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Toy Pitches Half-Baked?

On a recent Thursday afternoon in Brooklyn, six elementary schoolchildren assembled for their Junior Tastemakers class at Creative Cooks, which offers cooking classes for kids from 2-years-old through the 8th grade. In the bright storefront space, a 6-year-old with tousled blond hair named Henry cut a clove of elephant garlic with a large plastic serrated knife. Beside him a brown-haired boy, Alex, also 6, cut a green pepper.

Today's recipe was vegetarian chili and, following the instructions of the school's founder, Emily Rios, other students, all girls, diced celery and onions. Soon they took turns dropping the vegetables and beans into a pot, which sizzled on a hot plate.

As Food Network shows like Iron Chef and Throwdown with Bobby Flay have become a national obsession in recent years, schools like Creative Cooks have flourished. And boys like Henry and Alex are putting aside Transformers for measuring cups: about 40 percent of students who take classes at the school are boys.

"Boys like the physicality of it -- they like to use knives and to get dirty," says Rios. "We bring out the appliances, the hand mixer and the food processor, and the boys love all of that."

Cooking shows popular with males overall turn out to be even more popular with boys aged 2-11, according to Nielsen data for the five-month period through February. From the Food Network, for example, the overall male audience for Throwdown with Bobby Flay is 36 percent, but jumps to 47 percent in the 2-11 age bracket; the overall male audience for Iron Chef America, also 36 percent, jumps to 45 percent in the 2-11 bracket. And on TLC, the audience for Cake Boss, 30 percent male overall, jumps to 36 percent among those boys.

But there's little evidence of boys' interest in cooking in advertising for cooking toys, which are nearly always marketed to girls.

The iconic Easy-Bake Oven, for instance, features only girls in advertising and in its packaging, while its Web site boasts, "The classic lightbulb oven still delights with a girl's first real baking experience." And the most heralded brand of cooking toys introduced in recent years is called -- sorry, Emeril aspirants -- Girl Gourmet, made by Jakks, which began with a cupcake maker in 2008 and now includes a cake decorating kit, ice cream sandwich maker, and frozen yogurt maker. Like Easy-Bake, its advertising and design never shows boys.

While such companies acknowledge that their toys appeal to boys, they target girls exclusively because they constitute their primary audience, they say. But new research from social scientists, as well as an increasingly heated debate among parents, suggests that the gender divide -- at least in the kitchen -- is closing, and that toy brands whose marketing appeals only to girls may be missing out on a new food movement.

In a statement responding to questions, Hasbro, which declined to provide specific data, wrote, "Based on both market research and buying patterns, we have seen that the primary interest for the Easy-Bake Oven comes from girls." While the "play pattern clearly appeals to boys as well," the statement continued, "as a mass marketer and manufacturer, good business dictates that we carefully manage our marketing expenditures."

A product like the Easy-Bake Oven, which came out the year Petticoat Junction premiered on TV, might more understandably be tied to old-fashioned attitudes. But today, male celebrity chefs are driving the current food craze and more boys than ever are watching those shows.

"We all think of gender inequality being what girls aren't allowed to do, but we limit what boys can do, too," says Gwen Sharp, an assistant professor of sociology at Nevada State College who co-edits a blog called Sociological Images. "Boys lose out, too, by not getting to do things they find really enjoyable."

Dr. Michael Kaplan, an assistant clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center, says such marketing could be detrimental to boys. "What boy is going to gravitate to something called 'Girl Gourmet?'" Kaplan asks. "Boys get the message that, 'I can't do that -- it's not allowed for me.' It cuts off a part of boys' imaginative life that could grow and develop."

About a "pink retro kitchen" sold by Pottery Barn (also sold in red), Greg Allen, who publishes a blog for dads, DaddyTypes, says, "The pure pink fantasy kitchens of a place like Pottery Barn Kids are not retro, but retrograde. It's like we're sliding backwards, but then, it's entirely driven by toy marketing strategies that lock kids into gendered play patterns."

Some toy makers are taking a more gender-neutral approach, both for practical and ideological reasons.

"The last time I checked, 50 percent of the population were boys and they like to cook," says Isaac Larian, CEO of MGA, the parent company for Little Tikes, whose toy appliances and cookware feature boys alongside girls in photographs on packaging, as well as in advertising and on its Web site. "We don't want to stereotype."

Sugar and spice, and all that's nice

Jim Silver, editor of TimeToPlayMag.com, a toy review Web site, says that the growth in cooking toys is on display, literally, at Toys "R" Us. "Over the last five years cooking toys have at least tripled" in terms of retail shelf space, Silver says (although the cooking aisle is still tucked between the girls' aisles).

It all started, like ideas in cartoons, with a lightbulb. Invented in 1963 by Kenner Products, now owned by Hasbro, the Easy-Bake Oven uses heat generated by a 100-watt bulb to bake small cakes. Eleven models over the decades evolved from a conventional oven to the current model, which resembles a microwave. More than 23 million have been sold, according to the National Toy Hall of Fame.

In The Easy-Bake Oven Gourmet, a 2003 book in which David Hoffman asked celebrity chefs to contribute recipes that could be prepared in the toy oven, several male contributors relate how boyhood interest in the toy caused consternation. Bobby Flay asked for an Easy-Bake Oven at the age of 8, but his father, as Hoffman writes, "quickly dismissed it as 'a girl's thing' and suggested they get Bobby a G.I. Joe action figure instead." Flay's parents were divorced, however, and his mother bought him the toy.

Hasbro once tried to hook boys with another version of the oven. In 2002, it introduced the Queasy Bake Cookerator with sold-separately mixes for "chocolate crud cake" and "crunchy dog bone" cookies. While boys are drawn to the scatological, neither they -- nor their parents -- showed enthusiasm for a bathroom approach to the kitchen: the item was discontinued.

"In the past five years there have a been a number of attempts to market food-type products to boys, most of them on the gross side, that don't seem to do well in the marketplace," says Reyne Rice, a toy trend specialist with the Toy Industry Association, a trade group. "What is it that boys like to make?" Rice asked. "Is it pizza and barbecue? Maybe they aren't doing the right research that asks what boys want to cook to find out what works in the marketplace."

At Girl Gourmet, meanwhile, its cake bakery set was, incongruously, endorsed through a partnership deal with Duff Goldman, star of the Food Network's Ace of Cakes, whose photo, inset beside a larger photo of a girl, marks the only image of a male in the line's packaging or advertising.

Jakks execs declined multiple requests for an interview, but Goldman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in December that the company was not receptive to marketing the product to boys. "They said if they have to market to boys and girls, it wouldn't do nearly as well," Goldman told the newspaper.

Rice says that while several companies that make kitchen toys for preschoolers, like Little Tikes, Step2, and One Step Ahead include boys in marketing materials, such an approach is tricky for older kids.

"Before kids are 5-years-old they're more likely to play with gender-neutral toys," Rice says. "But by the time they hit 5 or 8 they're really looking to establish their identity, and that's when the big differences come in terms of gender in toys."

Research suggests that children are hard-wired for certain play patterns that break along gender lines, says Kaplan, of Yale. With the part of girls' brains related to social development and language development growing faster, they may gravitate to playing house or with dolls cooperatively; as boys at the same age, meanwhile, are developing visual and spatial coordination, they gravitate more to toy trucks and cars. But cooking, Kaplan says, really appeals to both of those orientations.

"Cooking is neither here nor there," he says. "It could be relational, like, 'I cook with mommy.' Or it can be spatial, like, 'I like the way the glob of pancake batter feels in my hand.'"

Whether a boy ends up with a cooking toy, of course, has less to do with his disposition than his parents'.

Alyssa Volland, owner of Mini Chef in New York, which along with cooking classes (whose registrants are split evenly between boys and girls) offers cooking-class birthday parties for kids, says at least half of those parties are for boys.

Still, she hears a familiar refrain from mothers. "I have a lot of calls from moms who say, 'My husband is worried that my son wants a cooking party,"' says Volland, who features boys prominently on the Mini Chef Web site and in her other marketing material to help assuage such concerns. "The boys like to come to the classes and they don't have the hang-ups that we have. They're just happy to be cooking."

Sharp says that while girls in recent years have appeared more in ads for toys traditionally for boys -- dressed up in costumes as police officers or firefighters, for example -- showing boys playing with toys traditionally favored by girls turns out to be more of a taboo.

"We're very supportive of girls playing with boys' toys, but we're really uncomfortable with boys playing with girl toys, and I think toy companies know that," Sharp says. "We're not worried about a girl playing with a Hot Wheels because that tomboy image is kind of cool. But a boy who wants to play with cooking toys or dolls is going to be discouraged and might get called a sissy."

Rethinking the recipe

There has been something striking in recent advertising circulars for Toys "R" Us: boys occasionally joining girls to play with cooking toys. While they tend to appear in toys for preschool brands like Little Tikes that already are featuring boys in their own promotional materials, the fact that they are appearing in the ads at all is noteworthy enough to merit multiple recent posts on Sharp's Sociological Images blog.

Bob Friedland, a Toys "R" Us representative, could not pinpoint when the retailer began using boys in the ads, but wrote in an e-mail, "We always aspire to show a world of possibilities for kids when they play with their favorite toy."

As for whether toy makers will crack the nut on finding a way to market cooking toys geared at older kids to both boys and girls, Silver, of TimeToPlayMag.com, says it's probably just a matter of time. "It's a matter of finding a cooking toy that boys will find as cool as girls and that their parents will also like and won't have a problem with their child playing with," he says.

WowWee, an Optimal Group company that launched the EZ-2 Make line of food-preparation toys just two years ago, is hoping to fit that bill. Through licensing agreements with food brands popular with kids, the company developed toys like a Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Maker Set, Icee Instant Slushee Maker, and Jamba Juice Smoothie and Ice Pop Maker.

"We spent significant time identifying the brands we thought meant the most to kids, and we think that boys share the same passion for these brands that girls have," says Marc Rosenberg, CMO at WowWee. While the products favor primary colors, they debuted showing only girls on packages and in TV spots, but Rosenberg says commercials will feature boys this year. The company is treading carefully because the toys will be shelved at retail in what historically has been a girls' section.

Rosenberg, who would not provide exact sales data, says growth has been dramatic. "We started in the category two years ago and the business has doubled each year," he says. "We knew 500 companies are out there making ovens and cupcake kits for girls, and if we went after that, we couldn't win, but we also knew that both boys and girls had interest in and passion about a lot of brands."

As far as WowWee is concerned, there's a new cook in Toyland, and he doesn't want a pink oven.

"If you look at what's going on on the Food Network, it's not June Cleaver walking around in an apron," Rosenberg says. "The category historically has been primarily girls, and that's antiquated thinking now, but there are some stigmas that die hard."


Andrew Adam Newman, Adweek. March 15, 2010

Copyright © 2010 Adweek. All rights reserved.