Word Cloud: How Toy Ad Vocabulary Reinforces Gender Stereotypes

This post went viral shortly after I published it on March 28, 2011. There was so much response that I had to write a preamble in April to address some of the questions and concerns readers had. It was really a simple exercise but garnered many thoughtful and important questions. The original comments were lost but it looks like most are visible via the WayBackMachine.

Preamble (Added April 12, 2011)Thanks so much to everyone who has weighed in on this post. I am adding this preamble to address two main points of criticism that I should have discussed in the original post.

First, there is the point that the ads use vocabulary to reflect the nature of the toys and not necessarily gender, that regardless of the target audience a toy about fighting will naturally include words about battling while a toy like an Easy Bake Oven will not. While this is absolutely true, my intention here was to use the toy vocabulary to show the nature of the toys marketed predominantly to boys. The inclusion of the girls’ list was just to show contrast. My real focus is the boys’ toys and what they say about how boys are viewed.

This leads to the second question/criticism: how did I determine which toys were “boys’ toys”? It was a distinction I was hesitant to make because I don’t like to draw that line, but as anyone who has shopped for toys knows, the line is there. I followed the lead of toy sellers when I categorized the toys on these lists. The toys I deemed “boys’ toys” are listed in the boys’ section of the Toys R Us website (and other vendors); they are also the brands featured in the boys’ sections of the toy catalogues that come out periodically; the ads for these include only boys; and the voiceover features male voices.

I would also like to stress that this was a simple exercise, not a rigorously researched academic study. It is not an exhaustive list, just a very small sample. I focused only on brands that I have seen featured in after-school cartoon blocks, since they are seen repeatedly and have the potential to reach a large audience. I will be continuing to look at language and gender in kids’ pop culture, but this post was just an initial glance at some preliminary results.

With that background information in mind, I invite you to read the original, unedited post below. Thanks.


I’ve always wanted to do a “mash-up” of the words used in commercials for so-called boys’ toys. I did a little bit of this in my book, but now, thanks to Wordle, I can present my findings in graphic form. This is not an exhaustive record; it’s really just a starting point, but the results certainly are interesting.

A few caveats:

  • I focused on television commercials alone (not web videos or website toy descriptions).
  • The companies represented here are the big ones who can afford TV advertising. I looked most closely at the kinds of toys I have seen advertised during prime cartoon blocks on TV. (For example, Teletoon in Canada runs an Action Force block of shows in the after-school time slot and a Superfan Friday on Friday evenings.)
  • I included toys targeted to boys aged 6 to 8.
  • If a word was repeated multiple times in one commercial, I included it multiple times to show how heavily these words are used.
  • I hyphenated words that were meant to stay together, like “special forces” and “killer boots.”
  • For the record, my boys’ list included 658 words from 27 commercials from the following toy lines: Hot Wheels, Matchbox, Kung Zhu, Nerf, Transformers, Beyblades, and Bakugan.
  • By way of comparison, I also looked at girls’ toys. The girls’ list had 432 words from 32 commercials. Toy lines on this list include: Zhu Zhu Pets, Zhu Zhu Babies, Bratz Dolls, Barbie, Moxie Girls, Easy Bake Ovens, Monster High Dolls, My Little Pony, Littlest Pet Shop, Polly Pocket, and FURREAL Friends. (I have a full list of references for both list, with links, if anyone would like to see it.)

The results, while not at all surprising, put the gender bias in toy advertising in stark relief. First, the boys’ list:

Now the girls’ list:

No further comment needed.

Editor’s Note, 2017. For a Boston Globe  article on the word clouds, I revised them slightly to make them more legible and to eliminate duplicates of root words, e.g. “battling” was counted with its root word “battle” in this version.


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