PhotoTarget kicked off the weekend on Friday by updating its corporate blog to announce that over the next few months, it would move away from gender-specific store signage for non-gender-specific things.

“Over the past year, guests have raised important questions about a handful of signs in our stores that offer product suggestions based on gender,” Target wrote. “In some cases, like apparel, where there are fit and sizing differences, it makes sense. In others, it may not. Historically, guests have told us that sometimes—for example, when shopping for someone they don’t know well—signs that sort by brand, age or gender help them get ideas and find things faster. But we know that shopping preferences and needs change and, as guests have pointed out, in some departments like Toys, Home or Entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary.”

So over the next few months, Target will look for opportunities to “phase out gender-based signage to help strike a better balance.” For example, instead of offering separate aisles of bedding for “boys” and “girls,” Target will simply sell bedding for “kids.”

Gender-based marketing

What sort of “important questions” did customers raise regarding Target's gender-based marketing? In June, an Ohio mother named Abi Bechtel tweeted a photo of a Target store aisle offering two categories of toys: “Building Sets” and 'Girls' Building Sets.” Bechtel tweeted the picture under the caption “Don't do this, @Target.” As of press time, that picture and caption has been re-tweeted almost 3,000 times, and favorited even more. Presumably, in the near future, Target will simply sell “building sets” without specifying whether a given set is “supposed” to be for boys or girls, since its corporate blog says “In the Toys aisles, we’ll also remove reference to gender, including the use of pink, blue, yellow or green paper on the back walls of our shelves.”

Not that there's anything wrong with paper in any of those four colors; the problem is in the assumption that one color is specifically “for boys” and another “for girls.”

There has been, unfortunately, a long-running trend in marketing to assume that “ordinary consumers” are the norm, compared to “women consumers” or “girl consumers” who comprise some rare and exotic breed. Arguably one of the most notorious examples in recent years was penmaker Bic's 2012 rollout of a new writing product: “Bic For Her” pens. Remember those? Some guy (it had to be a guy) high in the ranks of the Bic corporation decided traditional ballpoint pens were too manly and aggressive for the female half of the human race, so they came out with “Bic Cristal For Her” pens which, according to Amazon's ad copy, features an “Elegant design: just for her!” (translation: the plastic outer casings come in various pastel colors) and a “Thin barrel to fit a woman’s hand.”

Amazon currently sells Bic Cristal For Her writing implements for delicate ladylike hands at $8.08 for 16 pens, compared to $3.29 per dozen for standard Bic Cristal man-pens. To be fair, that gender price differential is narrower than it used to be. In September 2013, Amazon charged $9.04 for 16 Cristal For Her pens, compared to only $1.71 for a dozen gender-neutral Cristal pens.

Target presumably will still sell pink and blue toys or tools; it'll simply stop assuming that the pink items must be for girls, and blue for the boys.

Gender by color has changed

Interestingly, the current idea that pink is a girl's color and blue is for boys is a fairly recent historical development. Less than a hundred years ago, the stereotypes were exactly reversed: pink was the “boy” color and blue was for girls. Check out this paragraph from the June 1918 issue of a children's-clothing trade publication called Earnshaw's Infants' Department: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

In 1918 there were surely parents who freaked out because their sons wanted to wear blue clothing in lieu of a manly aggressive color like pink, while other parents feared their pink-loving daughters would grow up unsuitably unfeminine as a result. Ninety-seven years later, gender color assignments are completely reversed yet equally arbitrary – though hopefully we're a bit closer to abandoning such pointless distinctions altogether, in favor of the idea “Surround yourself with whatever colors you personally like.”

And maybe, if we're all really lucky, more marketers and retailers will retool their strategies enough to decide: Unless we're marketing actual sex-specific medicines, undergarments or hygiene products, why don't we forget about marketing “to men” or “to women,” “to boys” or “to girls,” and just try marketing to people?

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