Happy New Year everyone! Having passed through to the other side of our most consumer-driven season of the year, maybe you have seen this Toys R Us advertisement flier  that was posted on Sociological Images, a blog associated with Contexts magazine? Toys ‘R’ Us has a line of “Edu-science” toys, which includes telescopes and microscopes. The ad shows that each of these tools is available in three increasingly more powerful models, and if you’re a pink-lovin’ girl, you are in luck: while most models only come in black, one version comes in pink (never mind that the pink one happens also to be the least powerful of the options)!
What does this pink option mean? There has been interesting discussion of this on various websites since the ad was circulated online at the end of December (see for example PZ Myers’ blog ). I, like many, was incensed that the least-powerful tool would be targeted towards girls, and on a related note, the implication that for girls the appearance of a tool is the priority, its functionality is secondary. This is a crummy message.
Ironically, although a kid who gets a pink microscope or telescope is getting the cheapest, least powerful model, several people commented on Myers’ blog that in fact, because the optics are not very good on any of these models, only the lowest magnification works very well anyway (the customer product reviews suggest that this is the case). Toys R Us must know this, at some level. So in fact while the advertisement sends a terrible message, the reality of the situation is that the girls with pink scopes may not be worse off than kids with the more powerful scopes, since the scopes are probably fairly similar in their capabilities. Whew. This is convoluted.
I’m sure this pink product is a marketing ploy to increase the number of kids to whom Toys R Us could sell a telescope or microscope, but I don’t understand why the marketers wouldn’t want to target all kids by making these toys jazzy to everyone? Why not make the telescope more appealing and less intimidating by decorating it with stars and planets and comets (or something relevant to its purpose?) Why is there such a strong force to separate out toys for boys and toys for girls when it is so unnecessary?
Finally, presumably, the color makes the telescope more acceptable or more desirable or less intimidating either to girls or to parents of girls. And maybe this is a good thing. Perhaps just having an object like this around, even if it is poor quality puts this kind of tool and the careers associated with it into the realm of consciousness of a kid. I’m not sure I buy this argument, but it’s possible. The more I think about this, the more I keep coming back to the idea that it doesn’t matter what color your science toy is. Even if it’s made out of solid gold, a microscope is not going to go very far in inspiring a kid’s interest in science UNLESS there’s an enthusiastic, encouraging, role model beside that kid to help him or her discover it. So how do we market that?