Monday, December 10, 2012

Catalogs: Are We Buying It?


Catalogs. They are not exactly the portraits of John Singer Sargent, but each day when another batch arrives, I flip through them, wondering what they say about life in 2012.

My friend, the playwright, Jessica Provenz, suggested I end my conversation with this environmentally unfriendly house guest by visiting a site such as Catalog Choice or 41 Pounds, but I am not ready.

It was through overexposure to the Barbie Collector Edition catalogs that my seven-year-old became inoculated. “Does Barbie dye her hair?” she asked, not long ago. Metaphorically, at least, her roots were showing.

And, how else would I know about Nova Natural Toys, whose catalog I received for the first time this year. My kids may be too old, but it seems the next wave of kids can pine for the $79 Fair Maiden Dress made of linen and cotton, or a Knight’s Leather Tunic, with laces on the side, made in Germany. Girls and boys appear in separate parts of this medieval fiefdom, but rayon and pleather have at last been vanquished.

To be fair, the toys and clothes look dreamy, but the breakdown of them so strictly by gender, as I noted when I critiqued the 2010 Fisher-Prince summer catalog two years ago, remains a curiosity to me.

So I understand the paradox when I say that the one toy catalog that I feel best-reflects life as we know it in 2012 is the one that does not reflect catalog-life as we know it in 2012. Perhaps, in the true spirit of consumerism, it is aspirational. The HearthSong catalog is what I want life to be like.

Is it old-fashioned or forward thinking? Does it capture an element of today’s zeitgeist? I am no longer sure. But I know the HearthSong catalog stands out for two reasons: it depicts childhood as a time of exploration and creative play; and it shows girls and boys playing together—with the same toys.

I called the HearthSong Director of Marketing, Beverly Fries, and asked her if the depiction of boys and girls playing together was something they planned.

It was a silly question. Nothing seems un-staged in the pages of most catalogs. But how often do we dismiss an alternative depiction as simply an oversight or a matter of convenience? If we felt it was deliberate we’d be more outraged. We’d be like thirteen-year-old McKenna Pope who, inspired by her four-year-old brother, gained 30,000 signatures in an effort to get Hasbro to change the way it markets Easy-Bake Ovens.

"I don't want them to make a boys' Easy-Bake Oven and girls' Easy-Bake Oven. I want them to make an Easy-Bake Oven for kids," she said in an AP story this month.

So how did HearthSong create a catalog that presents girls and boys with equal creative opportunity?

“We go through daily discussions about that. It’s something we strive for,” Fries said, when I spoke with her last week. It goes back, she said, to the original owner, Barbara Kane, a California mom who started the company in 1983.

“There’s not a differentiation between girls and boys. They all have imaginations. They all learn from social interaction,” Fries said.

Yes, HearthSong has a few pages of pink. And, for the most part, it’s girls playing in the Pink Party Pavilion. And, we all know a few girls who would love to, too. My four-year-old included.

But, check out the girl and boy playing together with the Domino Race set, or the girl and boy each using hand tools. Notice two who look like siblings working together on the Vortex Glow-in-the-Dark Marble Run, or a boy and girl standing at the Gourmet Chef Kitchen. And then there’s the girl modeling a tree fog t-shirt standing next to a boy dressed as a raptor who doesn’t seem to think she will give him cooties.

It’s not by accident.

“We value the experience of childhood so much,” Fries told me, “we want to make sure we are not contributing to the stereotypes.”

In the chain of command that turns out a catalog, I wanted to know where the buck stopped. It was clear from speaking to Fries that it’s just as important to ask where it starts.

Does any of this matter?

Ginia Belafante’s recent story in The New York Times, “The Great Divide: Now in the Toy Aisle” spoke of the dichotomy between the types of toys sold at Toys “R” Us and the educationally-minded ones sold in smaller, more expensive shops. Even if the ones claiming to boost cognitive ability can’t prove they do so, she says:

“At the very least, though, they signal to a child a parental investment in ambition and accomplishment, in active absorption over passive observation. It would take a very expansive view of the iCarly Truth or Dare Bear to believe it might do the same thing.”

The idea that value can be derived from a message as much as from substance applies to catalogs as well. When it comes to signaling the investment of a company in the people it professes to serve, it’s clear a picture is worth a thousand words.
HearthSong's Vortex Marble Run

5 comments:

Lunch Box Mom said...

Catalogs. They are not exactly the portraits of John Singer Sargent, but each day when another batch arrives, I flip through them, wondering what they say about life in 2012.

My friend, the playwright, Jessica Provenz, suggested I end my conversation with this environmentally unfriendly house guest by visiting a site such as Catalog Choice or 41 Pounds, but I am not ready.

Danielle said...

Still hoping for a day when we'll see boys and girls both playing dress up in princess costumes and fireman gear as my girls do with their male cousins. It's just play. I'm ready for the marketing world to embrace it.

Keep up the wonderful writing and happy holidays, Sarah!

Always Amazed said...

Well, Asher wants whatever Abagail has and vice-versa. So, here's to letting kids be kids and not labeling it. Well-done SarMar!

Lunch Box Mom said...

Thanks for the comments, Danielle and MJ :)

Allen St. John said...

Would the unisex Easy Bake oven come in a fashion-forward stainless steel finish?
I remember thinking that an EZ Bake oven--or at least the EZ Bake cookies that came out of it would be pretty cool.

I love the impulse here. but from what I've seen kids will be what they are, despite our best efforts.
We tried our best to be gender neutral in our house.
And yet Ethan was attracted to anything that rolled.
And when Emma, three years younger, played with Ethan's Thomas the Tank Engine trains, she them into little "families."
We (and Ethan) sure didn't teach her that.
Now about getting rid of those catalogs...