Kathryn Kaye, known as “Kat,” graduated from Curie High School where she was French Club President and a member of French National Honor Society, Student of the Year in English National Honor Society, and a member of the Architecture Club. Currently, she enjoys reading, writing, learning French, cooking, and nursing. Kathryn is a nursing major who would like to become a registered nurse and specialize in phlebotomy. Her essay allowed her to use her analytical skills to find the “true meanings” in toy truck ads.
American culture has led us to believe that little boys should be tough, dominant, and lovers of all things rugged and muddy. Little girls, on the other hand, are supposed to sit on the sidelines, stay clean, and cheer on the boys without actually participating in any of their games. Although this isn’t the case for all children, the media still pushes these stereotypes in order to sell their products. Commercials for Tonka Trucks and for Galoob’s “The Animal” Monster Truck maintain these stereotypes through characters, music, narration, background, and clothing. Hess Trucks appear to move away from labels of “tough” boys and “passive” girls with the aid of ads that portray children wearing gender neutral clothing, but upon closer inspection of music and the positioning of characters, one can see the stereotypes are still in use. Although these ads act as if they are projecting a gender-neutral message, they really follow cultural assumptions that reinforce the old idea that “toy trucks are for boys.”
Tonka Trucks are the indestructible playthings of boys who are manly and tough, at least according to the commercials. In one of their commercials from the 1980s, Tonka Trucks shows young, running boys to perpetuate the idea that boys are fast, vigorous, and adventurous. The ad depicts three young boys dressed in flannel shirts and blue jeans rolling their toy trucks through the mud and gravel of a rugged, wooded landscape. Playing together with these trucks seems to satisfy their needs for affiliation. The narrator asks, “Why don’t you drive, drive a Tonka?” then his Southern-accented voice begins regaling the audience with the truck’s capabilities. His accent lends a trustworthy, down-to-earth quality to the ad because of the stereotype that Southern people are honest and laid back. His accent also has a paternal ring to it that gives an impression of male authority and leads nicely into the next image. A man, presumably the boys’ father, crouches down, pats the tire of his real truck, and tells the boys, “Someday, you’ll be driving one of these. ’Til then, keep driving those Tonkas!” The little boys are expected to grow up to be just like “Daddy,” who is manly and paternal. When the boys do grow up, the commercial hints, they can trade in their Tonkas for a truck like their father’s, thus achieving the societal standard of independent manhood their father portrays.
No mother figure is made known in the ad, and the commercial insinuates that the father is possibly raising his sons alone, or that their mother is home somewhere while her husband plays with his sons. A slight role reversal of the father taking on a mother’s job of caring for his children could be drawn from this, but because he is guiding and playing with his sons instead of feeding or cleaning them, this role reversal is not complete. Fathers are meant to play with and teach their sons while mothers are intended to cook, clean, and care for their families. The boys listen for a moment to their father’s speech, but rush off in the middle of his lecture to continue playing. Although the boys seem to be ignoring their father, they are actually filling the role expected of them by society: “Boys will be boys.” Boys are supposed to be fast and difficult to keep still. Girls are normally portrayed in an opposing manner as careful and patient. This commercial targets fathers who want to nurture their sons’ manly side and reconnect with their boys.
In much the same way as the Tonka Truck ad, Galoob’s advertisement for “The Animal” Monster Truck characterizes boys as dominant and rugged. Narration, camera angles, and background provide fuel for these stereotypes. The ad depicts two young boys, on a quest for adventure, playing in the dirt of a rugged environment. The jungle they are in is just the right size for the boys to pretend they and their trucks are the largest entities in the setting. Due to the smaller sizing of the background, a need to grow up is unnecessary for the boys in Galoob’s ad, unlike the expectation to become like “Daddy” in the Tonka commercial.
In a scene of the boys cheering their trucks up a rocky waterfall, the narrator exclaims that “The Animal” is “powerful” and “when the going gets tough, it rears its claws to climb over anything that gets in its way!” As the trucks reach the summit of the hill, the narrator announces, “‘The Animal,’ clawing its way to the top!” These phrases invoke a feeling of dominance and target that need in the commercial’s intended audience, little boys. This gives an impression that Galoob’s commercial has a similar “boys will be boys” quality to that of the Tonka ad. Predictably, girls are not shown as dominant or powerful, so the commercial does not seem to be targeted at them.
Society wants boys to grow up big and strong, and “The Animal” ad takes advantage of this. The low camera angle shows the trucks as larger than they are, making them dominate the screen. This provides a model for young boys to develop the idea that the truck will also make them seem bigger than they are. Need for affiliation is played upon in this ad as well. Boys are encouraged to make friends, and the pair of boys cheering and playing together with the truck draws in an audience of little boys. If they have this toy, the ad implies, they will feel accepted by others, be dominant, and grow up big and strong.
Unlike Tonka’s and Galoob’s truck ads, Hess Truck’s ad uses clothing to characterize both boys and girls as liking to play with trucks. The ad is set in a winter landscape populated by boys and girls of mixed races. All the children are dressed in gender neutral green and white jumpsuits, as opposed to stereotypical pink for girls and blue for boys. By steering away from the stereotypical color scheme, Hess’s ad shifts focus from their portrayal of both boys and girls. Hess’s commercial targets parents who want their children to play with gender neutral toys and can afford to pay the $22.99 flashed on the screen. In truth, however, Hess is trying to persuade young boys to convince their parents to buy this toy. Music and positioning of characters are meant to sway boys into thinking that the truck will make them appear strong and useful to little girls, perhaps earning the boys new friends or girlfriends.
Music is the first hint that the ad is not as gender neutral as one might first suspect. The children stand in a choral formation singing about the improved attributes of the Hess truck to the tune of “My Boyfriend’s Back.” This song conjures images of brawny boys protecting their girlfriends from the dangers of bad reputations and flirtation from other males. The vision of a protective male only serves to destabilize the ad’s previous detachment from typical gender characteristics.
Positioning of characters further undermines the commercial’s attempts at cloaking their use of gender stereotypes. When the children actually play with the truck, it is the boys who do all of the playing. The girls are shown standing behind the boys’ shoulders, smiling in amazement while the boys roll the trucks on tables, light up Christmas trees, and carry cut trees to the life-sized dump truck. This ad conspicuously portrays girls as passive. They are supposed to cheer on their dominant “men,” even though the children are still too young to perceive this.
By depicting little boys as dominant, manly, and tough, and girls as passive, be it subtly or obviously, each of these ads is able to further gender stereotypes. These labels are derived from cultural assumptions of what it is to be a boy or a girl. Boys and girls are expected to behave in ways that please society but do not allow for individual freedom of expression. These ads will likely show future generations of children how they should behave: boys should dominate and girls should cheer them on obediently. If parents wise up about the hidden messages in advertisements and advertisers venture away from gender stereotypes, society will better accept passive boys and tough girls, and people will better express who they truly are.
Galoob. “The Animal Monster Truck.” YouTube. 27 Aug. 2007. Web. 20 October 2009. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5W4MYJt8c4w>
Hess. “Special Delivery.” YouTube. 5 Dec. 2008. Web. 20 October 2009. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7RiEqLTMMk>
Tonka. “Tonka Trucks.” YouTube. 8 Sept. 2006. Web. 20 October 2009. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsjArPkxaSs>