 1986 ad to redefine what “beautiful” looks like in today’s world. It features a range of people within the LGBTQ+ community telling their personal stories of transformation.
As part of the campaign kick-off, Pantene introduced an extension for Google’s Chrome web browser called S.H.E. — Search. Human. Equalizer. The tool is designed to eliminate bias in online search. S.H.E. transforms more than 150 of the most problematic search terms based on volume and relevance by showing results that include women for queries that traditionally exclude them or by balancing searches for terms like “school girl” that typically surface sexualized images of women in costume with, in this example, images of girls in sch
Another facet of the campaign, called “Home for the Holidays,” focuses on the challenges trans individuals face when seeing their families during the festive season. The ads end with the tagline “Pantene. Coming Home Should Be #BeautifuLGBTQ.”
P&G research found that 60 percent of LGBTQ+ people change their hair when they come out of the closet, Miller says. “Instead of putting an LGBTQ+ person in an ad — as in just having them represented — we are taking insights about their unique relationship with hair, and its importance in life moments like coming out, and bringing that story to life in our advertisements,” he says.
Constant Process of Discovery
As companies recalibrate their gender-related marketing efforts, they need to take a holistic approach and be careful not to isolate the issue.
“Bring people onto your teams who represent the community, whether it be internally, from the creative side, agency, [or] partners,” Miller says. “It’s also [about] fostering inclusion through the creative supply chain [and providing] a deeper representation of the consumers you are representing, which is absolutely critical. As an industry, we need to do a better of job of that across the board.”
Brands ask for trouble if their gender-related ads smack of tokenism. “It’s vital to go beyond communicating your position or communicating your support,” says Dipanjan Chatterjee, VP and principal analyst at Forrester Research. “You have to understand the implications of these changes and how they ripple throughout the organization.” Companies, Chatterjee says, should ask themselves: “How does this notion of fluidity and gender impact my product line?”
For CMOs and marketers, such questions are inexorably moving toward the core. A 2019 Ipsos study found that 34 percent of all Americans disagreed with the statement that “there are only two genders — male and female — and not a range of gender identities.”
“There used to be a time when consumers would look in the mirror of advertising and expect to see themselves reflected back,” Chatterjee says. “We’ve moved to a time when we want to see the society around us reflected back.”
He adds that any consumer backlash to changes in gender-related advertising might be relatively short-term, eclipsed by larger forces. “The underlying currents indicate that the attitudinal shifts will support more of a genderless view of things, and brands will feel comfortable taking the step,” Chatterjee says.
Miller says that P&G has met resistance to its efforts regarding gender-neutral marketing, but the company is unbowed. “We do get people who come to us sometimes and say, ‘Why do you have to be political?’ and we say to them accurately representing people is not political,” Miller says. “It is representing the human condition, and that is what brands and companies should be striving to do.”