Jane Bradley: Clarks under fire from parents

Little boys need strong shoes for rough and tumble and little girls prefer style over substance. That was the message this week from retailer Clarks, writes Jane Bradley, which came under fire from parents angered at their latest ads for children’s shoes.

Clarks came under fire from their latest ads. Pictures: Contributed
Clarks came under fire from their latest ads. Pictures: Contributed
Clarks came under fire from their latest ads. Pictures: Contributed

Meanwhile, in hippy dippy Vancouver, Canada, the city’s school board this week passed a new policy which will allow children who feel that they do not fit into either gender category to be described by a gender-neutral pronoun.

Youngsters will have the right to be referred to as “xe, xem and xyr” rather than “he or she,” “him or her” and “his or hers” – and will be allowed to play for whichever sports team they prefer and use gender- neutral toilets if necessary.

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While this might be seen as an unusual measure – and presumably one which would apply to only a very small number of children – the juxtaposition highlights just how far British society is away from dealing with gender issues.

In her local high street branch of Clarks, one mother spotted the retailer’s latest ad, written prettily in pink: “Because girls love comfort and style, we design both into their shoes.”

Its masculine counterpart was in a macho blue, with the words: “Because boys test their shoes to destruction, so do we.”

I don’t know about any other girls, but my daughter’s shoes are regularly tested to destruction. The new pair she got at the weekend are already a scuffed mess, dotted with flecks of paint from a fun old afternoon at nursery. There’s not a lot of point in polishing them up, as they’ll just be in the same state again tomorrow.

I would also argue that most boys probably care about comfort too. Not style so much, perhaps, but what toddler does?

The angry mother who originally spotted the adverts started an online petition, attracting support from thousands of families outraged at the shoe retailer’s marketing.

It was a bit of a silly decision on the part of Clarks. Do they not know that this is the year of the toddler feminist?

Toy stores have recently been lambasted for separating out girls’ and boys’ toys. Some, such as pharmacy and baby chain Boots, have already admitted defeat, removing their gender-separating signs.

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Girls, according to Boots, liked pink sparkly things to play with. Tea sets; bead making sets; little kits to make your very own princess, complete with shiny pink cape.

Boys, on the other hand, apparently preferred science kits. Things that go boom. And clunk.

Now, however, they have admitted that both might appeal to both sexes. And why not? Surely breaking down the gender boundaries is nothing if not a double marketing opportunity for the company. Last week, Paperchase followed suit, removing gender- segregated activity books.

Marks and Spencer – where I was recently forced to buy a “Sticker Book for Boys” to satisfy my animal-mad child’s craving for crocodile and lion stickers – is in the process of making some changes.

Toys are such a subjective thing, picked up and discarded on a daily basis, regardless of gender. One day, a child may be obsessed with arts and crafts; the next day only building blocks will do.

Not all parents are completely relaxed about the gender issue, however – especially parents of boys.

Picking my daughter up from nursery the other day, a little boy was running around in a flamenco costume. One of the staff confided that she would have to make him change out of it before his dad came to pick him up – as he hadn’t been best pleased the day before when he arrived to find his son dressed as a Spanish dancer. But the child loved the outfit and was deliriously happy.

Clarks would presumably also not approve, preferring to keep girls and boys in their boxes. Of course, the firm insisted that it was “never our intention to cause offence”, claiming that its ads were in response to the “qualities” customers valued in their shoes.

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Maybe there are psychological reasons why certain children are attracted to certain colours, toys or clothes – maybe there’s not. But either way, whatever they’re into, we should probably just roll with it.

And Clarks – plus all of the other retailers with outdated ideas – should get its act together.