# Abstract

Toys have a playing purpose as well as a multi-functional dimension, as they relate to visual communication since their representations lead to unexpected practices by the child, which stimulates designers to be constantly exploring new ways of presenting their narratives to a double-audience of both parents and children. This article investigates how the discourse of toy campaigns has changed over the last decade, by focusing on the verbal and visual features of contemporary toy campaigns. It draws on the social semiotic approach of Kress & van Leeuwen (2006) for the images’ analyses and on cultural studies (BROUGÈRE, 2014) to provide a broader view on the issues of diversity, representation and inclusion. The analyses suggest that as diversity and the gradual breaking of gender boundaries have gained more visibility in children’s media, we have been witnessing the disruption of existing narratives traditionally conceived in toy lines and campaigns.

Keywords:
Toy; Campaign; Diversity; Narrative; Multimodality.

# Resumo

Os brinquedos têm uma função na brincadeira, bem como uma dimensão multifuncional, uma vez que se relacionam com a comunicação visual, pois suas representações conduzem as crianças a práticas inesperadas, o que estimula os designers a explorarem constantemente novas formas de apresentar suas narrativas a uma dupla audiência de pais e filhos. Este artigo investiga como o discurso das campanhas de brinquedos vem mudando ao longo da última década, focalizando as características verbais e visuais das campanhas de brinquedos contemporâneos. Baseia-se na abordagem semiótica social de Kress e van Leeuwen (2006) para as análises das imagens, e nos estudos culturais (BROUGÈRE, 2014), de modo a proporcionar uma visão mais ampla das questões de diversidade, representação e inclusão. As análises sugerem que, à medida que a diversidade e a ruptura gradual das fronteiras de gênero ganharam maior visibilidade nas mídias infantis, testemunhamos a ruptura de narrativas tradicionalmente concebidas em linhas e campanhas de brinquedos.

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# Resumen

Los juguetes tienen una función en los juegos, también una dimensión multifuncional, a vez que se relacionan con la comunicación visual, pues sus representaciones conducen los niños para prácticas inesperadas, el que estimula los designers a exploraren constantemente nuevas formas de presentar sus narrativas a una dupla audiencia de padres e hijos. Este artículo investiga como el discurso de las campañas de juguetes ha cambiado durante la última década, focalizando las características verbales y visuales de las campañas de juguetes contemporáneos. Se basa en el abordaje semiótica social de Kress y van Leeuwen (2006) para los análisis de las imágenes y en los estudios culturales (BROUGÈRE, 2014) de modo a proporcionar una visión más amplia de las questiones de diversidad, representación e inclusión. Los análisis sugieren que, la medida que la diversidad y la ruptura gradual de las fronteras de género han ganado mayor visibilidad en las medias infantiles, testimoniamos la ruptura de narrativas tradicionalmente concebidas en líneas y campañas de juguetes.

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# 1 INTRODUCTION

Conventionally regarded as genuine expressions of children’s culture, the notion that bequeaths to our contemporary concept of ‘toy’ is, in fact, a modern one that only started acquiring specificity from late 18th century onwards. Prior to that, the term ‘toy’ was used to describe small pieces of art, miniaturised versions of everyday objects often made in “luxury materials such as gilded copper, ivory or silver” (Fleming, 1996FLEMING, D. Powerplay: toys as popular culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996. , p. 82) for wealthy adults’ amusement (FLEMING, 1996FLEMING, D. Powerplay: toys as popular culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996. ). The transition to the current concept of ‘children’s plaything’ was prodded by the manufacturing innovation of specialised industries and its marketing communication activity, which helped to consolidate a new sense of childhood and a consequent motif of children’s culture by the closing decades of the 19th century.

One of these motifs was the narrativised spectacle of the toy theatre (Benjamin, 1984BENJAMIN, W. Reflexões: a criança, o brinquedo e a educação. Tradução de Marcus Vinícius Mazzari. São Paulo: Summus. 1984. ; Fleming, 1996FLEMING, D. Powerplay: toys as popular culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996. ), which emerged in 19th century Europe as a form of entertainment for middle-class children, whose “evenings were often spent consigned to an austere playroom by absent parents” (FLEMING, 1996, p. 83). Soon the visual vividness of its miniaturised cut-out, colourful characters and backdrops started attracting more and more children and adding elements such as narrative and spectacle to the concept of ‘toy’.

From miniaturised replicas of domestic objects to pleasant cut-out toy characters, with time and their specialised manufacturing, toys started gaining size and losing their minuscule and discreet character (Benjamin, 1984BENJAMIN, W. Reflexões: a criança, o brinquedo e a educação. Tradução de Marcus Vinícius Mazzari. São Paulo: Summus. 1984. , my translation), which helped them achieve recognition in the social milieu, shifting their status quo of traditional craft products to specialised, mass-produced ones (Fleming, 1996FLEMING, D. Powerplay: toys as popular culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996. ).

Alongside with the change of toys’ status, a new imagery of childhood was being gradually constructed during the 19th century, triggered by an array of children’s products that permeated the catalogues and advertisements of the early pioneers of merchandising (Kline, 1993KLINE, S. Out of the Garden: Toys and Children’s Culture in the Age of Marketing. London: Verso Press, 1993.). In a sense, the expanding market of children’s cultural products was being developed around an emerging perception on childhood as an autonomous category that needed to attach specific ‘tools’ - such as balls, bicycles and dolls - as symbols of children’s cultural and developmental requirements (KLINE, 1993, p. 59).

As cultural signifiers, toys have become symbols that not only convey “the common preoccupations of children with play but also their changing experience of things” (BARTHES, quoted in KLINE, 1993KLINE, S. Out of the Garden: Toys and Children’s Culture in the Age of Marketing. London: Verso Press, 1993., p. 59), given that toys are endowed with social dimensions that go beyond their material spectrum.

Mediated by advertising discourse through modern narratives that include YouTube videos and images in social networks such as Facebook, toys can be ‘textualised’ in various ways, from cartoons to comic strips, as they consist of “both already produced communications and tools to produce communications with” (CALDAS-COULTHARD; van LEEUWEN, 2001, p. 96).

Nevertheless, for very long toys’ enacted representations have been neglected by academic scholars, in being conventionally conceived of as ordinary, everyday entertainment objects to be manipulated by children during their free time.

For this reason, this study draws on the aspects of the Grammar of Visual Design by Kress & van Leeuwen (1996KRESS, G.; VAN LEEUWEN, T. Reading images: The Grammar of Visual Design. London: Routledge, 1996.) to address some of the cultural dimensions encapsulated in the discourse of toy campaigns, through the discussion of the stereotypes commonly identified in their narratives, such as advertisements, packaging and online campaigns.

# 2 STEREOTYPES IN TOYS’ DISCOURSE

Not until very recently, representatives of toy companies have gathered together in order to discuss how to break traditional stereotypes in children’s media and toys through the creation of narratives and products that somehow reflect new social realities.

From contemporary Disney characters showcasing girls as strong heroines to campaigns that help inspiring girls to go for their ideals, it can be observed that representations in today’s media have been trying to revamp conventional standards that accounted for the so-called ‘epidemic of invisibility’ (Smith; Choueiti; Pieper, 2016SMITH, L. S.; CHOUEITI, M.; PIEPER, K. Inclusion or invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment. Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative. Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg, University of South California, 2016.), a term used to refer to the lack of gender, ethnical, social and cultural representation in mainstream media.

To include diversity in toys’ discourse, it must be said, can be considered a challenge, since toys tend to reveal a great deal about the conceptions and representations of a culture, and by doing so, it becomes necessary to “undo the systems of exclusion so as to open up new spaces for the multiple ways of being a subjects in a given culture, in a given historical time” (CRUZ, 2011CRUZ, M. B. Bonecas, diversidade e inclusão. Rev. Psicopedagogia, v. 28, n. 85, p. 41-52, 2011., p. 42, my translation).

Let us take the example of adapted dolls - both for boys and girls - reflecting children with special needs. In terms of number and variety, they are still very few when compared to the prevailing, traditional standardized doll with a well-built body and straight, blonde hair, light skin and blue eyes that fills up the shelves of our toy stores.

Figure 1
Adapted dolls from the #ToyLikeMe campaign

That being the case, whenever one single model is chosen as the representative of an aesthetic ideal, such model becomes naturalized and socially regarded as ‘better’ than any other mode of subjectivization. Choosing a stereotyped aesthetic model as the representative doll of a particular culture may be particularly inappropriate in places where such models are not the ones prevailing, as it seems to be the case of Brazilian doll Susi. In a previous study on the discourse of toy campaigns, Almeida (2006ALMEIDA, D. B. L. Icons of Contemporary Childhood: A Visual and Lexicogrammatical Investigation of Toy Advertisements. Unpublished PhD Dissertation - Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Florianópolis, 2006.) argues that Susi’s stereotype is far from representing the genuinely Brazilian girl, taken that her physical representation does not call for what is in fact seen in the country. Neither does her name seem to convey an authentic expression of the Brazilian culture, as the name Susi is by no means a common name in Brazil. Likewise, in a visit paid to Susi’s toy manufacturer Estrela in 2004, Almeida (2006) could notice that blonde Susi was far more preferred to other models of the doll, such as its black version Susi Daiane dos Santos or the dark-haired or red-haired ones.

Cruz’s (2011CRUZ, M. B. Bonecas, diversidade e inclusão. Rev. Psicopedagogia, v. 28, n. 85, p. 41-52, 2011.) more recent experiment with primary school children at the context of a public institution in the Brazilian southern state of Rio Grande do Sul allows us to substantiate some of these perceptions on stereotypes in toys’ discourse. At the occasion of the experiment, children were given a collection of ‘different’ male and female dolls to play with: black, elderly, obese, disabled, wheel-chair users, pregnant, Down-syndrome dolls. The idea was to verify how the offer of such diverse toys to 7-8-year-old children influenced their discursive choices and practices while interacting and playing with these dolls.

Twenty-four (24) children - thirteen (13) boys and eleven (11) girls - were shown what the researcher has called an “Enchanted Suitcase” carrying twelve (12) female dolls and six (6) male dolls with all sorts of special needs and of different stereotypes. In their interaction with these dolls, children produced discourses of strangeness and discrimination showing that they, too, sometimes get impregnated with cultural prejudice inasmuch as religion, gender, ethnicity and generation issues are concerned.

This was particularly the case of children playing with the Down-syndrome baby doll as well as the red-haired and black dolls. According to the researcher, the discourse of strangeness occurred mainly due to children’s lack of exposition to cultural diversity through dolls by the media and toy producers, since, as aforementioned, the offer of a single aesthetic, ethnic and/or generation model ends up perpetuating a hegemonic and standardised view of society.

In relation to children’s discursive choices, it could be verified that they often referred to the dolls’ hair and skin colours in a way that sounded prejudicial as they seemed to give preference to playing with the light-skinned dolls with straight hair and not with the dark-skinned ones with curly or with an Afro-type of hair. Discourses like “This doll is too old”, “This doll’s hair is ugly and of a bad type (ruim)” seem to reveal these children’s prejudice insofar as their interactions with the black dolls was involved. Also, discourses like “This baby is strange! It has something on his/her face”, “Her eyes are different” or “Her tongue is almost outside her mouth”1 1 Children’s discourses have been translated from their original language, Portuguese. The translation into the English language remains under my responsibility. to refer to the Down-syndromed baby doll seem to point out to a discourse of discrimination, exclusion and strangeness that reveal children’s lack of familiarity with what is (still) not common to their eyes (p. 49, my translation).

On the other hand, markers of acceptance and receptiveness appeared in these children’s discourses whenever they referred to the Barbie doll and Disney’s princesses. Discourses like “Barbie’s is the coolest doll ever” and “I like this princess because she has very long hair” have been interpreted by Cruz (2011CRUZ, M. B. Bonecas, diversidade e inclusão. Rev. Psicopedagogia, v. 28, n. 85, p. 41-52, 2011.) as reflections of a hegemonic and Eurocentric thought which substantiate the signs of ‘normality’ spread as common truths along the 20th and 21st century (p. 49, my translation).

Other hegemonic stereotypes have been associated to signs of aggressiveness in action dolls for boys materialized in their strong, flexible bodies, allowing these dolls to make certain movements many times restricted in female dolls. This has been widely discussed in Almeida’s (2006ALMEIDA, D. B. L. Icons of Contemporary Childhood: A Visual and Lexicogrammatical Investigation of Toy Advertisements. Unpublished PhD Dissertation - Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Florianópolis, 2006.) study:

[...] boys’ dolls (are) usually located ‘out there’ and (are) endowed with flexibility to move sideways, open their legs, hold objects and stand by themselves without falling (ibid.). Contrastively, girls’ dolls are commonly represented living “entirely in [their] own enclosed world” (Fleming, 1996, p. 53) and (are) kinetically designed to be restricted in their action potentials.

Be that as it may, experiments like the ones conducted by Cruz (2011CRUZ, M. B. Bonecas, diversidade e inclusão. Rev. Psicopedagogia, v. 28, n. 85, p. 41-52, 2011.) and Almeida (2006ALMEIDA, D. B. L. Icons of Contemporary Childhood: A Visual and Lexicogrammatical Investigation of Toy Advertisements. Unpublished PhD Dissertation - Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Florianópolis, 2006.) may be a starting point of reflection for the discussion about the lack of diversity historically verified in toy campaigns. Not only does such lack of diversity exclude those who do not fit in with the standardized social aesthetic models but it also reduces the possibilities of integrating the differences from an early age in childhood which may, in turn, minimize the distance that separates an idealized childhood from the real one.

# 3 TOYS AND THE CELEBRATION OF DIVERSITY

As it has been pointed out before, for quite a long time toy producers seemed to underestimate the need to include diversity in toys’ discourse - especially dolls’ - as the only model available in the toy shelves was the unrealistically beautiful 57-year-old Barbie or rather similar dolls that were close to perfection in terms of physical appearance.

Once the discourses of acceptance and inclusion started to frequently appear in the social media, mainstream toy companies like Mattel felt the urge to incorporate a more realistic range of body-diverse dolls in their lines, with a view to reflecting real life diversity into toys’ material configurations.

# Publication Dates

• Publication in this collection
May-Aug 2017

# History

16 Dec 2016
• Accepted
11 July 2017
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