Anti-princess marketing and girls’ education: Mercy Academy vs. GoldieBlox

Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink.
Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

Princesses: They’re everywhere. Over the past decade, marketers have made “princess” a synonym for “girls. They use princesses as shorthand—a way of saying, “Hey, girl: Buy this!”

But ever since Peggy Orenstein spelled out the problems with princess culture in Cinderella Ate My Daughter, parents have come down with a serious case of princess fatigue. Sure, princesses are still popular—but in many corners, parents are so over it.

The girl culture industry is savvy, though. Aware of the pushback, they’re changing tactics. They’ve been working hard to rebrand “princess” as the equvalent of “empowerment” — as today’s girls’ version of girl power. (See this Disney ad, for example.)

The problem is that despite the branding, princess culture is very limiting. Marketers can claim “princess” has the capacity to empower girls all they want; but at the end of the day, in the marketplace, princess culture always reduces girls’ interests to being pretty and finding romance—as the Disney Consumer Products Division redesign of Merida from Brave proved.

As a result, the ubiquity of princesses actually limits young girls’ imaginations. They aren’t seeing many other versions of girlhood promoted to them. Although there are many ways to be a girl, pop culture is showing girls too many minor variations on the princess theme and calling these similar items “choices”—selling girls short in the process.

The upshot is that today’s girls are like the sailors in Coleridge’s famous, poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” They’re adrift in a sea of princesses, and their imaginations are parched. Being sold on princesses everywhere they go—from toy stores to grocery stores to hardware stores—makes our girls’ worlds shrink.

Nor any drop to drink.

So with this in mind, I’ve been intrigued to see two anti-princess ad campaigns go viral in recent days. Let’s take a look at them.

First, there are the advertisements for the all-girls’ Mercy Academy in Kentucky that tells prospective high school students, “You are not a princess.” “Life’s not a fairy tale.” “Don’t wait for a prince.”

mercy-ads-1

These ads all feature the tagline “Prepare for real life.” They clearly speak back against the princess fantasy marketers have been pushing to young girls for the past decade, and they speak the truth to girls: that studying hard and preparing for college is what it takes to succeed in today’s world. Not romance. Not marriage. Not a glass slipper.

The fact that the ads have circulated all over the internet speaks volumes. People have been cheering for them, expressing delight. They are thrilled to see an ad for a girls’ school directly contradict princess culture. (People have also been expressing surprise that a Catholic academy, in particular, would be so progressive. I’m not surprised, though; as an undergrad, I attended Emmanuel College when it was still an all-women’s college, and nuns can be far more feminist and forward-thinking than stereotypes would suggest!)

In a similar vein, a new ad for GoldieBlox has gone viral, gaining 3.5 million views on YouTube in the past three days alone. GoldieBlox is a toy meant to be educational, to inspire girls to become engineers. As such, their ad is a complete pushback against princesses. It argues against the idea that girls get pink princess stuff while boys get everything else. The fierce little girls in the ad sing about wanting a change: they say they can use their brains and engineer, because — like the girls in a previous GoldieBlox ad sang — they are more than just princesses.

Clearly, this ad’s virality shows that GoldieBlox is tapping into the same princess fatigue that has catapulted the ad for Mercy Academy into the spotlight. Parents are cheering it on, expressing delight for an ad that’s making such a great case for girls having diverse interests—for loving to build and create things—for having imaginations capable of expanding to include STEM-type activities.

But there’s one problem: the new GoldieBlox toy that this ad promotes, which appears on screen for only a few seconds, is actually princess-themed. Yes, really. It’s called “GoldieBlox and the Parade Float,” and its promotional copy reads as follows:

GB_Box_BT002_v1_r1

“In this much-anticipated sequel, Goldie’s friends Ruby and Katinka compete in a princess pageant with the hopes of riding in the town parade. When Katinka loses the crown, Goldie and Ruby team up to build her a parade float as well as other fun rolling, spinning, and whirling designs.”*

I read the book, and here’s a quick summary of the plot. Ruby (the African-American girl) has been preparing for “the biggest event of the school year”: the “Miss Princess Pageant.” Goldie assures her she’s going to win, but their friend Katinka—a pink dolphin—exhibits mean girl behavior and is determined to with the crown. (She butts into the competition, saying rudely, “Step aside, girls. You’re making me yawn. Judges watch ME as I twirl my baton.”)

When Ruby wins the Princess Pageant, Katinka bursts into tears. The girls are kind and want to make her feel better, despite her mean behavior. So, what do they do? I was hoping they’d engage in some other activity together and assure her that princesses and pageantry aren’t very important. But that’s not what happens. Instead, Ruby and Goldie build a float that Katinka can ride on, too. It ends with the whole town cheering “for Katinka and Ruby, the Miss Princess Engineer.”

So, taken together, the GoldieBlox campaign and product leave me scratching my head. Unlike the Mercy Academy ad, which tells girls they are not princesses and offers education as an antidote, GoldieBlox as a brand is speaking out of both sides of their mouth. GoldieBlox claims to be anti-princess. It depicts girls who declare they are not princesses and who want to learn interesting new things, and it offers their toy as a solution; but then it turns around and offers girls a “princess parade” toy to play with.

And while it seems everyone has seen the new GoldieBlox advertisement, almost nobody realizes that the ad itself is for a princess-themed toy! (Every time someone has shared the ad with me, I’ve asked if they knew this; the answer has been a uniform and surprised-sounding “No.”) So GoldieBlox is having it both ways: appealing to parents with anti-princess rhetoric and then, in stores, selling girls on a princess-themed toy.

This is disappointing. I have been rooting for GoldieBlox since their Kickstarter days, and I love their mission to break stereotypes and spark a love of STEM in girls. But by pandering to princess culture, this new offering just isn’t living up to the promise.

So, I have to wonder: Why is this happening?

Here’s my take. While a school like Mercy Academy can sell girls on not being princesses and deliver on their promise to educate them in a princess-free environment, independent brands like GoldieBlox walk an awfully fine line in the marketplace. When they try to provide girls with something different, something STEM-oriented, they wind up swimming in a sea of princess products. They are competing with everything from the girly-girl LEGO Friends line (which also drew heavy criticism upon its release) to Barbies and Disney Princesses. So, to get picked up by major retailers and better appeal to girls shopping in toy stores, GoldieBlox apparently has to take a product meant to be non-conformist—as indicated by the ad campaign—and conform to the dominance of princess culture.

Sigh. If that doesn’t prove that “princess” is the dominant marketing force in girl culture, I don’t know what does.

So, while I support the GoldieBlox mission, I’m concerned. I’m concerned that by using stereotypes to sell girls on STEM, GoldieBlox is unwittingly selling itself short—and, therefore, selling girls short in the process.

*[UPDATE, 11/20/2013, 8 p.m. EST: In the aftermath of a twitter conversation with GoldieBlox in which I expressed my concerns, the company has revised their description to conclude as follows: “When Katinka loses the crown,Ruby and Goldie build something great together, teaching their friends that creativity and friendship are more important than any pageant.” Here’s a link to the original version via the Internet Archive.]

Readers: What’s your take? Let me know in the comments below or on my Facebook page.

Rebecca Hains is a media studies professor at Salem State University. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

33 Comments on “Anti-princess marketing and girls’ education: Mercy Academy vs. GoldieBlox

  1. Pingback: Inspiring toy ad for girls, just in time for holiday shopping season – Marketing, Media and Childhood

  2. Reblogged, thanks for this great analysis of the mixed messages in the GoldieBlox campaign.

  3. Pingback: Did you know popular Goldie Blox ad is selling princess themed toy? | Reel Girl

  4. This is a very good observation, also an extremely important one. The effects of advertising, within us all, are immense. It may start with princesses and then by teen idols, like hontana montana, or whatever, then it can be a rock star or a lifestyle a location, we all have our different vices and these are what the ad agencies very cleverly use to sell us products.

    Advertising is like a magic show, while your attention is here, the trick is happening there, in the same way an advert is trying to sell you something without you realising your being sold it.

    The problem with this is that media and society start to mirror each other, the more they want princess toys, the more they’ll make them, the more they make them the more they’ll want the toys, creating a self feeding loop, spinning out of control. With no one to regulate it the advertising agencies can just feed off this loop unaware or indifferent to the damage it can cause upon society.

    A well written and enjoyed piece thank you for writing it

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  6. Here’s my completely uneducated take on the marketing of this product. As a chick in construction, I am pretty much the only one in my social circle not drooling over the latest couture handbag and stiletto heels. So, while I may be evolved enough to know how to maneuver power tools, my girlfriends are completely okay asking the men in their lives to do anything and everything handy around the house. Applying this logic to Goldie’s social circle I’m wiling to bet she’s got some princess-ish friends. I personally like that Goldie is handy and brainy but not tomboyish, dyke-ish or a nerd. The entire concept works perfectly for me and almost makes me wish I had a daughter to pass the toy along to.

      • I agree with DeeConstructed. I too work in the Construction industry…although in the office…I still am a carpenter by heart. I grew up with it…and work with my hands and head every day. I don’t mind wearing the heels once in a while…and I enjoy when people come over and ask me…who did the remodel and find out it was me…as I stand in my heels. I like being a girly-girl AND a tomboy. It brings out the best of me in all way. And one last thing… I used to get mad at my friend for taking her car to the mechanic to have her windshield wipers replaced because I do that in my sleep, but instead now once in a while, it is nice to have some young strapping boy come and change my windshield wiper for me. I’m not old by any means…but it’s kinda nice letting ‘guys’ be ‘guys’ once in a while!

  7. LOOOL I thought exactly that! hahahahahahahahah
    how could EVERYBODY know about this, and believe what the ad says, but cant see the real damn toy ? its unbelievable
    its shameful…. I hate that… … untrustworthy … disappointing kind of marketing !

    • What is unbelievable? They are building blocks. That is what the toy is. The STORY that goes along with it is just that, a story. And the main character, Goldie, isn’t a princess. She’s a handy chick who builds her friends a float. Since when did everyone riding a float become Cinderella?

      • hey sell you something in your head ( pink is bad! princesses are bad! your girl will be an engineer with this toy!!! ) when they actually sell you a princess storybook with lots of pink and purple with 5 little pieces of anything at $30, and they get viral anyway ! is a totally WTF toy.

        if they wouldnt boast and bluff in ALL the blogs and news like the revolutionary anti-princess, anti-sexism pro-engineers toy, I dont even would know about this toy. But I see it, everywhere, like the revolution of the girls, but when you actually see it, its the same Bullshit as ever, (and shamingly expensive as it is) its a fraud.
        the trick is noboy realizes it.

        • I think you’re missing the actual message. Pink isn’t bad. It’s just not the only option. Princesses aren’t bad, they make pretty cool friends in fact. Kids aren’t and shouldn’t be concerned about the price point – that’s for parents to worry about and this product is in line w/it’s competition so I doubt that’s really going to be an issue. Legos in and of themselves aren’t anything spectacular. It’s what you can DO with them that is great. I went to school for architecture. I build furniture. I’m designing and ‘using my brain’ all day long. These toys are great. They give kids something to touch, feel and learn with. They give them a tangible finished product. They aren’t virtual, they don’t require any electricity and they can be used over and over and over again. Can you really say the same about most of today’s ‘hot’ toys? Plus, they open doors that kids hear they can can pass through all the time – but this is PROOF that they can. That’s worth a lot more than $30 in my book.

          • I dont know whats the difference between this, and “lego friends”. both toys are girly marketed building toys, but one (Goldie) moves the parents feelings and hopes: “your girl gonna be an engineer”, “89% of the engineers are male, only 11% are female” in the kickstarter “help me building a better future for our girls” , in the ads “we (girls) dont wanna pink and purple toys!”
            AAALL THESE phrases are hypocrytical… because they are selling you another thing….
            they even want an ad for it in the SuperBowl !!! WTF ?? they dont deserve it. seriously. but the lemma and rhetorics they use is a strong shit, and can influence many parents .

  8. In support of the Goldieblox idea, you’ll note that the shirts the girls are wearing say “More than just a princess”. As a mother with a daughter who loves princesses, I like that this is a toy she is drawn to, but it teacher her that “princess” is not the highest goal for a girl.

  9. Pingback: “You like to buy us pink toys and everything else is for boys” | Murder of Goths

  10. So here’s my point of view. While at first I was a little disappointed in Goldie Blox for their newest book, I decided I’m going to buy it for my niece anyway. From the earliest shopping trip I made for my niece to buy a onesie, I decided the problem wasn’t really princesses it was the message behind it. Every onesie I looked at was a variation on the same theme of Daddy’s Pretty Princess or Mommy’s Cutie Pie. The boy’s onesies had some similar themes but they also had thing’s like Future Fire Fighter or Mommy’s Rescue Hero. The overall message I got was Girls Are and Boys Do. If the message of this toy is that girls can Do too, I don’t care if they are princesses or pilots I’ll buy it over another baby doll any day.

  11. Excellent post, Rebecca; thx for erudite detailing of the mixed message conundrum, as I’m definitely conflicted loving the ad/lyrics/msg but did NOT see the whole princess parade iteration as it wasn’t the gist during Kickstarter days!

    Personally, even with the Kickstarter spinning wheel toy bit I kept thinking…spinning could easily translate to bicycle, boat wench, etc. why go w/pastels+ puppies? But realized she was straddling the marketplace/formulaic comfort zone factor and was trying to get picked up to go commercial…so I admit I probably DID fall into the “I get it but don’t necessarily like it” camp of analysis, which is why I wrote more about free play, and Little Bits/Roominate, and Maker Faire finds instead: http://www.shapingyouth.org/little-bits-roominate-innovate-to-educate-with-stem/

    Still, as you know from our Twitter dialogue yesterday, it’s extra impt to advance change in product dev and the feedback loop early on as this is a STEM opp to move the needle and lift up vs tear down so think you’ve got a pitch perfect tonality to do that (Supportive with a “wth” spin)…

    I’m off to hunt down the product, positioning, store environs/ and see for myself, as I want to see STEM ventures succeed and sell well without having to ‘sell out’ and/or sink into sameness.

    • I have a new building set on kickstarter called Build & Imagine Storywalls that I’d love your opinion on. It has been well received by my girl (and boy) testers. Cheers. Laurie

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  14. I have a lot of issues with this product/company. First of which is that, at least the first Goldie Blox is a poorly designed product (in my opinion). We have this toy and it is not what it is cracked up to be. I’m sure there are some kids that will appreciate it. There are so many other good STEM toys available. There is *very* little engineering with this first Goldie Blox set and very little learning that will occur. The pieces are interesting and may be used for other play. However, I really feel that people should *really* look at this toy before purchasing it.
    I love this commercial. However, I totally think this is an example of a company who is spending most of its resources in marketing and not as much in product development. Sorry, my opinion. I love the push for encouraging women in STEM fields. However, I almost find this toy an example of exploiting the STEM efforts.
    Even their start up, to me is suspect. The fact that they launched with awesome webpages, well produced web commercials (begging for preorders), and yet couldn’t afford to make an initial batch of plastic toys (and these were not expensive precision pieces like legos) felt off.
    Also, the fact that they make this look like a toy for older girls is completely inaccurate. At least with the first set it is a toy for a 3 yo. This is not the toy that is going to make millions of girls engineers (and I am a engineer with 2 girls). They are totally exploiting the STEM push for their own ends.

  15. Pingback: Girl-Centric Gimmicks vs Authentic Girl Empowerment

  16. Personally, I think GoldieBlox is for girls who love lab coats and pink dresses. The campaign does have some mixed messages though.

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  20. I’m uncomfortable with the entire presumption on the toy’s maker’s part that girls are more verbal and therefore we must appeal to that side of them. Hello! Do they just slide out more verbal? No! We make them that way. So she’s just perpetuating a stereotype to sell her toy. Not cool.

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