Cost of Living

Mattel's gender-neutral dolls hit Canadian store shelves ahead of global retail expansion

Canadian brick-and-mortar stores will see the new line of gender-neutral dolls from toy giant Mattel ahead of other countries, after an "overwhelmingly positive" response to an online launch in the fall.

Dolls to hit brick-and-mortar stores around the world after ‘overwhelmingly positive’ online response

The Creatable World line of dolls from Mattel, famous for Barbie, each come with a wig and a variety of clothes and accessories. (Mattel)

The maker of Barbie has chosen Canada as one of the few countries where its new line of gender-neutral dolls are available in brick-and-mortar stores, ahead of its plan to expand globally beyond online retail in 2020 after what it calls an "overwhelmingly positive" response from consumers.

The Creatable World doll kits, which come with a variety of clothes and accessories representing a spectrum of gender expressions, are now for sale at select physical toy stores across Canada. 

Both in the United States and elsewhere in the world, the dolls are only available online.

Mattel says the line will expand to physical store shelves south of the border next year.

Product was 'soft' launched online in September

Executives at the toy giant said the new, gender-neutral dolls saw a record number of "media impressions" before being launched in stores.

Media impressions can include clicks on social media, and how many times an advertisement is viewed or an article is read.

What we heard back from children was that they don't want to be told how to play or who a certain toy is for.- Kim Culmone, Mattel

"[We saw] 2.8 billion media impressions for Creatable World at launch, which is pretty spectacular for a brand with zero awareness," said Kim Culmone, senior vice-president of design at Mattel's fashion doll division. 

Mattel chose to soft launch the $30 doll in September, limiting sales to Amazon and other online retailers at the onset.

"We've gotten a great response from kids [and] we're looking forward to the product line actually being in stores," said Culmone.

Marketed as the world's first gender-inclusive doll kit, the six separate dolls each have short hair and a wig as well as a prepubescent body with no overtly sexual characteristics such as breasts or broad shoulders.  

"The idea actually came from insight from our consumers, both parents and children … we spent a lot of time asking them what they wanted out of doll play," Culmone explained. 

"What we heard back from children was that they don't want to be told how to play or who a certain toy is for. And from parents we heard an increasing concern about 'gender-izing' of their children's toys."

Part of a larger trend in toys

While Mattel may have beat out its main competitors in putting out a gender-neutral doll, the marketing of toys has generally shifted to be less "gendered" overall, according to a researcher who specializes in children's stereotypes. 

"Toy companies and marketing agencies play a really big role in what kids think about themselves and others, so I think toys are siding in the right direction," said Christia Spears Brown, developmental psychologist and author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue.

For years now, Brown said toy manufacturers have been experimenting with cross-gender marketing — selling traditionally "boys' toys" to girls and vice versa. 

Toy companies like Hasbro have started marketing toys often considered feminine to boys, such as in this promotional image for the Baby Alive line. (Hasbro)

LEGO, for example, ramped up its marketing toward girls in 2012 with the launch of LEGO Friends.

Hasbro's redesigned Baby Alive dolls also made a deliberate effort to include boys.

The problem with wrapping everything in pink or blue, according to Brown, is that children end up latching on to gender stereotypes.

LEGO, often marketed to boys, is now being marketed to girls with taglines that say you'll 'feel like part of the girl gang with LEGO Friends.' (LEGO)

"What you get is a kind of situation where half the kids are playing with a particular toy and developing skills and abilities and qualities, and then the other half of the kids are playing with a different set of toys and learning a different set of skills and qualities and abilities because toys are a practice for adulthood," she said.

Brown said dolls teach children about caring and nurturing, while construction blocks teach children about engineering and problem-solving. 

"Those are a great set of skills that you could argue all adults should have," said Brown.

Barbie, Hot Wheels still going strong

While Mattel's latest gender-neutral dolls are garnering a lot of attention, Hot Wheels and Barbie remain the toy giant's hottest-selling brands, accounting for nearly 40 per cent of total sales, according to the latest stock report from S&P Global Market Intelligence. 

A quick comparison between Mattel's Hot Wheels' and Barbie's YouTube channels reveal big differences in brand marketing.

Hot Wheels videos frequently feature aggressive, masculine voices and words, while Barbie videos are often a sea of pink and purple. 

Screenshots from Mattel’s YouTube channel reveal blue-and-pink marketing is still very much alive. (Mattel/YouTube)

Both brands, however, appear to hire boys and girls as actors.  

Mattel, for its part, sees no disconnect between Hot Wheels, Barbie and its latest line of gender-neutral dolls.

"I actually see Creatable World as complementary to our current portfolio," said Culmone,

"Barbie is a brand that welcomes everyone to play. It's the world's most diverse and inclusive doll line on the marketplace; and Hot Wheels has girls in their advertising and also welcomes girls around the world as well." 

Written and produced by Falice Chin.
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