A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a new Hasbro toy aimed at little girls called Rose Petal Cottage. It shows a little girl making cookies, rearranging furniture and putting clothes in the dryer to a theme song with lyrics like "I love when my laundry gets so clean/ Taking care of my home is a dream, dream, dream!" I pointed out that it seems a little unnerving, in this day and age, to still see toys that play to such traditional gender roles. (And no, that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the concept of playhouses or playing make-believe or the color pink.)
Anyway, it turns out that Hasbro isn't just drawing gender lines for girls. A reader just alerted us to a new ad series for Tonka trucks that's based on the tag line "Boys: They're just built different." (If you want to see the commercial, click on the link that says "video.") In the ad, a little boy presents his bemused mother with a bouquet of flowers he has pulled out of the lawn and then tramps back outside, leaving a trail of dirt in his wake. The ad continues with scenes of little boys riding through the house on their Tonka trucks as the narrator explains reasons that the trucks are perfect for boys. "With the Tonka Scoot N' Scoop, they can play their way," she says. "It's built around what he does naturally."
What do little boys do naturally? According to this commercial, whatever the hell they want to. The ad continues with a little boy taking advantage of the truck's "shape sorter" tray by tossing a triangle over the truck and onto the floor, then chasing the family dog around the kitchen, and then bursting through a barricade of sofa cushions conveniently set out for him on the living room floor. (It's "his own sweet ride from baby to big boy," the narrator announces.) It's quite a different scene from the muffin-baking, home-decorating, laundry-doing world of responsibility going on in the Rose Petal Cottage. "Let's face it," the commercial concludes. "Boys are built different. Tonka's got the blueprint."
Now, I do not think there is anything wrong with trucks or little boys -- or little boys playing with trucks. Or, for that matter, little girls in playhouses. But I also think that ads have an effect on people's self-perception, and that kids are particularly open to learning to want what they're told they should want. So I don't like the fact that while the girl is shown meticulously rearranging her living room furniture (as a reader pointed out, it's great training for the day when she can shop for her own décor in Pottery Barn), the boy is deliberately messing up the living room as his mother smiles in the background with a look that all but says, "Boys will be boys!" To which I would respond, sure -- but boys and girls will also live up to the expectations we place on them. So we'd better be careful what those expectations are.
I should also point out that I think both toys look like a lot of fun, for boys and girls both. My objection is to the ads themselves. I'd like to write to Hasbro's ad team and point out that it's 2007. The toys themselves might be great. But when you peddle them with ads that could have come out in 1950, you risk alienating parents who want their kids to grow up with trucks and playhouses that don't make such explicit claims about what little boys and girls are made of.