Slugs and snails, sugar and spice: Marketing to children – Should we be worried about stereotypes?

By Cate Nelson-Shaw, Director,

Have you ever stood in a children’s clothes shop or toy shop, sighed and wondered, when faced with wall-to-wall pink and blue, “Is this really all there is?!” Mum of two Cate Nelson-Shaw discusses the potential impact such stereotyping is having on our children…

At home one evening I was watching live TV – which annoyingly meant sitting through the adverts…First up, an ad for a dairy brand with a voiceover that girls should aspire to be “just like mum” with images of a girl of around 7-9 years old sitting at a dressing table putting on makeup then walking around in Mum’s high heels; and that boys should aspire to be “just like dad”, with images of a boy of a similar age strutting about in a superhero outfit in the garden pretending to weight lift.  I’ll admit, this isn’t the End Of the World. I remember rummaging about in my mother’s wardrobe when I was little – there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fun. But it was the stereotypes in the advert that bothered me and the suggestion that Looking Good was in itself something for girls to aspire to and for boys suggesting being strong and invincible was the main aspiration. How much should we as parents mind about messages such as these and what they mean for our children? In my opinion, a lot. Because they seem to promote not only the commercialisation of childhood but unhealthy stereotyping too.

It could be argued this has been going on for time immemorial – “slugs and snails…and… sugar and spice” and all that – but maybe it’s time for a change: dress the girls in blue and the boys in pink. Although this does mean that as parents we are occasionally on the receiving end of derisive comments if in public our boys wear beads and our girls have natty short hairstyles. Why though? Why do people feel the need to draw attention to the refusal to adhere to gender stereotypes in such a mocking way? As parents it can be hurtful and insulting and you only have to imagine how the children feel.

Take heart though. is a great website based on the principle “Because all girls are not the same” and responding to the question ‘Have you ever walked through a girl’s toy or clothing department and wondered “Is this all there is?’ ”. Why are the options often so limited and what is is about them that appeals?  However, getting past our own insecurities of what others might say about a blue wearing GI Joe daughter or a Street Dance loving son dressed in pink and the (fear of) discomfort can cause parental anxiety. If children are keen to do something that is out with the standard gender stereotype, try not to be afraid how this might reflect on the child, or reflect on us as parents and carers. (Incidentally, it hasn’t always been the case that “pink is for girls” and “blue is for boys” – the two colours weren’t promoted as gender signifiers until the early 20th century, when “pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl” (Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department, USA, June 1918)).

These days, older children may begin to understand that their decisions and actions have consequences; and that some people may pass negative remarks that make them feel awkward and uncomfortable. Sometimes it does just seem easier to be part of the herd rather than the lone sheep. My own younger years did include the pressure to blend into that herd rather than – as was the case – stick out. Yes I was in the sensible shoes, neatly tied back hair in a side parting, Peter Pan collars, Blue Peter camp…I’d like to think I’ve emerged, however!! I did have one doll but I drew on her face in biro because all she did was stare at me all day in a slightly creepy way (you could argue a lack of imagination on my part!). I preferred reading, Monopoly and going off with my friends to have adventures in places we weren’t allowed to stray – the river, the woods, the other side of the dual carriageway…

These days such simple pleasures are often not enough, as today’s children are armed with smart phones and tablets and it’s increasingly difficult and confusing to keep an eye on the marketing messages they receive. And to regulate this marketing activity.

In the UK the regulations around marketing to children appear inconsistent and confusing. There are a wide range of bodies and often a lack of transparency in how they all relate to each other. Coupled with the lack of an overall monitoring mechanism for integrated marketing campaigns targeted at children, and the numerous self-regulatory bodies and statutory codes of practice, it all becomes a bit of a minefield. The 2010 Consumer Focus report “A Tangled Web – Marketing to Children” and the Government’s 2013 report “Letting Children Be Children” do appear to be going some way to address this, calling for greater transparency and making recommendations for both government as well as businesses, trade associations and regulators. The Government’s review suggests that the advertising, retail, music and internet industries have become too complacent and need to demonstrate greater willingness to engage with parental anxiety at what they are collectively producing for the youngest of consumers, both intentionally or inadvertently.

And it’s not just children. Is the latest iOS7 software for the iPhone designed to be more “appealing” to women, with its pastel colours and lighter overall look? Terrific. Although perhaps there is one saving grace for Apple though – they have yet to “pink it and shrink it” as that, ladies, is apparently how we like our products. Oh dear.

When all is said and done, perhaps what it boils down to is that our children are happy, safe and know they are loved for who they are and the choices they make. And if children are shown constant disapproval in this regard they might be less willing to talk about their lives, now and as they head towards the minefield that is The Teenage Years…apparently, more tricky than newborns. Really…?!

This article appears in the January/February 2014 edition of

Cate Nelson-Shaw