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The Boy in the Barbie Ad: Gender-Challenging Marketing

Millennials continue to show that they’re rethinking gender norms, and brands are catching up…

Earlier this year, a Facebook video of a dad celebrating his son’s choice of an Ariel mermaid toy was viewed over 15 million times in four days. Not long before that, Target announced that they would be getting rid of gender labels in their toy aisles, based on feedback from customers. In a statement, the retailer said, “shopping preferences and needs change and, as guests have pointed out, in some departments like Toys, Home or Entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary.” The decision was reportedly inspired in large part by a tweet that called attention to toy labeling, and social media conversation since the announcement has been largely “pro-Target.”

The next generation of parents are clearly trying to take a different approach to gender norms, and we continue to see the “rules” of gender being broken for kids being raised today. It makes sense. Millennials have always had a reputation for being more open-minded about gender issues, and according a Fusion survey, 50% of 18-34-year-olds actually believe gender exists on a spectrum. The generation repeatedly shows that they are rethinking gender norms, intertwining the traditionally masculine and feminine, and at times outright rejecting the gender expectations they feel are out-of date. It seems that brands are beginning to catch up to their mindset, and we’re seeing new marketing that rethinks gender to appeal to younger consumers.

Moschino and Barbie have made a huge splash this week with their new ad, which for the first time in the doll’s history features a boy playing with the well-dressed blonde toy. YouTube commenters are celebrating the ad, with many saying that they played with their own sister’s Barbies growing up, and one commenter declaring, “this makes me so happy for the future generation and I hope it’ll catch on and destroy gender stereotypes when it comes to toys :)” As Refinery29 notes, the ad would have even more impact if it were not for a limited-edition designer Barbie actually targeted to an adult market, but the inclusion of a boy in an ad for one of the most historically gendered toys is still something of note.

It’s not just brands in the toy aisle making the gender shift.

A recent video from AB InBev, the beer company behind Budweiser, Corona, and Stella Artois, calls stereotypes and gendered drinking into question. The video shows “secret” footage in a bar in which male and female pairs order drinks—every time the female orders a beer, it’s delivered to her male partner. But the women being interviewed declare their own love for beer, and their dismay at having to explain their tastes to bartenders who always hand them the martini. The concluding message is, “It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman. #WEALLLOVEBEER.” The clip has been viewed over 6 million times since being posted in September. For such a major beer company to embrace female beer drinkers is another sign of a seriously gendered product making an about-face away from stereotypes.

The reality is that Millennials, and all young consumers, are not interested in what products their gender is supposed to buy or like. In fact, many of them are actively interested in breaking those barriers—and that’s an opportunity for brands everywhere. Limiting the consumers that might purchase your product to one gender is eliminating far too many, and this generation doesn’t want to be told that anything is boys/girls only.