When it comes to marketing, these are great times for girl power. From toy series like GoldieBlox to concerted efforts by Verizon and others to get girls into science and math to Always' "Like a Girl" campaign to retailers' decision to de-gender the toy section, it seems we've come a long way, baby.
And then we have Hasbro. Surely you've heard about this. The toymaker, smartly hopping onto the "Star Wars" bandwagon, released a "Star Wars"-themed Monopoly set. The company, afflicted by some weird mental disease torturing some in the "Star Wars" marketing universe, left out Rey, one of the movie's female characters. Oh, and its main protagonist.
Hasbro isn't the only one. Well before the movie hit theaters, Target took some heat for carrying a set of action figures that didn't include Rey—but did include a random Stormtrooper.
As Ad Age's Adrianne Pasquarelli reported, a #WheresRey Twitter hashtag spawned hundreds of angry tweets criticizing the decision by brands to omit Rey from merchandise.
How does something like this happen?
Right after Christmas, as part of its flood-the-zone coverage of all things "Star Wars," Vanity Fair ran a piece headlined "Are You Surprised by Whom 'Star Wars' Fans Have Voted as Their Favorite New Character?" According to a poll conducted by Rotten Tomatoes, 41% of people said Rey was their favorite character. Surely, I thought, only magazine editors looking for a story and/or assuming the worst about regular people would be surprised that the main character of a movie was the most popular.
Apparently I was wrong. Marketers were completely caught off guard by the fact that there'd be huge demand for Rey stuff. And I shouldn't have been surprised. I get that there are actual differences between men and women, girls and boys. Sometimes girls enjoy pink things and boys like trucks, and there's nothing wrong with that. But too often, people in charge of these decisions fall into the trap of treating girls and boys as two separate alien species. To be fair to toymakers, they're not the only ones. We've seen it happen in automotive and computers. And having published a novel with a woman as a main character, I cringe at some of the discussions that pop up when deciding how to market books to women. (When you're thinking of dropping your first name because women won't read a "women's fiction" book written by a man, you've been afflicted too.)
The Rotten Tomatoes poll Vanity Fair cited shows that this isn't just about little girls. I don't know anything about the Rotten Tomatoes demographic, but I think it's safe to assume it does not skew preteen girls. Boys will want the Rey character in their sets as well. Back when the first "Star Wars" movie was released, we wanted Princess Leia in our sets because the world we were re-creating in our sandboxes and blanket forts wasn't complete without her.
There's another reason boys might like Rey. Precisely because she's a girl, many boys of a certain age will likely have a serious crush on her. And Disney won't even have to put her in a gold bikini to achieve that.
Hasbro, rightly, has reversed course. Having felt the disturbance in its PR force, the company announced it would make a "running change" to the game at some point this year. But Hasbro said the reason Rey was left out was to avoid revealing a "key plot line." Others in the toy industry have suggested some of the fault lies with Disney for being so secretive.
That's nothing more than a sorry excuse. Rey's character has been in almost all of the trailers and it was obvious from the start that she was, at the very least, crucial to the plot. (Also, she just looks cool.) And all any of the merchandisers had to do was pick up the phone and call J.J. Abrams or cruise a few sci-fi blogs and fan sites or, I don't know, just use Google.
Yes, companies are in business to make money first and change society second—no matter what their advertising may suggest from time to time. But that's just the thing: These oversights were not only stupid from a PR and societal perspective. They were stupid from a business perspective. Companies are leaving piles of money on the table. They only have to look back as far as the "Frozen" frenzy to see that there's huge demand out there for strong female characters.
But reality and bad PR have a way of leading people to the light. "In most stores, product featuring Rey is selling as quickly as we can get it onto shelves," said a Target spokesman, adding that the retailer is sharing customer feedback with its merchandising team and vendor partners.
That it took a social media rebellion to achieve it is just plain sad.