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Children's Toy Advertisements - Merris Griffiths


Chapter 5


Semiotic Analysis of Children’s Televised Toy Advertisements



The aim of this chapter was to focus on the so-called ‘latent content’ of the toy advertisements in the sample as a way to identify any possible gender connotations in the way that the texts were constructed (cf. Research Issue 3). Semiotic analysis is a qualitative approach to (media) texts and is perhaps the most effective way to consider textual elements that are not quantifiable but never the less significant in terms of the overall ‘feel’ of an advertisement. A number of textual aspects or codes were focussed on in the context of this study, including appeals, characters, attitudes, colours, rhetoric, narratives, aesthetics and overall product philosophies.

The process of analysis began by identifying any possible connotations in a small sample of advertisements – three ‘typical’ girls’ advertisements (art product, fashion doll and feeding doll) and three ‘typical’ boys’ advertisements (train-set, military-based toy and racing car). It then became possible to generate a series of binary oppositions that could be summarised in terms of features with distinct ‘male’ and ‘female’ connotations. It was too complex to analyse the total sample of (117) toy advertisements in such detail, so the sample as a whole was studied in terms of broad thematic codes of construction. In this way, strong patterns could be seen to emerge across the sample, further illustrating those codes that were either frequently or infrequently used in the boys’ and girls’ advertisements.

Once the sample had been considered as a whole, it proved an interesting exercise to compare and contrast the ways in which similar product-types were targeted differently depending on whether the intended target audience was male or female. Two toy types were compared – a ‘vehicle’ product and a ‘doll’ product – and the emergent patterns tended to follow traditional gender stereotypes. Product themes, contexts and details, use of colour and on-screen characters were all considered.


5.1 Aims and methodology


While the content analysis revealed strong patterns within the integral structure of the toy advertisement sample, these patterns only highlighted the manifest content of the advertisements. That is, certain elements or factors within a (media) text and the so-called ‘priorities’ or importance placed on those elements. As Hart (1991: 109) emphasised, however, the frequency with which given elements or factors appear is not necessarily proportional to or synonymous with their level of significance. So, an analysis of a (media) text should also consider the ‘latent’ content in terms of the value judgements within a given cultural system and the ‘relationships’ within a structural meaning of a message. This chapter will therefore apply some of the principles of semiotic analysis to the same sample of toy advertisements, focusing on their so-called ‘latent’ meaning.

It would be possible to apply the principles of semiotic filmic codes to the content analysis findings (cf. Bignall, 1997: 141 ff.; Berger, 1991: 26) or combine the two methodologies (cf. Leiss et al., 1990: 225 ff.). However, some possible implications have already been alluded to and reviewing the patterns again would arguably not add to a deeper understanding of the advertisement sample. Therefore, a semiotic analysis will, in the context of this chapter, aim to focus on those features present in an advertisement that were not quantifiable in terms of being a formal content feature, but are vital in terms of creating the overall ‘feel’. Hence, textual aspects or codes such as appeals, characters, attitudes, colours, rhetoric, narratives, aesthetics and overall product philosophies will be considered. Emphasis will, however, be placed on the visual rather than the verbal codes because these are said to hold greater impact for children (Hodge & Tripp, 1986: 61).

The field of semiotics is awash with complicated jargon and is often difficult to disentangle. Brief descriptions of the terms used in this chapter are therefore included in order to clarify the approach. Perhaps one of the main starting points in semiotics is the sign, as anything from which meaning is generated. The sign can, in turn, be split into the two aspects of signifier – the form that the sign takes, and signified – the concept(s) that the sign represents. Associated signs are often placed within a paradigm or defining category. A paradigmatic analysis involves a study of patterns other than internal relations. Signs also interact in combination to form a syntagm or meaningful whole, where a syntagmatic analysis considers the narrative sequence formed.

The meanings generated by signs are also considered in two ways. Firstly, denotation refers to the ‘literal’ or definitional meaning of a sign, where there is relatively broad consensus about the meaning of the signified. Secondly, the socio-cultural and personal associations that a sign may carry are referred to as connotations. Very often, there is no clear distinction between denotation and connotation but they form part of the overall ideology of the sign system. Two further terms often used in semiotics are metaphor and metonymy, where the former refers to the unfamiliar expressed in terms of the familiar, and the latter refers to an individual example that stands for a general category. Taken together, one could argue that all these elements comprise a code, which can be defined as a set of practices within a broad cultural framework. When semiotically deconstructing a given text, it is also possible to apply a commutation test. This involves substituting one textual element or signifier for another in order to understand the contribution or effect of the original. Further details of semiotic codes and their applications can be found in Thwaites et al. (1994) and Chandler (1994a).

The application of semiotic principles will, in part, be used to identify any possible gender connotations in a selected sample of toy advertisements targeted at boys and girls respectively. In order to offer a more detailed and contained analysis, six advertisements (three ‘female’ and three ‘male’) were randomly selected as examples of what might be described as typical male- or female-oriented approaches. The female-oriented advertisements included an art product, a small fashion doll and a feeding doll, while the male-oriented advertisements included a train-set, a military-based toy and a racing car. Brief descriptions of the advertisements are provided in Appendix F.1 (1-3) and F.2 (1-3), along with a tabular breakdown of the audio soundtrack, while a semiotic analysis of the texts is discussed in full below. A summary will then be provided of features that could be described as having specific gender connotations.


5.2 Detailed deconstruction of three ‘typical’ girls’ advertisements

5.2.1 Blush Art (Waddingtons)

The opening sequence of shots focussed on the types of pictures that could be produced using the product. The ‘gaze’ of the overhead camera shot might signify the audience point-of-view (Chandler, 1999). The position of the audience as protagonist was confirmed when hands extended from the bottom of the frame to interact with the product signifying ‘us’, the product users. The camera movement also seemed to mimic the way an individual might survey the scene. Taken in sequence, these filmic codes might represent the movement of our eyes and the accompanying mental processes such as deciding which pastel colour or stencil to use next. Hence, these syntagms might represent the possible actions of the product user and may, by association, give a ‘feel’ for the product.

The camera paused briefly on the ‘portrait of your Mum’. This is an advertising convention perhaps best described as cause-and-effect, in which the product – ‘cause’ – is directly related to the standard of a given conclusion – ‘effect’. One could easily understand how this linear principle related to an art product such as Blush Art, in that the product allowed the user to produce ‘art’. The shot of the ‘portrait’ was also given added life because the ‘mother’ wore an earring that glistened attractively. There was perhaps a subtle emphasis on and a preoccupation with female beauty in this instance, since one’s focus was drawn to the earring as the only ‘animated’ feature in the shot. The glistening effect may also signify an element of magic and glamour, which is consistently identified as having a positive effect on (female) children (cf. Del Vecchio, 1997: 53). Perhaps ‘Mum’ was also a metonym for ultimate (female) perfection and, arguably, the best model for any young girl to imitate.

The subject matter of the other pictures that were produced using the product maintained a sense that the best (female) inspiration for ‘art’ was found in the home environment, particularly family members (people and pets) and the garden. One could argue that the images were conventionally ‘cute’, such as fluffy animals, hearts and smiling faces. Each image became the signifier for a concept alluded to in the product jingle such as ‘puppies’, ‘kittens’, ‘horses’ and ‘flowers’, all traditionally associated with female interests (cf. Acuff, 1997: 142-3). If one were to apply the commutation test and substitute the names of these images for ‘dog’ and ‘cat’, for example, one could argue that the ‘cute’ appeal would be lost and the pictures would no longer appear stereotypically ‘female’. So the ‘labels’ or ‘verbal codes’ used in advertisements may have powerful appeals for the audience and influence the way in which the screen images are interpreted. In the context of this advertisement, it became apparent that there were certain rhetorical appeals that grounded the already ‘female’ visual images more firmly in the realm of ‘femininity’.

There was also an emphasis on the ‘fun’ that could be enjoyed through ownership of the product (cf. Del Vecchio, 1997: 31-32, 215), coupled with an emphasis on prolonged interaction with the product ‘for hours’. One could argue that this alludes to the notion that girls are more likely to have the patience and physical control to sustain an activity, where their male counterparts may quickly feel bored or frustrated in the same situation. Furthermore, the product would appear to be most suited to the confinement of indoor activities in the home environment.

The gaze of the audience suddenly shifted from that of protagonist to that of spectator. An on-screen girl character was shown using the product, perhaps connoting that she produced the pictures shown previously. The setting in which the girl appeared was important in the sense that it contextualised the location for most likely product use. In this instance, the setting was an indoor living room location, complementing the notion of domesticity as signified by the images already shown. Interestingly, the colour yellow dominated the scene since the girl lay on a yellow carpet, propped up by a yellow cushion with her yellow hair around her shoulders. One could argue that the colour has connotations of warmth, happiness and welcome (Bignall, 1997: 142), and the broad smile on the young girl’s face would substantiate this suggestion. This would arguably have a positive effect on the audience as they subconsciously associated the product with the connotations of the dominant colour.

In the next shot, the audience was repositioned as active participant, although on this occasion one might have felt more like the ‘best friend’ of the girl in the advertisement. A low angle camera shot created the feeling of sitting next her on the yellow carpet. Perhaps this was a re-enactment of a scenario when ‘best friends’ spend time together. This feeling of companionship and intimacy was emphasised by an over-the-shoulder shot from behind the girl, looking down at the picture she was creating. These connotations were positive in terms of what the product could offer the audience because ownership seemed to be equated with popularity, acceptance, admiration and fun.

A second female character then appeared in the advertisement. Unlike the first character, she might be described as more stereotypically feminine in the way that she was dressed in top-to-toe pale pink. She seemed to tone in delicately with the pastel shades of the product colours described as ‘blushes’ in the jingle. This might be taken as a metaphor for femininity. There was an interesting contrast between the apparent personalities of these screen characters. The first character was happy to occupy herself with the product, her lowered eyes concentrating on her picture in a manner detached from the audience. The second character, however, turned to face the audience with a broad smile, allowing a clear view of the pastel colour she was using. In this way, she appeared to be interacting with the audience on a more personal level and communicating her enjoyment of the product.

Yet if one followed the eye-line of the second character, one could argue that she was looking upwards rather than directly at us. Perhaps she was looking up at an adult figure and may have been seeking approval or encouragement. Whatever the direction of her gaze and for whatever reason, this character connoted a sense of pride and happiness, positively endorsing the product. It was intriguing to consider the position of the audience during this interchange of glances, since it would seem that we were in an elevated and superior position. Perhaps, in this instance, the advertisement was addressing the adult audience sector and adopting a parental point of view to emphasise the happiness of the child. A parent would perhaps be more likely to purchase a product offering such positive benefits.

The closing few shots of the advertisement once again showed examples of the types of pictures that could be produced using the product. Images of teddy bears, idyllic houses, flowers, rainbows and a man and woman holding hands romantically might all connote notions of femininity. The whole point of the product seemed to be to allow the user to create soft, fuzzy, warm, delicate and perfumed pictures. This kind of philosophy was clearly not conducive to producing more ‘masculine’ images such as cars, super-heroes and weaponry. Taken together, the jingle lyrics and visual images placed this product firmly within the realm of the feminine. 

5.2.2 Popsy (Tomy)

There was something distinctly ‘unreal’ about this product in that there was a cartoon feel to the setting and the images seemed stylised (cf. Kress & van Leewen, 1996: 258). The grass was very green, the sky was very blue and the daisies were very white. The product then appeared in the centre of the screen comprising a small, bright pink, hard plastic case with rounded edges, the colour code placing it firmly in the realm of femininity.

The overall aesthetics of the product might also signify certain notions of stereotyped femininity. Rather than having sharp edges in the sense of a traditional ‘box’ shape, the corners of the product were rounded to offer a more ergonomic feel, producing a softened appearance and might, arguably, be representative of a more feminine image. This kind of idea has often been echoed in other contexts, such as Mother and child and other sculptures by Henry Moore or the bubble-like appearance of small cars that tend to be designed with women in mind.

Suddenly, the white daisies surrounding the box became animated and began to sing Popsy’s theme song (product jingle). The music was very upbeat and the flowers smiled broadly, connoting a sense of fun and the notion that the product would bring happiness to the owner. The camera continued to focus on the pink box, which gradually metamorphosed in staggered movements demonstrating how it could be opened. This might signify that the product required a little assembly before it would look its ‘best’, with the mirror in position and Popsy placed on a podium. However, the staggered movements with the product elements seeming to ‘appear’ from no where might also signify a kind of ‘magic’ or ‘fantasy’ (Acuff, 1997: 68-9; Del Vecchio, 1997: 89). ‘Fairy magic’ was often depicted in such a way in other media contexts and television genres, such as the 1960s comedy Bewitched (recently re-shown on television) where things would often materialise at the wiggle of a nose! Since Popsy also described herself as ‘the prettiest fairy’, the magical connotations remained consistent throughout.

When Popsy initially appeared in the advertisement, she was shown looking at herself in the mirror. One could argue that she symbolised the stereotypical notion of female preoccupation with outer appearance, and the vanity often associated with prolonged mirror gazing. The notion of beauty seemed somewhat stereotyped in the advertisement in that Popsy had waist-length blond hair and a ‘painted face’ with red lips and long eyelashes. This image of femininity was seen in various contexts from Barbie to the actress Pamela Anderson and is often regarded as the contemporary (Western) beauty ideal. It was also echoed in the artwork produced by the children involved in the study, such as Chloe’s (age 7) Tooth Fairy (cf. Chapter Seven). Hence, this combination of physical markers may combine to signify ‘feminine’ and categorise the advertised product as ‘girlie’.

Popsy was then shown turning away from the mirror to gaze directly at the audience. Attention was focussed on her face, before she asked ‘What shall I wear today?’ This may again be rooted in the philosophy that females think carefully and care about their outer appearance. This feminine preoccupation was manifested in a slightly different way in this advertisement, however, in that Popsy sought feedback or an answer from those who gazed upon her. This may be a way of seeking approval or some kind of reassurance, even to the extent of objectification, but at the same time offered a degree of familiarity and trust. It was somewhat unusual that a doll figure should have a first-person voice. In many ways, her voice allowed her to take on a life and existence of her own. However, the degree of empowerment this may afford her was distinctly limited in that she was asking for guidance and help. Her question would appear to cast her as someone incapable of making her own decisions and this, one could argue, made her reliant and weak. The connotations of this reliance might signify that Popsy was a child who needed to be ‘mothered’, perhaps positioning the (female) audience as primary caregiver. Alternatively, the (female) audience might be encouraged to imitate her as a role model of stereotyped femininity.

The next shot sequence demonstrated how Popsy could be dressed, her various garments clipped or ‘popped’ into position. This sequence incorporated the advertising technique of ‘demonstration’ as the audience was shown how to interact with the product. Once dressed, Popsy again turned to face the audience and involve them in the scene (cf. Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996: 254). There was a sense that the audience represented the mirror into which she gazed as she sought approval and a positive reflection. It might also signify that Popsy was ‘looked upon’ and objectified for the benefit of spectators (cf. Chandler, 1999). Since this advertisement was so upbeat and jolly throughout, one could argue that objectification was portrayed as something positive 

A somewhat leisurely scene then opened in which Popsy was shown walking her dog in an idyllic park. The dog was also delicate and feminine, rather like a fluffy longhaired lapdog and one would almost expect it to be wearing a ribbon! Such dogs might signify a certain social status connoting wealth, extravagance, leisure, and pampering. It might also suggest that both the dog and Popsy have no practical function in life and are simply decorative or even ‘useless’. Popsy then became ‘other worldly’ by donning her sparkling wings to confirm her status as a fairy. Her detachment from everyday ‘reality’ and the fact that she describes herself as the ‘prettiest fairy’ seemed to somehow displace the feminine ideal that she personified throughout. Her ‘femaleness’ became a thing of fantasy and a means of escapism, implying that her life was one of daydreams.

An on-screen, human character was then introduced and it is likely that she was cast in the role because of her resemblance to the doll. She too had long blond hair, rosy cheeks and a cute smile, and the similarity between her and the doll was more notable when she held it against her cheek. This resemblance might connote a family connection such as mother-and-daughter or sisters. A sense of love and friendship was connoted through the way in which the girl interacted with the doll, while the jingle implied that Popsy would be a good playmate from ‘the moment you wake, to the end of the day’. One could argue that the doll was being promoted as a ‘best friend’ figure, confirmed in the penultimate shot when the young girl and her doll shared a pillow as they ‘slept’. This may also connote that a ‘female’ day filled with preening and wardrobe decisions is an exhausting business or that all females need their ‘beauty sleep’ to be the ‘prettiest fairy’.

The notions of ‘prettiness’ and ‘femininity’ were fore-grounded in the final close-up shot of Popsy before she sank away into a bed of flowers, paralleling the young child as she sank into her pillow in the previous scene. The images used in the advertisement were consistently delicate and ‘girlie’. There was also something pleasingly balanced about the jingle lyrics with the use of alliteration. Indeed, the opening line of the jingle, in which the ‘p’-sound was repeated in time with the music, drew attention to the other ‘p’ words, binding the jingle with the product – ‘Popsy’, ‘pretty as a picture’, ‘pop’ and ‘play’. There was further alliteration in the phrases ‘magic mirror’ and ‘Trust Tomy’, binding the visual and verbal elements together and creating a coherent whole (cf. Myers, 1994: 32).

5.2.3 Baby All Gone

This advertisement opened with a shot of a baby’s feeding bottle filled with milk, obviously setting the product in the context of baby care. The way in which the viewer was positioned in this opening shot was also important because the feeding bottle was held within eyeshot casting the viewer in the role of ‘mother’ and making the advertisement distinctly ‘female’. Perhaps the advertisement was based on the stereotyped notion that young girls wish to imitate the care-giving role of their mothers, so feeding a baby would be a means to re-enact these behaviour patterns.

The perspective then shifted so that the audience became spectator rather than participant. The feeding bottle was held in the hand of an angelic blond child, back-lit by a ray of sunshine so that her ‘wholesome goodness’ was emphasised by a halo effect of warm light around her head. The tranquil and heavenly atmosphere of the soft-focus scene might connote that the young girl was the epitome of (female) perfection, gladly playing the role of dutiful ‘mother’ within the safe and comfortable environment of home. Her attention was focussed on the feeding bottle to ensure that the baby’s milk was ‘all gone’. Once the bottle was empty, the young girl looked up with a broad smile and sparkling eyes, perhaps seeking the attention and approval of a figure that was subsequently revealed as her father. The ‘father’ seemed suitably impressed by his ‘daughter’ as she identified the needs of her ‘baby’ so well. However, one could argue that the father was the personification of or metonym for (male) authority, power and knowledge, as often associated with the male voiceover (cf. Content analysis). In the specific context of this advertisement, one could argue that the stereotyped female domain of childcare was portrayed as subject to male guidance and approval.

The young girl then involved her father in the feeding process by making him smell the cherries she was about to feed to her doll. This sensory experience seemed to bring the father and daughter closer together as they huddled around the doll that was the focal point for both them and the audience. This scenario might connote a close-knit family environment in which love and affection were openly shared. The audience was positioned at an angle where they seemed involved in the feeding process, looking down on the doll as the food disappeared into her mouth, rather like the view a mother would have when caring for her child. The ‘child’ looked helpless and dependent, perhaps connoting a need for devotion and security, as a way to encourage nurturing feelings. This notion also seemed to be echoed in the subsequent interaction between the father and daughter as they shared a hug filled with pride and love. In many ways, the product functioned as a means of bringing the family together.

Father and daughter seemed to be observed by a third person, and this was the position occupied by the audience for the most part. Perhaps this third person was the real mother of the young girl, looking at the way her daughter re-enacted her behaviour patterns. The ‘father’ playacted his role as husband-and-father in order to make his daughter’s play situation seem ‘real’ while the daughter adopted the role of ‘mother’ and the doll adopted the role of ‘daughter’. The roles seemed strongly gender prescribed because the daughter was very ‘feminine’ and the father was very ‘masculine’. This notion was outwardly signified by the fact that she was dressed in pink while he was dressed in blue, using the stereotyped tradition of gender colour-coding to perpetuate stereotyped gender roles.

The atmosphere of the advertisement and philosophy of the product promoted familial harmony and interaction, as well as support and love. Perhaps this picture was perceived as the ‘ideal’ scenario or set of values (Hart, 1991: 92). A strong family unit may be a reality for some young girls enabling them to fully understand the codes of interaction seen between the screen characters. The scenario might also stand as an escapist fantasy for those in the not-so-ideal environment of family upset or divorce, allowing them to ‘feel’ what it would be like to be part of an ‘ideal’ family. In both situations, the product may be seen as a binding and positive force, either as reinforcement for a child’s home reality or as a means of wish-fulfilment. The bonding and love between the father and daughter characters was also demonstrated by their dialogue exchanges, encapsulated by his final utterance of ‘That’s my girl’. One cannot be sure whether the father was referring to his own daughter or still role-playing as the father of the doll, so the child and the product seemed to fuse into one positive, interchangeable force.


5.3 Emergent patterns in the ‘typical’ girls’ advertisements

By deconstructing, in detail, just three of the female targeted advertisements in this sample, it is possible to identify a number of patterns or semiotic codes that made these advertisements distinctly ‘female’:

·         constructive play-scenarios where the product is depicted as a positive force;

·         product demonstration;

·         dominance of pink and other delicate pastel colours;

·         emphasis on outer appearance, adornments, beauty and ‘prettiness’;

·         magic and surprise;

·         aspire to be ‘like Mum’ – the need to grow-up and be womanly;

·         home environments and domestic, nurturing situations;

·         cuteness and the ‘ah-factor’;

·         the ability to exercise patience and perseverance;

·         smiling faces (on-screen characters and doll products);

·         girls/dolls with blond hair to reflect the ultimate ‘feminine look’;

·         friendship, companionship and family bonding resulting in love;

·         seeking approval for actions, particularly from males;

·         idealism, perfection and happiness.



5.4 Detailed deconstruction of three ‘typical’ boys’ advertisements

5.4.1 Tomy Trains (Tomy)

A young blond-haired boy was the immediate focus of attention as he clutched a bunch of red helium-filled birthday balloons. It would appear that he had just been summoned by his father to receive his gift, his facial expression connoting anticipation as he smiled wickedly, rocking slightly from side-to-side in excitement. The audience was positioned in the role of parent or ‘Daddy’ in this opening shot, physically handing the product to the little boy. In turn, the product was invested with the special quality of a surprise gift and the ultimate in birthday presents. The way in which the little boy looked joyfully at his father might signify that the purchase of the product would guarantee the happiness of a child. One could argue that little boys tend to greatly admire their fathers and often aspire to be ‘like’ them. Just as young girls might be encouraged to take on a female role through imitating the actions of their mothers, so young boys might learn what it is to be a man from their fathers. Since this advertisement showed the product being chosen and recommended by someone as authoritative as ‘Daddy’, the audience could safely assume that it is the best of its kind.

Once the little boy was given the box, the scene changed from the living room setting to a completely different world. Perhaps it was the opening of the box that transported the young boy away from every day life and into a fantasy world, just as the opening of a wardrobe door might transport one to Narnia. The audience was drawn into the product, following the train track as it twisted between two mountains and into the distance. The scene was very green and idyllic, although rather cartoon-like because of the intense and stylised colours (cf. Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996: 258). The audience became passengers journeying into a world of activity. The train pulled up at a station to signify arrival at the desired destination. The camera then imitated the behaviour of someone arriving in a strange place, looking around and registering various sights, making the audience feel part of the action. It also provided an accurate ‘feel’ for playing with the product. Many interesting features were focussed on including railway bridges, track gauges, fuel lines and carriages, with endless activity connoting industriousness. All the features shown were technical and heavy-duty, signifying a masculine environment of physical work.

On a number of occasions the little boy was shown interacting with the product, demonstrating the various features or displaying technical knowledge. He even assembled extra sections of track to expand his newly created world. This might connote a sense of empowerment and control to have a ‘whole new world at (your) command’, as emphasised by the jingle lyrics. The word ‘command’ also connoted leadership, perhaps even suggesting that the owner of the product was automatically the ‘commander’, a position that might be described as traditionally ‘male’. Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends were then introduced, bringing the popular children’s television programme and book series to life. Emphasis was placed on the way in which Thomas and his friends provided companionship, perhaps implying that the toy was ideal for isolated indoor play. In a sense, a child could experience risk-free socialisation in a perfectly safe ‘world’.

The boy appeared very small within the vast parameters of his play world. An overhead shot might connote the position of ‘Daddy’ supervising his son’s play activities, where the elevated position might also signify ‘wisdom’. The perspective of ‘Daddy’ was juxtaposed by a number of level shots depicting the possible views through the eyes of the child and placing the audience in the centre of the play situation. Any high angles used in these sequences are usually only minimal, serving to imitate the gaze of an individual looking down at an object. Perhaps the interchange of different perspectives was used to illustrate how a father and son might be united by the play experience. Their perceptions of the product seemed strikingly similar suggesting that, aside from the obvious difference in height, father and son were cast from the same mould and saw the world in very similar ways. Consequently, a masculine bond was established between father-and-son as well as between father-son-and-product, setting the advertisement firmly in the male domain. The product also seemed to function as an element within the maturation of the young boy when he was assured by his father that ‘those trains will grow up with you, son’.

One particularly interesting perspective was afforded with the use of a low angle where the audience seemed to be placed inside one of the train carriages, rather like passengers. The young boy was shown looming overhead rather intimidatingly (cf. Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996: 254). A visible hierarchy of power might be in operation where the young boy was more important than the audience was, but still second-in-command to the ultimate power of his father. In a sense, the product encouraged the child to take control of the world he had created and also learn to behave like a man. The end of the advertisement was interesting, since the little boy was shown sitting in the middle of the track complex, waving his hands as if saying goodbye and smiling broadly, perhaps signifying that he was happy to remain in his fantasy world. Interestingly, the shift in camera perspective then suggested that the boy had been transported back to the ‘real world’ of his living room and that the train was returning to the fantasy world, breaking the spell of the play scenario. The train tracks reached into the distance as far as the eye could see, signifying the extent of the journey into a world of new possibilities.

The product jingle was rather humorous in that it was sung by a man with an exceptionally deep voice and contrasted dramatically with the physical appearance of the little boy. Since the narrative thread of the jingle was in the first person narrative one can assume that it was meant to represent the young boy’s ‘life story’. The depth of the man’s voice contrasted dramatically with the frail delicacy of the young blond-haired boy, perhaps connoting that the little boy could be a man in this new fantasy world, as well as symbolising the things-to-come in adulthood.

5.4.2 Micromachines Night Attack (Galoob)

The whole atmosphere of this advertisement was dark, shady and foreboding perhaps connoting imminent threat and the risk of ‘evil’ activities. The initial scene was so poorly lit that it made it difficult to decipher what the camera was framing. Gradually, a shape emerged from a patch of dense undergrowth and the sly appearance of the character might signify that he was an ‘enemy’ figure. A dark-haired boy with a menacing facial expression, dressed in military attire with camouflaged stripes painted across his face came into view, rather like the ‘stereotypical’ enemy in the context of a war film. His appearance also corresponded with the opening line of the product jingle referring to ‘when the enemy attacks’, warning the audience of danger.

The low camera angle placed the audience on a par with the enemy, creating a sense of uncertainty where the audience might feel unsure about their status as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The next shot adopted the point-of-view of the ‘enemy’, looking up at the control tower of Night Attack. The tower loomed out of the darkness of the undergrowth. The use of phallic symbolism was obvious since the product was literally just a tall tower attached to a base unit. Perhaps the (male) audience was meant to admire not only the product but also the foreboding appearance of the phallus, connoting power, authority and manhood (cf. Harris, 1999: 58/60). Indeed, the low camera angle used for the initial sighting of the tower created the illusion that it was a looming force of considerable proportions, which might signify male potency and all things ‘macho’.

There were two male characters in charge of the Night Attack tower – a blond- and a dark-haired boy – yet their statuses differed. The blond-haired boy seemed to be vested with the main responsibility for the searchlight, the most significant feature of the product. He must therefore have been in control of defence and a significant component in the process of enemy defeat. While colours often carry powerful messages about mood, atmosphere and target audience, there were long-standing codes attached to the use of ‘white’ and ‘black’ as binary oppositions within a semiotic framework. ‘White’, is related to notions of purity and a signifier of ‘good’, while ‘black’ has come to represent what is tainted, nasty or corrupt, signifying ‘bad’. This type of coding is often seen, for example, in classic Western films where the Sheriff wears a white Stetson and the outlaw a black one.

One could argue that blond-haired characters (as ‘white’) have traditionally been thought to represent the forces of ‘good’, such as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. Indeed, in many of the advertisements in this sample, for both male and female target audiences, it was often a blond child who was shown joyfully interacting with the product (e.g. Jonny Quest, Tomy Trains, Baby All Gone, Sindy and Barbie). In the context of this advertisement, the ‘good’ blond character operated the searchlight signifying that the product was a vital component in the battle against evil. The dark-haired boy, in contrast, appeared to have less power signified by the fact that his head-level was lower than that of his blond-haired counterpart (cf. Goffman, 1979) and he remained passively in the background perhaps signifying that blond was ultimately ‘better’.

All subsequent shots placed the audience in the authoritative position of the blond-haired boy, giving insight into product ownership and power. The weapons were shown in graphic detail, perhaps connoting a sense of military ‘realism’. As each missile was successfully fired and the enemy ‘blasted’ the boys became increasingly excited, signified by a lot of ‘air punching’ and the buddy male bonding of ‘constructive destruction’. The product therefore connoted notions of camaraderie. The surroundings were consistently ‘dark and dangerous’ as stressed by the jingle lyrics, connoting a sense of the unknown, imminent attack and high drama. To heighten the sense of searching fearlessly in the dark, the enemy was suddenly caught in the powerful searchlight of the Night Attack tower, blinding the advancing threat with a powerful ‘white-out’. The way in which the scene was obscured by blinding whiteness might also signify that the forces of good captured the ‘enemy’ who was perhaps even ‘cleansed’ by the purity of the light.

In the next shot, the Micromachines product logo exploded out of the screen, perhaps connoting the destructive theme of the toy and echoing the way in which the weapons were fired at the enemy. The graphics also connoted energy and dynamism to add to the excitement of owning the product. The closing product-still was interesting in terms of the lighting used and it incorporated two the extremes or binary oppositions of ‘light’ and ‘dark’. The view of the Night Attack tower was initially shown in ‘natural daylight’, looking uninteresting and a little too ‘plastic’ to be a convincing military base. The basic code or format of most toy advertisements generally means that the product will be shown at its very best in the end still. After the ‘excitement’ of the advertisement, the audience was made to wait in anticipation for a few moments, until darkness suddenly fell over the scene and a starry backdrop emerged behind the tower. The strength of the searchlight cut through the gloom and the product looked more foreboding and formidable, allowing the advertisement to finish memorably on a ‘high point’. The soundtrack heightened the suspense since the rhythm of the male chanting and the staccato strains of a rock guitar and drumbeats made everything seem dramatic, unpredictable and intense. 

5.4.3 Mutator (Tyco)

The words ‘Maximum Heat!’ opened this advertisement, both printed on the screen and spoken by the voiceover. The words might carry with them various product connotations. ‘Maximum’ might connote notions of extremity and pushing something to the limits without compromise. ‘Heat’ is directly linked with the concept of ‘hot’ as being ‘cool’! That is to say, individuals often use words such as ‘hot’ or ‘cool’ when they wish to speak approvingly of something. ‘Hot’ might also signify the temperature of the car due to the rapidity with which it is said to travel, where one can ‘burn rubber’ by speeding along or doing wheel-spins!

The car then burst suddenly onto the screen at great speed and from a very peculiar angle, perhaps connoting the dynamism of the vehicle. The angle also made the entrance of the car very dramatic, unpredictable and surprising, an intrusion that might also force one to sit up and take notice. The name of the product – Mutator – then appeared across the width of the screen. The lettering was flame coloured, perhaps as a means of visually representing the concept of ‘maximum heat’. Flame symbolism was often used in the male targeted advertisements in this sample (e.g. Action Man, Criss Cross Crash), perhaps as a way of connoting that the products were all ‘too hot to handle’ and were, by implication, only suitable for strong and hardy boys. The lettering in this instance also sloped to the right, using a sweeping font, perhaps to signify a forward movement and speed. This method of connoting dynamism was often used in the cartoon genre to emphasise forward movement. Perhaps the most famous representation of this technique is Roadrunner who often speeds along with diagonal posture!

The remote control unit or handset was then shown from a high angle, placing the audience in ‘the driving seat’. This connotes a sense of power and control over the events on screen. This sense of control was emphasised later when the voiceover gave a highly complicated and technical description of what was essentially a simple battery unit – ‘ Tyco rechargeable 9.6 3-60 turbo Mutator’. This phraseology seemed to mimic the way in which cars are often described in advertisements, relying on so-called (masculine) ‘assumed knowledge’ about all things technical. The battery was presented as a mysterious source of winning power and, when held in the hands of a young boy might also make him a powerful winner.

The advertisement included, as one might expect, a number of fast-moving images of the car speeding along in a rugged outdoor landscape. Such settings are traditionally ‘masculine’ in the sense that they connote physical hardship, challenge and hostility. In many ways the product seemed detached from the constraints of the ‘real world’ in that it inhabited an escapist environment of adventure and excitement. In one instance, the camera followed the car from the rear creating the feeling of actually riding on board. This kind of technique was often employed for coverage of motor-racing events such as Formula One, adding a sense of authenticity and a taste of heart-stopping exhilaration and action.

The product was called Mutator for the rather logical reason that it was capable of changing shape to ‘mutate’ into different types of vehicle. Hence, the product offered extra value of several exciting vehicles in one unit. Each version of the car was explained in an animated way, as superimposed cartoon arrows indicated where the changes occurred. After each mutation, the car was shown in the appropriate context. For example, the off-road truck negotiated a very rocky setting, while the lower racing vehicle travelled on a flat dirt track. Each setting suited the capabilities of the vehicle type so the context of the advertisements was closely aligned with the nature of the product. This is an example of the notion that ‘form’ follows ‘content’ (cf. Singleton-Turner, children-media-uk archive).

A slowly paced shot showed the car placed at an angle on a pile of rubble. In many ways, this display reflected the way in which real cars were shot for static advertisements, such as the Landrover Discovery perched precariously on a cliff edge. The implication seemed to be that one must have expertise and professionalism to control the car, traits that arguably belong in the stereotyped male domain of competition, prowess and aggression. The use of lighting was very interesting because it was natural and ‘outdoors’. The setting sun was used to add extra dazzle to the product and also reiterated the concept of ‘maximum heat’, a reddened scene connoting warmth. The clouds of dust churned up by the car also created a kind of veil through which the car was shot. The atmosphere became dreamlike perhaps signifying that this car was a ‘dream machine’. The final shot showed the car bursting through a pile of twigs towards the viewer. This approach could certainly be described as ‘in your face’.


5.5 Emergent patterns in the ‘typical’ boys’ advertisements

By deconstructing, in detail, just three of the male targeted advertisements in this sample, it is possible to identify a number of patterns or semiotic codes that made these advertisements distinctly ‘male’:

·         constructive play-scenarios where the product is ‘positive’;

·         destructive play-scenarios where the product is ‘negative’;

·         emphasis on technical and/or mechanical features with insight into what things ‘do’;

·         assumed knowledge and technical know-how for an understanding of the product;

·         use of either bright or primary colours (for younger boys) or dark and gloomy colours (for older boys) to echo the theme of the product;

·         empowerment of the product-user through control of product and product-outcomes;

·         aspire to be ‘like dad’ – the need to grow-up and be manly;

·         clear distinctions made between ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’;

·         unsightliness and the ‘yuck-factor’;

·         action oriented with rapid movements to pump the adrenaline;

·         ‘nasty’ or ‘nice’ facial expressions, depending on the product philosophy;

·         use of cartoon conventions in terms of characters, settings and on-screen animation;

·         performance, accomplishment and winning at any cost;

·         cross-media tie-ins.


5.6 Comparing male- and female-targeted toy advertisements

By summarising the prominent patterns that emerged from a detailed analysis of just six advertisements in this sample, it is possible to create a basic framework of what ‘is’ and ‘is not’ masculine and feminine in the world of children’s toy advertisements. The girls’ advertisements in the overall sample were shown to be essentially constructive in terms of the play scenarios perpetuated by the product. Things were made, friendships were forged and the status quo was maintained. The boys’ advertisements, on the other hand, involved a curious mix of constructive and destructive play. Things were made, competitions were won and buddy scenarios evolved as a result of the products, but things were also devastated, violence often erupted, rivalry might be fierce and the play scenario might disintegrate into chaos. Here, the stereotyped perceptions of masculinity and femininity began to emerge as girls were expected to behave calmly with compassion, kindness and reasoning, while boys were encouraged to be angelic one moment and aggressive the next. These observations might be summarised as a series of classic binary oppositions based on male/female, including destructive/constructive, nasty/nice, cruel/kind, un-co-operative/co-operative, and chaos/calm.

Male- and female-oriented products also seemed to be presented in different ways. Girls’ products were often ‘demonstrated’ – the product features were made apparent to the audience as an on-screen character was seen to use them within the play scenario. The products tended to be approached as if the (female) target audience had never encountered or used such a product before, and the ‘fun’ of product interaction was emphasised. A young girl might be told ‘this is a baby and this is how you feed her’ or ‘this is an art kit and these are the pictures you can create with it’. Those advertisements aimed at a male audience once again took a dual approach. An insight was given into what the products could ‘do’, in other words a demonstration, while at the same time assuming that the (male) target audience had a certain level of existing knowledge about the product. A young boy might therefore be told ‘this is a baddie and you know what to do about it’ or ‘this is a remote-control car and you know how to operate it’. In many ways, the male audience was given credit for being mature and knowledgeable. The female audience, in contrast, seemed to be regarded as naïve, ignorant and in need of guidance. Further binary oppositions emerge, including knowledge/ignorance and mature/immature.

As previously suggested, colours are often seen as a powerful culturally based marker of gender. From a very young age, children are likely to assimilate the various connotations of one colour over another. One could argue that colours are utilised in toy advertisements as easily identifiable markers to appeal to specific audience sectors. Needless to say, there was a predominance of pink in the female oriented toy advertisements in the sample. Pink was repeatedly identified as a ‘girlie’ colour by both the adult coders (Chapter Four) and the children interviewed during this investigation (Chapter Seven), seeming to have very clear-cut ‘feminine’ connotations. On no occasion was the colour even vaguely considered to be suitable for boys and was often rejected (by both boys and girls) because of its female exclusivity. It was also the intention of manufacturers such as Mattel to vest a high degree of feminine status in the colour (cf. Miller, 1997) by wishing to make designated aisles in major toy shops immediately recognisable as being ‘for girls’.

The use of colour in the advertisements aimed at boys was a little different because there were distinct variations depending on the age of the target males and also on the theme of the products. Those advertisements aimed at the young (under seven-year-old) sector of the boy market generally utilised bold primary colours that were both cheerful and eye-catching. Indeed, primary colours were often used in the sample advertisements aimed at a mixed audience, because they tend to connote ‘fun’ and happiness. As the target boys became older, however, there was a distinct colour shift from ‘cheerful’ to ‘gloomy’. This shift may be more complicated than simply a maturational issue where gloomy colours might be perceived as more serious and grown-up. Rather, the changing use of colours also corresponded with a shift in the types of products marketed to slightly older boys. The product themes became darker, often grounded in the fight against evil. The characters depicted in the advertisements, such as Dread Wing from Dragon Flyz (discussed below) or Darth Vader from Star Wars, are innately ‘bad’ and the use of dark colours works well to signify their inner personalities and threatening presence.

It is also possible to decipher what one might refer to as ‘attitude codes’ in how boys and girls appear to be perceived by advertisers and toy companies. There was a difference, for example, between the way in which boys and girls were ‘expected’ to behave when interacting with the products being sold. This might bring us back to the question of so-called appropriate gender behaviour and the expectations of society (cf. Chapter Two). Past researchers have identified the binary opposition of ‘active’ versus ‘passive’ in boys’ and girls’ advertisements respectively (Smith & Bennet, 1990: 101). From an in-depth analysis of just six advertisements, the same binary opposition is seen to emerge, similar to that suggested by Berger (1972, in Vestergaard and Schrøder, 1985: 81). The boys’ products, for example, encouraged the adoption of a rather active role of ‘doing right’ while the girls’ products encouraged the more passive role of simply ‘looking right’– The girls tended to ‘be’ whilst the boys’ tended to ‘do’. This might also be said to tie in with the previous notions of ‘assumed knowledge’ versus ‘assumed ignorance’. In this way, one could argue that the status of girls and girls’ toys was diminished when compared with that of boys and boys’ toys because of the reduced levels of both the mental and physical involvement required to ‘enjoy’ or ‘appreciate’ the product. Two more binary oppositions, in this instance, might include bad/good and active/passive.

The theory of imitative behaviour in young children has often been investigated, particularly in terms of the re-enactment of violent acts (cf. Bandura & Walters, 1963). One could argue that the process of growing up and negotiating one’s place in life is one of experimentation and that in a modern (Western) materialistic society toys might play an integral part in children’s role-play scenarios. It is also reasonable to assume that young children will look up to and admire their parents and might seek to imitate adult behaviour. Aspiration can be identified as a theme running through many of the toy advertisements in the sample, in that the children on-screen were shown using the advertised products to recreate adult scenarios and behaviour patterns. While the advertisements in this sample, for boys’ and girls’ respectively, utilised very different models of behaviour the underlying notion remained common – the boys and the girls were encouraged to relate to and seek to be like adult versions of their own genders.

Many of the advertisements in this sample provoked certain reactions from the adult coders. The overall appeal and theme of the advertisements aimed at boys and girls seemed to be defined as having either the ‘yuck’ or ‘ah’ factor respectively. A similar notion might be identified in the small sample of advertisements analysed here in that a vile incarnation such as Dread Wing (discussed below) might inspire an ‘yuck’ reaction, while a cute doll like Baby All Gone might inspire an ‘ah’ reaction. Of course, these reactions would also reflect, in part, the perspective of the individual audience members where young boys might also label Baby All Gone as ‘yuck’! Essentially, however, the underlying idea or ‘feel’ of male- and female-targeted advertisements remained distinctly separate. ‘Yuck’ was generally related to anything gross and disgusting, ugly, destructive or ‘dark’ and might therefore be described as stereotypically ‘masculine’. ‘Ah’, in contrast, was generally related to anything cute, fluffy, dependent and ‘nice’, so might therefore be described as stereotypically ‘feminine’. Applying the commutation test to such concepts only serves to further prove this point. A character as unsightly as Dread Wing could never be classed as having the ‘ah’ factor, even if he were painted pink, while Baby All Gone simply would not become a powerful force in the ‘yuck’ world of evil and destruction!

There was also an obvious contrast between the appearance of the on-screen characters in the advertisements aimed at boys and girls respectively. In order for a toy product to appeal to a given sector of the audience, it is a convention to show the product being demonstrated by a member of that audience sector. In other words, boys were shown playing with ‘male’ products while girls were shown playing with ‘female’ products. One might expect such a scenario in the context of narrowly prescribed products, but the gender of the on-screen characters was not the only difference in male and female targeted advertisements. When one looks at the emotions conveyed by the on-screen characters through their (exaggerated) facial expressions, it is possible to identify distinctly male and female characteristics and temperaments. In advertisements aimed at girls, for example, the female screen characters (almost without exception) appeared to exude happiness from every pore. Their faces beamed brightly, as they seemed eternally ecstatic about the products they were advertising. The appearance of the female screen characters might also be said to tie in with the notion that girls and women are expected, by society, to be mild mannered and genial at all times (cf. Courtney & Whipple, 1983: 158; Verna, 1975).

The advertisements aimed at boys were a little different in that the emotions expressed by the on-screen characters were variable. In some advertisements, the on-screen male characters appeared to be happy and excited, which might be said to relate to the advertiser’s wish to make the toy products appear ‘fun’ and ‘enjoyable’. While the girls appeared somewhat two-dimensional in their happiness, however, many male characters were also shown transgressing to the side of darker emotions such as anger, aggression and pure evil. Smiling faces were often replaced by furrowed brows and grinding teeth, signifying the harsher side of masculinity.

While the on-screen characters were male or female depending on whether the advertisements were aimed at boys or girls, there were also subtle differences between the ways in which the characters interacted within the structural narrative of the text. That is to say, there were differences between the way in which boys interacted with boys and girls interacted with girls within the male- and female-targeted advertisements respectively. These interactional differences might once again be described as masculine or feminine in connotation. In the advertisements aimed at girls, for example, where more than one character appeared on the screen, an emphasis seemed to be placed on social interaction and friendship. The girls were often shown being drawn together by the product, conversing about the product features and mutually constructing the play scenario. They tended to show consideration and respect for one another, demonstrating ‘female’ socialisation tendencies (cf. Bonelli, in Manca & Manca, 1994: 88).

Boys, in contrast, occupied more antagonistic relations towards one another. In many of the advertisements, the need to win within a competitive or dangerous context seemed to be the driving force behind the actions of the characters. Even where the narrative might be described as ‘buddy’ there tended to be sense of rivalry about who might outperform the other and be ‘best’, so that boys were portrayed as ego-driven. The product was consequently positioned as an effective ego-boost, facilitating the winning process and vesting the product owner with a degree of all-important superiority or power over his male (non-product-owning) companions. Essentially, the on-screen characters, in either the male or female audience context, served to personify the notion of ‘empowerment’ as a result of product ownership. It was often an underlying suggestion in the advertisement sample as a whole that the product would ‘enhance’ the life of the owner by bringing with it friendship, comfort, control, admiration or victory depending on the overall philosophy the product manufacturers wished to convey. One other binary opposition might therefore be anti-social/social.

A final point to consider is that of the differing product contexts in male- and female-targeted advertisements. Those advertisements aimed at girls, in this sample, tended to be stand-alone in the sense that the product had an existence in its own right. That is to say, the doll worlds of Barbie, Sylvanian Families or the Cabbage Patch Kids have an established life of their own and their successes in the marketplace have not relied upon being grounded in any other media genres. One could argue that young girls would have relative freedom to build their own play narratives around the types of products being marketed. The boy-targeted products in the sample were approached in a slightly different way. Many of products were grounded in other media genres and the development of product lines often corresponded with developments within those other narrative outlets (cf. Miller, 1997). Product lines such as Jonny Quest and Space Monkeys were launched on the strength of televised cartoon series, Batman and Action Man began life as comic-book heroes, whilst the Star Wars Trilogy fuelled one of the most successful boy-toy lines in merchandising history. The marketing of male-oriented toys is often accomplished through the clear establishment of cross-media parallels, grounding the toy within a very specific context. One could argue that this allows little possibility for total fantasy play because the toys are often manufactured as a means of re-enacting specific scenes from television, film or print. Whether the product is stand-alone or media-grounded, however, one could argue that play possibilities were limited for both girls and boys because of the integral weaknesses of the ‘stylised’ play scenarios that were presented as ‘real’ and ‘spontaneous’ in the advertisements.

It is possible to summarise the above observations in terms of whether they can be described as distinctly ‘male’ or ‘female’ in connotation. The reader can clearly see that a number of interesting binary oppositions or gender codes emerge (cf. Chapter Two –

5.6.1 Summary of the toy advertisement features with specific gender connotations


Features with ‘male’ connotation

Features with ‘female’ connotation

Constructive and destructive play

Constructive play only

Assumed knowledge

Assumed ignorance

Bold or dark colours


‘Like Father’

‘Like Mother’





Ego driven

‘Other’ driven

Media grounded




5.7 Codes in children’s toy advertisements

Given the enormous detail extracted from and the connotations generated by just six toy advertisements within the overall sample, it should be clear to the reader that undertaking a semiotic analysis of the entire sample would be too great a task within the confines of this investigation. It may also be the case, given the highly prescribed and generally repetitive nature of the advertisements in the sample, that few new ideas would actually be revealed about what is intrinsically ‘male’ or ‘female’ in the world of children’s toy advertisements and would consequently not be an insightful exercise.

It is, however, still possible to take the complete sample and deconstruct it in ways conducive to the identification of images, messages and ideas, and a discussion of what these might communicate to the audience. In the context of a semiotic analysis, these patterns can generally be referred to as codes or sets of practices (cf. Chandler, 1994a). The semiotic codes might include such issues as advertisement themes, gender-specific behaviour patterns, narrative frameworks, and product philosophy. In terms of toy advertisements, these codes might well feed back into what it means to be firstly a child and secondly a boy or a girl. One could also work on the assumption that these codes might carry with them subtle inferences for the child target-audiences, positioning them in particular ways and offering them specific frameworks through which they should view their play worlds and wider social existence.

Each advertisement in the sample was viewed in an attempt to identify some of the most prominent patterns of thematic construction. Some advertisements contained multiple thematic codes, in the same way that many individual shots contained several interacting production and post-production features (cf. Content analysis). Each time a thematic code was identified it was noted. A complete summary of the codes in each advertisement across the toy sample as a whole is given in Appendix F.3-5, while a summary is also given for each audience category (Appendix F.6). For ease of reference in this chapter, the codes have been summarised for each audience category into a rank-order table (5.7.1). The codes appear in descending order of importance and the number of advertisements in which the codes appeared is marked in brackets. The various themes have also been grouped together within the table to facilitate comparisons of their importance within the context of a given target audience. Some intersecting codes and interesting similarities are shaded, but it should be noted that their rank orders within each audience category do not necessarily correspond. That is to say, their relative importance within the structure of the (gendered) advertisements may differ.

5.7.1 Rank order summary of the thematic codes in the children’s toy advertisements


Boys’ Adverts (43)

Girls’ Adverts (43)

Mixed Adverts (31)

Gendered interests (43)

Gendered interests (43)

Sense of chaos (27)


Friendship (43)

Active characters (27)


Action starts slowly (43)



Constructive play (43)

Constructive play (24)



Reality play (24)

Ad. opens mid-action (37)



Sense of chaos (35)

Sense of order (37)


Reality play (33)

Reality play (36)


Passive characters (32)

Passive characters (36)


Constructive play (28)



Rivalry (27)


Rivalry (19)

Destructive play (26)

Maintain status quo (28)

Ad. opens mid-action (17)

Gendered role play (22)

Gendered role play (25)

Destructive play (16)


Secrets & magic (22)

Action starts slowly (14)

Maintain status quo (17)

Metamorphosis of toy (16)


Toy empowers owner (15)

Toy empowers owner (10)


Fight against evil (15)


Friendship (11)

Friendship (14)


Maintain status quo (11)

Fantasy play (12)

Fantasy play (8)

Fantasy play (10)

Active characters (11)

Active characters (7)



Sense of chaos (6)

Secrets and magic (7)

Metamorphosis of toy (8)


Toy empowers owner (5)

Sense of order (8)


Sense of order (4)

Action starts slowly (7)


Passive characters (4)



Metamorphosis of toy (3)



Fight against evil (1)


Order from opposite sex (2)



Destructive play (1)


Secrets & magic (0)

Rivalry (0)

Gendered role play (0)

Order from opposite sex (0)

Ad. opens mid-action (0)

Gendered interests (0)


Fight against evil (0)

Order from opposite sex (0)

The majority of the terms used to classify these codes are self-explanatory, but others may require brief clarification here. Gender stereotyped interests was used to classify those advertisements which showed boy and girl characters pursuing (product related) activities that were traditionally regarded as ‘male’ (sports, vehicles, fighting) or ‘female’ (babies, art, animals) (cf. Acuff, 1997: 142-3). The product may also be portrayed as constructive, so having the positive connotations of producing something or destructive, having negative connotations of eliminating something. Similarly, the product may be grounded in the ‘reality’ of everyday existence (home, school) or seem otherworldly and contextualised in ‘fantasy’. The product may be shown to ‘empower’ the user by making them more popular, successful or socially accepted. The on-screen characters might appear to be passive, in the sense that the product governs and constrains their actions or active, in that they have the freedom to govern the product. Finally, the action on the screen might unfold slowly so that the audience is gently coaxed into the situation, or open mid-action to throw the audience in at ‘the deep end’.

Whilst the mixed audience advertisement codes are also included in the table, the main focus will remain on those advertisements targeted at boys and girls respectively. This should have little impact on the overall conclusions drawn from the emergent patterns in this instance because the content analysis effectively demonstrated that the mixed audience advertisements were essentially ‘male’ in construction. In many ways, a similar philosophy emerged from an identification of thematic codes. Many of the codes such as ‘chaos’ and ‘rivalry’ followed the male pattern. The mixed audience advertisements were ‘universally’ appealing because they eliminated any possible exhibition of ‘gendered role-play’ and ‘gendered interests’; two codes that figured very highly in the single-sex advertisements. The only instance in which the mixed audience corresponded with the girl-targeted advertisements was in terms of ‘constructive’ play scenarios. Perhaps this might link to the nature of the toys being advertised where the majority of girls products involved establishing good social relations through ‘caring and sharing’, while the mixed audience advertisements involved many social, interactive family games that required more than one player. Interestingly, ‘fantasy’ was the only code noted about equally across all three audience-categories perhaps linked to the ‘fantasy’ emphasis in most play scenarios.

It is interesting to compare the most frequently and the least frequently used codes in the context of boys’ and girls’ advertisements. Such a comparison clarified what can be described as ‘distinctly masculine’ or ‘distinctly feminine’ within the context of children’s toy advertisements. The following summary table provides a convenient overview of the emerging patterns:

5.7.2 Summary of the frequently and infrequently used thematic codes in the toy adverts

Most frequent codes in boys’ adverts

Most frequent codes in girls’ adverts

Gendered interests (43)

Gendered interests (43)

Advert opens mid-action (37)

Friendship (43)

Sense of chaos (35)

Action starts slowly (43)

Reality play (33)

Constructive play (43)

Passive characters (32)

Sense of order (37)

Least frequent codes in boys’ adverts

Least frequent codes in girls’ adverts

Metamorphosis of toy (8)

Order from the opposite sex (2)

Sense of order (8)

Destructive play (1)

Action starts slowly (7)

Rivalry (0)

Secrets and Magic (0)

Advert opens mid-action (0)

Order from the opposite sex (0)

Fight against evil (0)

What seemed most apparent was the distinct pattern of codes used in the advertisements aimed at girls in this sample. The first four codes listed in the above ‘top five’ actually appeared in every girl-targeted advertisement. There was no comparable strength of coding in those advertisements aimed at boys. It would seem that the advertisers were working within the confines of a highly prescribed notion of femininity, adhering to gendered interests, friendship, slowly unfolding action and constructive play. A similarly strong pattern emerged from the least frequently used codes in the girl-targeted advertisements, with only three exceptions in an otherwise zero use of destructive play, rivalry, mid-action openings, fights against evil and orders given by the opposite sex. The boy-targeted advertisements, in comparison, appeared to exhibit a broader base of coding offering more variety and fewer extremes or, as one might argue, the ‘unmarked norm’. Essentially, one can observe that gendered interests would appear to be a key factor in the targeting of a given product at an audience sector. This is perhaps rather predictable in the context of toy advertisements because young children are thought to relate to and associate most closely with their own genders (cf. Courtney and Whipple, 1983: 47; Manstead and McCulloch, 1981: 178). The gendering of interests was equally prominent in advertisements aimed at boys and girls respectively and should probably be read as integral to the success of a product in the market place.

In other respects, there was a balanced contrast between the approaches taken to targeting boys and girls in this sample of advertisements. There was direct opposition in the construction of male and female advertisements. It was as frequent for male-targeted advertisements to open in mid-action as it was infrequent for female-targeted advertisements to do so. Similarly, the position was reversed in terms of the slow unfolding of action since it was more frequent in girls’ than in boys’ advertisements. Further cross-referencing in the above table reveals the distinctive masculinisation of chaos, destruction and rivalry compared with the feminisation of order, construction and friendship. These patterns would once again appear to correspond with traditional stereotyped notions of what it means to be male or female – a clear structure of extremes, where the advertisement codes were seen as either clearly masculine or clearly feminine at the upper and lower ends of the ranking.

To return to the initial summary table (5.7.1) of thematic codes, however, there is a surprising degree of equilibrium towards to middle of the ranking. One could argue that, as well as the heavily prescribed approaches that force the sampled advertisements into either male or female domains, there are also certain elements that appeared equal within these particular types of advertisement. Reality and fantasy play seemed to have about equal representation across the sample of boys’ and girls’ advertisements, with only marginal differences in counts. There were three more instances of reality play in girls’ than in boys’ advertisements and four more instances of fantasy play in boys’ than in girls’ advertisements. This might suggest that girls are marginally more likely to be placed in home or school environments while boys are marginally more likely to indulge in escapism. These differences, however, do not seem to mark as obvious a gender bias as suggested in other studies (cf. Smith, 1994: 329).

Similarly, the use of passive and active characters was about equal. The product governed the child (passive character) in four more girls’ than boys’ advertisements, while the child (active character) governed the product in four more boys’ than girls’ advertisements. One could argue that this was akin to the previously suggested notion that the girls tended to ‘be’ whilst the boys’ tended to ‘do’, but again the contrast does not seem dramatically noticeable across the sample as a whole. Perhaps what makes the contrast between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ appear more obvious in the boys’ and girls’ advertisements is the use of distinctive editing and post-production techniques, where the former employ faster cutting rates to increase the sense of pace. Hence what emerged as only a minor difference in thematic content codes was exaggerated by form, demonstrating that form and content can actually be autonomous (cf. Content analysis). Gendered role-play was given about equal representation within the sample, where the universal appeal of empowerment through toy ownership was slightly more likely to be employed in boy-targeted advertisements. One could argue that these minor differences have more to do with the marketing of the product in a positive and appealing way (i.e. in accordance with the theme of the product) than with the overt gender stereotyping of the audience.


5.8 Comparing similar products targeted at different audiences

The possibility that the nature or theme of the product might have greater influence over the marketing strategy than any overt gender stereotyped advertising techniques prompted a comparative study of similar product-types that were differentially advertised to boys and girls. Perhaps products, identical in terms of construction and principle, were thematically manipulated in order to cater for gendered interests and therefore appeal directly to distinct sectors of the audience. As Bosch (1985: 145, in Forceville, 1996: 76), explained: ‘If two things appear similar or are even indistinguishable in one context, they may not only be easily distinguishable but even quite dissimilar in another context’. Whilst the deconstruction of single advertisements within given audience domains revealed some illuminating contrasts between boy- and girl-targeted advertisements respectively, it was equally startling to compare the way in which near identical products were given male and female ‘spins’.

Within the whole sample, four advertisements emerged as the strongest examples of identical products marketed in gender stereotyped ways. These advertisements could be grouped into the two toy ‘realms’ of vehicles and dolls, where the former were arguably ‘male’ and the latter were arguably ‘female’. Comparisons might therefore demonstrate how advertisers interchange product principles between the ‘male’ and ‘female’ by manipulating the ways in which they are grounded in a given advertising narrative. The advertiser’s choice of marketing strategy in each instance might also give an insight into the fundamental differences between ‘male-’ and ‘female-’ oriented advertising techniques.

The first pair of advertisements to be juxtaposed was for Action Man and Sindy. These products were both manufactured by the toy company Hasbro, were both standard sized (9 inch) dolls although the former was referred to as an ‘action figure’ (cf. Miller, 1997), and were generally aimed at children in the ‘middle band’ of young childhood (aged 4 to 8 approximately). Each ‘doll’ was marketed along with separately acquired accessories. The product ranges were extensive and variable within the original themes of Action Man as a military figure and Sindy as a fashion doll. For the purpose of this comparison, focus will be placed on the vehicular aspects of the product lines, as found in this advertisement sample. The vehicles can be paralleled as strongly as the ‘dolls’ in that both the Action Man Lightning Strike Vehicle (LSV) and the Sindy 4x4 Jeep were designed for adventure in the great outdoors and had various features concealed within the construction of the product. If one were to apply the commutation test to the products, the play principles could be easily interchanged between the male and female target audiences.

The second pair of advertisements to be compared was for Dragon Flyz and Sky Dancers. These products were both manufactured by the toy company Galoob (a subsidiary of Hasbro), both worked on the same mechanical principle of the winged ‘dolls’ being launched into the air (spinning like sycamore-tree ‘helicopters’), and both were again aimed at children in the ‘middle band’ of childhood. When these products were first introduced to the toy market in 1996/7 they won an industry award for innovative design. The commonalties between the two products were uncanny in the sense that they needed to be the same shape, dimensions and construction for the ‘fly’ mechanism to work. Most of the ‘action’ depicted in the advertisements was obviously in mid-air and young children were shown operating the launch pads. As with the vehicles referred to above, the application of a commutation test demonstrated the potential interchangeability of the products between the male and female audience contexts.

The main aim here was to identify some of the strategies that manufacturers and advertisers adopt in order to make identical products appeal to either male or female viewers as distinctive audience sectors. Brief descriptions of the advertisements are provided in Appendix F.7, along with a tabular breakdown of the audio soundtrack, while the semiotic analysis of structure and presentation is discussed in full below. A framework will then be constructed to identify the similarities and differences in the ways that the products were presented to the target audience sectors.


5.8.1 Detailed deconstruction of two ‘vehicle’ based advertisements Action Man 2 in 1 LSV (Hasbro)

The context was established immediately as the audience was introduced to Action Man’s enemy, Dr. X, who arguably looked like a stereotypical villain. His black eye-patch was reminiscent of old pirate films where it was often used as a symbol of badness (cf. Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996: 254). His head was shaved perhaps connoting a character that presents himself to the world as someone ‘hard’ and ready for a fight or someone who has spent a period of time in a prison or a mental asylum. This idea seemed substantiated by a male voiceover that described X as ‘demented’. A scowling facial expression made him look all the more menacing as his character was portrayed as angry and a little ‘mad’. Dr. X was effectively captured by Colin (age 7) during the advertisement design workshop (discussed later).

The audience could deduce from the scene that some kind of military manoeuvre was underway, to recapture Dr. X as he dodged bombs and raced along a river in his speedboat. There was a very dynamic feel to the scene as the camera mimicked the movement of the speedboat. The audience might feel as though they were travelling in their own speedboat through a thrilling chase scene, with bombs landing on all sides and the spray of the turbulent river obscuring the view. This particular perspective of the enemy might serve to place the audience in a similar role to that of Action Man, bravely pursuing and determined to overpower Dr. X (cf. Winick et al., 1973: 30). The chase scene was made all the more dramatic by the fact that the backdrop was a tropical rainforest. This might connote a sense of untamed wildness and the threat of the unknown – uncharted territory that few would risk exploring. In this way, the bravery and determination of the fearless Action Man (and that of the audience) was emphasised.

The opening scene then changed dramatically as the Action Man A/M logo closed on the shot of Dr. X, rather like sliding doors on an underground train, to reopen with the first shot of our hero in his unstoppable vehicle. The use of the logo and the sudden appearance of the product created the sensation that it burst through the television screen. This ‘sudden appearance’ might connote a sense of dynamism and excitement, suggesting that the product had ‘surprise’ qualities. A young boy was then shown interacting with the product by pushing it along a stretch of dirt track. This might signify that he was a key player in the action and the individual who ultimately controlled Action Man. Perhaps he was cast as a military commander with an active role to play in the success of the mission. He also wore military camouflage and in many ways his appearance was similar to Action Man, so he might have been the human personification of (or metaphor for) the action figure concept. Since the advertisement was aimed at a male target audience it is possible to argue that the viewer is being encouraged to relate to or aspire to be like this boy and to the hero figure of Action Man, and to feel empowered by proxy. Indeed, Action Man was described as the ‘greatest hero of them all’ and the young boy might also have achieved this prestigious status through owning the product.

The vehicle dramatically skidded and created a cloud of dust. Not only might this further signify the dynamism of the product concept but might also connote that Action Man was capable of surviving in an essentially uninhabitable, rugged environment. The actual vehicle was also shown in a positive light because it was tough enough to survive and conquer such terrain and was ‘military’ in appearance. The vehicle was presented as unstoppable, driving over wasteland before suddenly transforming into a boat produced, as if by magic, from the roof of the vehicle. Advertisers often assume that ‘transformation’ appeals to all children (cf. Acuff, 1997: 68-9) but especially to boys.

The convertible boat was presented as a ‘secret weapon’ with Action Man at the controls. Details were focussed upon, perhaps to show that care was taken to produce an authentic and realistic ‘military’ scene. This sense of reality was heightened when shots of the action figure were interspersed with shots of a real man. His set facial expression, square jaw and controlled head movements of surveillance connoted many masculine characteristics such as determination, stealth, fighting spirit and military intelligence. The square-jawed seriousness of the character might also reflect the stereotyped notion of the ultimate male good looks of a chiselled face. While the product was explicitly connected to the concept of ‘manhood’ by interspersing shots of strong masculine images subtle suggestions were also made about the power of the product user to dictate ‘what happens next’. The male screen character had the technical knowledge to operate the weaponry and guide the vehicle engendering a sense of pride and bravery.

The pacing of the shot sequence gathered momentum towards the end of the advertisement where many brief shots were cut together rapidly, generating a sense of mounting tension, adrenaline rush and the thrill of stalking an enemy. As the action unfolded on screen, the accompanying music became heavier and more dramatic. The drumbeats signified that something exciting was about to happen and Dr. X’s fate seemed sealed the moment Action Man launched the rocket. Nearing the point of impact, the camera focused on Dr. X, his mouth open wide in a dreadful scream, perhaps signifying the realisation of his impending doom. The rocket was shown moving away from the camera, carrying Dr. X with it in a spiral of terror and confusion. The actual ‘death’ of X was not shown, however, because the Action Man logo slammed across the scene in much the same way as it did at the beginning of the advertisement. This technique might be used to spare the ordeal of looking at the gory details of an exploded Dr. X, but also functioned as a cliff-hanger, leaving an opening for a ‘to be continued’ story line. The audience could not be sure whether X was dead or whether he would survive to terrorise Action Man again, so such a cliff-hanger might leave the audience thinking ‘what if’ and therefore be ‘on guard’. Sindy’s 4x4 Jeep (Hasbro)

The opening sequence of shots in this advertisement followed the format used in all the Sindy advertisements in the sample. Five girls huddled together and chanted in unison that they wanted ‘adventure’, perhaps signifying the wish-making process. The fact that they all chanted together might signify the unity of the female voice and articulate common female wants and needs. Their voices were ‘one’ which might also connote that women agree with one another all the time and ‘think alike’. The physical closeness of the girls also emphasised the (female) importance of friendship. One could argue that the product was presented in a way that implied it was best enjoyed with a group of friends and that it was designed to facilitate social interaction.

The scene that followed might signify the process of a wish being granted as one of the girls traced an ‘S’ shape in the air that became animated with pink stars. The way in which the girl scrolled the ‘S’ was reminiscent of the way in which Fairy Godmother conjured up Cinderella’s dreams in the Disney film, stylistically similar to the classic trail of ‘fairy dust’. The stars in the context of this advertisement might also have other connotations. One could argue that a star, especially when shaded pink, was a ‘typical’ feminine motif. The term ‘star’ is also regularly used in speech to signify someone with many positive characteristics (‘you’re a star’) or someone famous in terms of being a ‘pop star’ or a ‘Hollywood star’. In this way, the product was vested with many positive connotations of ‘specialness’, fame and glamour. The ‘S’ also utilised the same font as that appearing on the product packaging, forging a connection between the advertisement and the marketplace.

The next shot saw the product bursting suddenly onto the screen. The jeep’s dramatic appearance was emphasised by the fact that it was painted in two shades of pink (dark and pale) with splashes of turquoise. It was certainly colourful and stood out against the natural backdrop. It travelled aggressively along a dusty and rugged track, signifying its 4x4 driving capabilities. The backdrop of pine trees and snow-capped mountains confirmed that the product was designed for an ‘outdoor adventure holiday’.

Sindy then made her first appearance and from the sequence of events, the audience might assume that she had driven the jeep in such a daring way. Needless to say, she ‘looked’ the part being suitably dressed for the ‘adventure’ theme in a lycra outfit, trainers and trendy wrap-around sunglasses! Her long blond hair was also tied back in a rather sporty ponytail. The outfit worn by the doll might signify that she was ready for anything and every bit the outdoor adventurer, although she maintained a certain awareness of the importance of fashion and ‘looking right’. One might argue that she was shown venturing into the male domain of the ‘outdoors’ but at the same time was distinctly feminine in the way that she was going about it.

Once the vehicle was stationary it opened out to reveal all the hidden features inside. The transformation was signified by the appearance of yet more magic stars traced into a ‘S’ shape. Typically, the vehicle was not what it initially appeared to be, so one could argue that it was all the more exciting and interesting because of the fact that it transformed. Some areas of the vehicle folded out while others converted into the most unexpected things. The jeep itself became a kind of ‘base camp’ equipped with all the comforts of home. The transformation also included the appearance of a sundeck, a small speedboat and a set of water-skis. Sindy was shown water-skiing in the next sequence of shots. Her involvement in sports might work well to shatter the stereotyped notion that most women, given the choice, would prefer not to participate. The way in which the voiceover commented on her activity might seem to connote a little amazement at the fact that she ‘really water-skis’ suggesting that it is perhaps rather unusual for females to participate in such a sport, let alone actually be good at it!

It was significant, however, that her boyfriend Paul should be in control of the speedboat. This might connote that she was incapable of participating in an activity without being guided by a man, and was content to follow unquestioningly with a smile on her face. Perhaps Paul even drove the jeep dramatically in the opening sequence of shots. Feminist media theorists posited a similar argument in the early 1990s, when the children’s television series Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends was criticised for being sexist because the male engines always pulled the female carriages! In other words, such images of males leading females may have a negative and disempowering effect on young female viewers.

The dynamism and excitement of the adventure scenario and water-skiing was highlighted in slow motion so that the audience could appreciate every detail of the product. One particularly dramatic effect involved a close-up shot of the jeep tyre as it skidded on the rough terrain creating a cloud of dust. In the context of a fashion doll advertisement, it might be unusual but at the same time in line with the theme of the 4x4 jeep. Hence the on-screen presentation of product was very likely to echo product themes or, as often stressed by advertisement producers, a situation in which ‘form follows content’ (cf. Singleton-Turner, children-media-uk archive).


5.8.2 Detailed deconstruction of two ‘doll’ based advertisements Dragon Flyz Riptor (Galoob)

The advertisement opened with a shot of the cartoon style product name. The word ‘Flyz’ glinted on the screen accompanied by a strange metallic sound effect. Not only did the sound depict the teeth-grinding sensation of metal-on-metal, and might therefore be described as harsh, but also worked well to connote movement, speed and strength. There was a close-up shot of an unsightly figure introduced as Dread Wing. He seemed very disfigured and blackened facially as if he had been severely burnt, and he exhibited glaring eyes and gnarling teeth (Fig. 5y). Such physical appearance might be open to varied interpretations (cf. Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996: 253). He might easily be described as a stereotypical enemy because he was ‘ugly’ and the ‘blackness’ of his persona added to the notion of inner evil and badness. His appearance also conjured images of figures such as Darth Vader in Star Wars – the quintessential foe with dark and harrowing powers.

Dread Wing was launched into action by an on-screen, male character with dark hair, dark eyes and a frowning facial expression so one might reasonably conclude that he had adopted the role of ‘baddie’. This presented the audience with a new possibility by suggesting that the product could allow one to behave aggressively and exorcise any inner demons. The camera followed the figure upwards imitating the feeling of being launched skyward at the same speed and pace as the toy. In this way, one might ‘experience’ the dynamism of the launch situation. Since the audience seemed to be placed in the midst of the action, interest in the fate of the ‘baddie’ was sparked and maintained.

The background scene was interesting because it was contextually unspecific. It consisted mainly of large glass panels rather like the roof of a conservatory, through which a ‘sky’ appeared in strange shades of purple-blue creating an aura of shadiness and a rather gloomy atmosphere. It seemed distinctly otherworldly and perhaps the most effective depiction of the environment of Airlandis (cf. Galoob website). There was also a sense that the world was cold, harsh and full of foreboding. Needless to say, with such an uncomplicated backdrop the attention of the audience was not detracted from the products being advertised.

In the next shot the camera angle changed and the audience suddenly found themselves on the ground, perhaps connoting a rather vulnerable position and forced to look up as the hero-dragon Riptor appeared. One would, however, be challenged to realise that Riptor was one of the forces of ‘good’ as suggested by the voiceover because he appeared as an awesome and rather frightening creature. Blood red in colour with rough textured skin, he had large exposed teeth and ‘mighty grabbing claws’ and seems somehow hyper-real (cf. Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996: 257). Riptor swooped down from the sky and the relative freedom of movement made the dragon appear strong, powerful and unstoppable. Riptor swooped down towards the camera making the audience feel both threatened and helpless.

The audience seemed to remain in a submissive and inferior position throughout the advertisement since the main action took place overhead. Another component in the fight against evil was then introduced in the form of Z’neth, Riptor’s warrior. Z’neth was designed to ride, clad in armour, on the back of Riptor before being launched using a pull cord. As Z’neth took flight his upward movement was tracked by the camera. Having experienced the point of view of Dread Wing, the so-called ‘bad’ element, the audience was now related to Z’neth, the so-called ‘good’ element. This dual perspective on the battle perhaps made it acceptable for (male) children to re-enact either side without guilt, depending on their mood. The voiceover announced the arrival of Riptor and Z’neth with a tone of relief and anticipation connoting that good would triumph over evil. The very name Riptor carried connotations of pain and destruction, visually illustrated when Dread Wing was released from his clutches to fall to his death. Ultimately, Riptor was portrayed as a harsh force to respect and not challenge. Sky Dancers (Galoob)

The advertisement opened with a shot of an ornately decorated carousel set within an otherworldly paradise garden. It was almost as if the audience had been transported to fairyland, with its lush vegetation, exotic flowers and picturesque waterfall. Glittering, shimmering fragments cascaded in front on the camera lens, functioning rather like squiggly ‘dream lines’, to connote a fantasy world. The way in which the glitter caught the light created an almost magical atmosphere that was certainly delicate and, by association, ‘feminine’. The use of lighting added to this atmosphere of otherworldliness since everything was bathed in a tranquil blue colour. In many ways, the scene connoted a notion of gentle beauty that was not quite real but enchanting none the less.

Suddenly, two girls appeared on screen, their facial expressions connoting that they were in awe of everything they saw. The camera then drew the audience slowly into the scene and might signify the way in which the girls felt drawn to the product. The camera focused on various features paying attention to the detail. Indeed, the images framed by the camera generally followed the comments made by the girls. In this way, the audience might feel that they were looking at the scene through the eyes of the young girls connoting a sense of intimacy, familiarity and the opportunity of first-hand experience.

The wide-eyed and open-mouthed awe-struck behaviour of the girls seemed a little exaggerated in that each utterance was an exclamation. In many ways there was a balance between the two characters. One of the girls was blond-haired while the other was dark-haired and they took it in turns to comment about the product. One could therefore argue that the product was portrayed as something that promoted fairness and companionship. The details that the girls commented so enthusiastically about could be described as stereotypically feminine in interest such as a ‘pony’, ‘kitty’ and a ‘dancing bear’. There was, perhaps predictably, a predominance of the colour pink. The clothing worn by the girls was rather muted compared to the rather garish appearance of the product but this colour contrast ensured that audience attention was drawn to the bold shades of the product.

Once the fairies were launched, there was a sense of dynamism as the camera tracked their flight into the sky. When it was clear that the fairies were airborne a rather dramatic overhead shot of the girls was used to signify the sheer height achieved by the fairies as they flew. The audience therefore experienced the point of view of the fairies as the girls gazed up at them (and us) in amazement and happiness, connoting the sense of fun made possible by the product. The excited exclamations from the girls seemed to will the fairies to fly as high as possible. This was followed by a slow motion shot to show the spinning action of the fairies in mid-air, rather like the filming of ‘elegant’ sports such as figure skating, where every pirouette is replayed for the benefit of the audience. Many other fairy figures were shown surrounding the carousel suggesting that they could also pirouette in such a way.


5.9 Discussion of differential product targeting

From an analysis of these similar product types, strong gendered patterns can once again be identified as a means of illustrating how advertisers target the male and female audience sectors differently. Strategies of audience address and on-screen visual representations were considered in terms of product themes, contexts and details, use of colour, and on-screen characters to identify ‘same’ and ‘different’ approaches to essentially the same products. Again, the emergent patterns may indicate how the advertisers perceived the likes, needs and wants of boys and girls respectively. It is arguable that the differences in approach would provide the most insightful indicators of contrasting audience perceptions.

The product themes in both comparative instances could be described as broadly similar in the sense that the products belonged to the definable categories of ‘vehicle’ and ‘doll’. The way in which these themes were presented on screen, however, was vastly different and these visual representations might arguably be accounted for by the contrasting preferences of the intended target audiences (as perceived by the advertisers). While the Action Man LSV and the Sindy 4x4 Jeep were similar in the sense that the vehicles transformed into other things, with particular emphasis on converting the roof into a boat, these transformations were shown to occur for very different reasons. Similarly, Dragon Flyz and Sky Dancers utilised identical operating mechanisms but within very different contexts.

Action Man was introduced as a professional soldier in a life-or-death situation, exhibiting bravery and determination to overcome an enemy, where the vehicle was presented as an integral aspect of his success in the mission. Sindy, on the other hand, was presented as a somewhat frivolous creature with no responsibilities, wanting adventure and outdoor relaxation, where the vehicle was presented as a way of making the holiday situation more stylish and comfortable. Thematically, Action Man was involved in a dangerous fight against evil, while Sindy was energetic in her pursuit of mindless fun. While the former was presented as dutiful in the sense of a ‘needs must’ situation of ‘saving the world’, the latter frolicked in a process of wish-fulfilment in which her desires were met.

Dragon Flyz was presented as a brutal battle for survival in which aggression was the only real weapon in a dark world of danger. The pivotal theme of the product was the fight of good against evil and the on-screen manifestation of this was graphic and violent. Sky Dancers, in stark contrast, was presented as a gentle and graceful fairground of fun in which strong friendships were easily forged and much laughter heard as a result of the product. While the former might make the user feel uneasy, the latter might promote a sense of safety and contentment. One could argue that these product themes appeal to the stereotypically prescribed ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ of differing genders. While boys are perceived as aggressive, competitive, professional and serious, girls are perceived as carefree, happy, sociable and decorative.

The contexts in which the products were presented also revealed some interesting issues. In many ways, the Action Man and Sindy products were surprisingly similar in the sense that both were set outdoors in rugged landscapes. One could argue that these settings were the most effective way to portray the capabilities of the vehicles to overcome obstacles and be suited to such terrain. Action Man found himself in an exotic rainforest setting, while Sindy found herself in a rather glamorous mountain resort, each connoting a sense of adventure and new experiences. Both vehicles were even shown skidding and sending clouds of dust into the air. In this respect, the context might be described as ‘same’ even though the presence of the characters in those environments was different. Perhaps the most obvious difference in these contexts was the way in which the activities were depicted on camera (cf. Content analysis). While the camera made the audience feel involved in the dynamism of the movements on screen in the Action Man advertisement, riding along in the speedboat dodging bombs, the camera was more static in the Sindy advertisement. While the Action Man audience was ‘active’ in the narrative, the Sindy audience was rather more ‘passive’ in the sense of simply being spectators. Again, one could argue that these techniques were reflective of the stereotyped perceptions of boys and girls.

No similarity in product context was noted in the ‘doll’ category. The Dragon Flyz advertisement was set against a minimal modern background with few recognisable or distinguishing features. Indeed, one could argue that the setting was meant to portray a kind of post-apocalyptic world of hardship and coldness. The Sky Dancers advertisement, in complete contrast, was set against a tropical background of lush vegetation and flowers rather like the stereotypical idea of a pre-lapsarian paradise idyll. The settings were both notable in their exaggerated ‘unreality’ but contrastive in the effects created by each. There were, however, parallels in the filming techniques used of the different products, not seen in the ‘vehicle’ advertisements. In both instances, there was upward camera movement after every launch situation as a means of demonstrating how the products function and ‘spin’ through the air. In both instances, the use of slow motion shots afforded clear views of the fliers. One could argue that this was the most effective way to portray the main selling point of the product, perhaps further evidence that ‘form’ followed ‘content’ even though the ‘themes’ were very different.

In accordance with the themes of the products within their broader categories, there were marked contrasts in the product details focussed on in the advertisements that might easily be categorised as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. In the Action Man advertisement, for example, many militaristic details were focussed on as a way of emphasising the authenticity of the product. The weaponry was a particularly significant feature and also a means of emphasising the ultimately aggressive theme of the product. Similarly, the details focussed on in the Dragon Flyz advertisement were ‘ugly’ to say the least, and razor-sharp teeth and claws clearly connoted violence and fear. These elements might all be described as stereotypically ‘masculine’. While Action Man’s vehicle was portrayed as essential to survival in the wilderness, Sindy’s vehicle represented ‘survival’ of a different kind. Essentially, the vehicle features were meant to provide the intrepid traveller with all the comforts of home (including the kitchen sink), perhaps suggesting that women would be unable to leave the house without such distinctly ‘domestic’ paraphernalia. The details shown in the Sky Dancers advertisement were ‘pretty’ in the sickly-sweet sense of the word where flowers, teddy bears and fairies might all be described as ‘girlie’ and would never translate into a stereotyped ‘masculine’ context.

The same gendered perceptions were echoed in the use of colours, following the same patterns identified by the adult coders. Perhaps predictably, there was a predominance of the colour pink in the advertisements for Sindy and Sky Dancers. The colour seemed more striking in the former advertisement because the colour was so at odds with the surrounding ‘natural’ environment, marking the (female) product (and the associated target audience) as ‘different’. The colours used in the Action Man advertisement were different in the sense that the khaki green colour ensured that the product was ‘at one’ with the environment, perhaps connoting the (male) product (and the target audience) was ‘natural’. The Dragon Flyz advertisement was different in the sense that the colours corresponded with the ‘dark’ and ‘evil’ theme of the product, making everything appear ‘gloomy’ and essentially ‘masculine’.

One final issue was the way in which the on-screen characters were presented in the advertisements where the term ‘characters’ could be used to describe both the products and the children who may appear on screen. The villains in the advertisements also looked suitably ‘bad’ in the sense that they had frowning facial expressions, gnarling teeth, sly eyes and costume markers such as eye-patches or black cloaks. The Action Man figure was predictably dressed in military attire to suit the context of the advertisement and his ‘undercover’ mission into the wilderness. Similar attire was also worn by the on-screen boy character to continue the military theme throughout the advertisement. Sindy was also dressed in clothing appropriate to the ‘outdoor pursuits’ theme of the product. This was not true, however, of the five girls who made their wish at the beginning of the advertisement since they, just like the girls in the Sky Dancers advertisement, were dressed in conventionally female (pink) clothing. This might suggest that those advertisements appealing to ‘boys’ were more likely to advocate complete submergence in the ‘fantasy’ situation while the advertisements appealing to the girls were grounded, at least in part, in the normality of ‘reality’ (cf. Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996: 257).

There were further differences in the interrelations between the characters and the products. Action Man, for example, was shown in ‘independent’ and ‘brave’ pursuit of the enemy. Sindy, on the other hand, seemed rather ‘dependent’ on her male companion. There was obvious involvement from the boy character appearing in the Action Man advertisement as he was shown interacting with the product and even ‘looking like’ the action figure. This screen presence was not seen in the Sindy advertisement, however, because the only involvement that the five girls were shown to have was during the wish-making process in the opening shots. After their initial presence they were largely absent from the screen and totally uninvolved with the actual product. Indeed, such a pattern might indicate the ‘active’ versus ‘passive’ gender stereotypes already identified. The girls were similarly uninvolved in the Sky Dancers advertisement and once they had launched the fairies they were portrayed as awe-struck impressed spectators. Interestingly, the human involvement in the Dragon Flyz advertisement seemed rather more like play-acting. The male characters either imitated the ‘badness’ of the enemy by adopting a snarling facial expression, or were only partially visible wearing unobtrusive dark clothing and ‘embedding’ themselves in the screen action creating the illusion that the products had a life of their own.

Similar product types were therefore thematically manipulated in a number of distinct ways in order to make them more ‘appealing’ or suited to one audience sector over another and the main issues are summarised in the following table: 

5.9.1 Differing gender interpretations of the ‘same’ product types


Main Issues

‘Male’ Product Spin

‘Female’ Product Spin

Product theme

Aggressive, competitive, violent, dangerous

Gentle, fun, friendly, sociable

Product context

Suited to the product theme

Suited to the product theme

Product detail

Practical, professional, authentic, ‘nasty’

Domestic, cute, delicate, ‘nice’


Tonal, dark, gloomy

Pink, bright


Active, involved, in ‘control’

Passive, spectators, ‘controlled’

While content and semiotic analyses are effective in the construction of a formal framework of textual composition, identifying all major elements and suggesting possible connotations, these methodologies do not account for the ways in which the intended audiences may receive the media texts. The findings of such analyses simply give an account of what is ‘there’ but fail, by their very nature, to detail how the individual elements are interpreted by the audience. There is a particular theoretical problem in that a researcher undertaking an analysis of any (media) text will automatically and unconsciously impose adult values and structures on their methods of interpretation irrespective of whether they are the intended target for the text. In this investigation, the toy advertisements that were analysed in such detail were primarily intended for child audiences. Since it is likely that the value systems of the researcher would differ widely from the perspectives taken by a group of children, it was necessary to address the issue of ‘child advertisement reception’.

The theory adopted by Hodge & Tripp (1986: 15) seemed to capture the essence of my own investigation. They argued that the ‘meanings’ and ‘codes’ identified in their own semiotic analysis of the cartoon Fangface may not exist for the children in their sample, but that they may be true if the children were using the same adult structures of meaning. That is to say, they used their analytical frameworks as a means of predicting the most likely forms of thought and experience for the children whilst observing whether they responded to the cartoon in the ways they might expect. I consequently set up workshop sessions with the children in my target primary school as a means of eliciting their responses to a selection of toy advertisements. In much the same way as Hodge & Tripp (1986), I also encouraged the children to design their own advertisements in order to determine whether or not they understood and were able to reinterpret the advertisement codes identified in my own formal frameworks. These workshop sessions will be discussed later.

Before these reports, however, one should return to the theoretical triangle of Text-Producer-Receiver in order to re-address the interlocking considerations of mass media production and reception. During the processes of the content and semiotic analyses, the main aim has been to try and disentangle from the texts a clear idea of the ways in which advertisers and toy manufacturers perceive their target audiences. Needless to say, the conclusions drawn are speculative and based only on what is clearly seen within the advertisement texts. It is arguable that my own biases as an investigator might have subconsciously coloured the judgements made. Consequently the next chapter will focus exclusively on the industry perspective to consider how advertisements are conceived and how the target audiences for each product-type are perceived.



Once the ‘typical’ girls’ and boys’ advertisements had been semiotically analysed, a number of definable patterns or codes emerged. The advertisements aimed at the girls included instances of: constructive play scenarios, product demonstration, dominant use of the colour pink, emphasis on outer appearance and ‘prettiness’, magic and surprise, aspirations to be ‘like Mum’, home and domestic environments, cuteness and the so-called ‘ah-factor’, patience and perseverance, and smiling faces. The boys’ advertisements, in contrast, included instances of: constructive and destructive play scenarios, focus on mechanical and technical features, assumed knowledge about the product, colours to echo product theme, empowerment of the product user, aspirations to be ‘like Dad’, distinctions between reality and fantasy, ugliness and the so-called ‘yuck-factor’, action and rapid movement, facial expressions to illustrate product philosophy, cartoon animation, success, and cross-media tie-ins.

Taken together and compared, the semiotic codes for the boys’ and girls’ advertisements can be summarised into a series of binary oppositions based on male/female, including: destructive/constructive, nasty/nice, cruel/kind, un-co-operative/co-operative, chaos/calm, knowledge/ignorance, mature/immature, bad/good, active/passive and anti-social/social.

The total toy advertisement sample was then studied in terms of the various thematic codes that they used, and some of these codes emerged as being distinctly gendered when ranked in order of occurrence. The most frequently used codes in the boys’ advertisements were structured around gendered (‘male’) interests, mid-action openings, a sense of chaos, depictions of reality play and ‘passive’ characters. The girls’ advertisements, in contrast, were most frequently structured around gendered (‘female’) interests, friendship, slowly unfolding action, constructive play and a sense of order. The least frequently used codes in the boys’ advertisements included the metamorphosis of the product, a sense of order, slowly unfolding action, secrets and magic, and orders from the opposite sex. Similarly, the girls’ advertisements were least likely to include orders from the opposite sex, destructive play, rivalry, mid-action openings, and the fight against evil. These thematic code rankings indicated that the toy advertisements in the sample tended to follow a heavily prescribed gendered approach, despite the fact that there was some balance towards the middle of the ranking.

Some interesting parallels and contrasts emerged when comparing similar products that have been given masculine and feminine ‘spins’ in order to appeal to the appropriate audience sector. These patterns were grouped according to product themes, context and appeals, as well as the use of colour and the roles of the on-screen characters. The products given a masculine ‘spin’ utilised themes of aggression, competition, violence and anger, contrasting with the gentle, fun, friendly and social themes of the advertisements with feminine ‘spin’. Product context was suited to the over-riding theme in both audience-contexts. Product details, on the other hand, seemed gendered in the sense that masculine products were presented as practical, professional, authentic and ‘nasty’, while feminine products were domestic, cute, delicate and ‘nice’. Masculine colours tended to be tonal, dark and gloomy, while feminine colours were (predictably) pink and bright. Finally, the characters in the boys’ advertisements tended to be active, involved and ‘in control’, while the characters in the girls’ advertisements tended to be passive spectators and ‘controlled’. Essentially, the emergent patterns were strongly gender stereotyped.


This page was last modified 18 Apr 2006