“Boys and girls are different…” begins the voice over from this 2010 Huggies nappies commercial, before launching into a montage of traditional gender stereotypes in order to sell their nappies. Oh boy.

To examine this ad properly, I’m going to have to get all academic on Huggies’ ass (said the suburban mum).

Full disclosure: I’m studying psychology at the moment, so I’m going to use SCIENCE to tear this ad to shreds. Sound cool with you, reader? Great.

Gender stereotypes, including those such as girls preferring to play with dolls, and boys preferring to play with trucks, have been found to be as much part of our nature as they are nurture. Gender stereotypical toy preferences, for example, have been observed even in non-human primates, including vervet monkeys. In a 2002 study, it was found that, when placed in cages with toys, male monkeys tend to choose trucks and balls, whereas female monkeys tend to choose dolls and pots. This finding suggests that toy preferences may reflect differences in biological predispositions, such as aggressiveness and nurturance, shared by many primates.

However: research also tells us that nature does not operate in a vacuum, and that how parents nurture boys versus girls can influence their choices, opportunities, status and power later in life.  In a study from 1991, it was shown that parents tend to encourage children to engage in gender-stereotyped behaviours, such as achievement and independence among boys, and dependence and nurturance among girls. Fathers are more likely than mothers to enforce these stereotypes. 

So, social environment and social expectations can influence how gender stereotypes are reinforced. Hence the problem with this ad. When the leading global brand of nappies defines boys and girls in such narrow, gender stereotypical ways, and aligns these stereotypes with the design of their products, all this tells audiences – parents desperate to do their best for their children – that raising their children in a gender stereotypical manner is what’s best for their kids.

But when has limiting girls to playing kitchens, or limiting boys to playing trucks, ever been good for children? Yes, it’s okay for girls to like dolls, and in fact, it might appeal strongly to their inner nature – but dolls are not all they like playing with. By dumbing down what it means to be a girl, and what it means to be a boy in this ad, Huggies have essentially reinforced the limited options available to either gender, and limited their futures as a result.

When gender stereotypes teach us who we are and what we can be, we all lose. Boys end up seeing nurturing as having less social capital, and girls see positions of power and strength as not their place. Brands have an incredible power to either limit or expand the definitions of desirable masculinity and femininity. Not only does freeing boys and girls from gender stereotypes lead to a proven reduction in family violence, it can also lead to an expansion of what brands sell, who they sell it to, and how they sell it. The opportunities, economic benefits, and positive social influence, are limitless.

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