One Tweet Against Sexism Changed Target's Marketing

August 10th 2015

Target Corp. plans to remove gender-specific signs from kids’ toy departments and other sections in its U.S. stores. Critics have lambasted rigid gender-based marketing as sexist, and research indicates it could be harmful to children’s development. Target’s decision follows mounting customer complaints over the past year, Target announced on its website Friday.

But while the announcement doesn’t specifically mention it, a Tweet posted by Ohio woman Abi Bechtel in June gained a lot of traction on this issue.

Bechtel was shopping at a Target with her 7-year-old son when she saw two signs in the kids’ toy department that disturbed her. One sign said "Building Sets." The sign below it said "Girls' Building Sets." What she saw in the sign was visual rhetoric that males are default and females are some distinct "other" category. Bechtel Tweeted the image at Target’s Twitter account with three words of advice: "Don’t do this."

"People are talking about the boxes we put people in, especially kids,” Bechtel told ATTN:. "There’s so much we teach kids about what to do and how to be that is based on gender."

When someone shares their outrage with the denizens of Twitter or Facebook, some critics scoff that the person must have too much time on their hands, or state that their post won’t affect anything in the real world.

Bechtel acknowledges her post was meant as "a one-off, eye-rolling Tweet."But she was blown away by the response it got. The whole episode was a lesson in how social media can be a powerful tool for change. Bechtel said she’s even more convinced than she was before that platforms like Twitter can bolster social justice movements, particularly Black Lives Matter, that have gained momentum online.

"This was a Tweet that became part of a cultural moment that got Target to rethink its marketing strategy," Bechtel said. "That’s a tangible thing in the real world."

Target said in its announcement that shoppers "have raised important questions about a handful of signs in our stores that offer product suggestions based on gender…In some cases, like apparel, where there are fit and sizing differences, it makes sense. In others, it may not."

“We heard you, and we agree,” Target wrote. “Right now, our teams are working across the store to identify areas where we can phase out gender-based signage to help strike a better balance.”

Target mentioned a few sections that could see signage change:

  • Target will remove references to gender in its toy aisles and abolish the use of blue and pink or yellow and green to indicate whether the products are for boys or girls.
  • Signs in the kids bedding area will no longer suggest whether merchandise is for boys or girls.
  • Target also indicated that changes could be coming to home and entertainment departments of the store, too.

Bechtel, in her early 30s, describes herself as "a writer, MFA student, writing instructor, mom, wife, Christian, and feminist" on her WordPress blog. Her writing focuses on "faith, feminism, and fat acceptance, with a side of depression and therapy."

Her Target Tweet has been praised as a catalyst that put a spotlight on the signs and stoked public outrage that forced Target’s hand. About 3,000 people retweeted her original post from the toy department. That got thousands more people talking.

Not everyone was a fan though, as Bechtel noted in an article she penned for xoJane.

“A lot of very concerned people,” she wrote, “flooded my Twitter mentions, Facebook messages, and email with their very valid concerns, such as how I was a big fat ugly fat fatty who hates children and loves ISIS and doesn’t understand how gender or the free market work.”

But as Bloomberg reported, "Retailers have been moving away from gender stereotypes, and some startups have emerged to break down the divide in kids’ clothing and toys."

Marketing toys according to gender stereotypes has been blasted as harmful to children—and to society in general. Susan Linn, a Harvard Medical School psychologist and head of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told Boston Globe Magazine earlier this year that "children use toys to try on new roles, experiment, and explore interests."

“Rigidly gendered toy marketing,” Linn continued, “tells kids who they should be, how they should behave, and what they should be interested in.”

University of California, Davis scholar Elizabeth Sweet, also interviewed in that piece, said “this kind of marketing has normalized the idea that boys and girls are fundamentally and markedly different from one another.”

"And this very idea lies at the core of many of our social processes of inequality," she said to Boston Globe Magazine.

Bechtel and her husband have three sons, ages 12, 9, and 7. She said she’s taken her middle son to Target and had him scoff at the girl sections, saying something along the lines of "ew, that’s girl stuff."

"So much of what we do as parents who are trying to raise kids to be feminist allies conscious of the way society talks about gender is un-teaching things they learned elsewhere," she said. "These are the conversations that happen in the car: why the kids make fun of the girl with the Star Wars book bag—why it has to be weird if a boy in your class wears pink shoe strings."

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Do you think that too many toys on the market breed sexism?

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