Feb 22

Activism Marketing and the Transgender Doll

The world's first 'transgender doll' is an example of activism marketing

The world’s first ‘transgender doll’ is an example of Activism Marketing

The world’s first ‘transgender doll’ is appearing at this week’s New York Toy Fair, according to the BBC.

There have been thousands of tweets about the Tonner Doll Company product. The Twitter-sphere is divided between those supporting and those ridiculing the stunt.

So how do you make a ‘transgender doll’? The manufacturers say: ‘This is an 18″ doll, much like that of every other child doll out there.’ ‘The doll itself is hard plastic and vinyl and no specific parts, much like all the dolls we have created …’ Pictures show the doll is wearing girls’ clothing.

Modelled on activist

In fact there is only one thing that makes this a ‘transgender doll’. Its facial features are modelled on a teenage activist born a boy, now living as a female. That is why the doll has a slightly masculine face.

Jazz Jennings shot to fame, says the BBC, after an interview he did about gender dysphoria. Popular US TV presenter Barbara Walters conducted the interview.

Jazz Jennings was only six years old when he went on US television to talk about his gender dysphoria. He is now pretending to be a woman.

Jazz Jennings was only six years old when he went on US television to talk about his gender dysphoria. He is now pretending to be a woman.

We learn from Jazz’s reaction that he is being paid royalties for the doll’s use of his image: “I love her. A portion of my proceeds will be donated to help trans youth who are struggling.”

He goes on: “Of course it is still just a regular girl doll because that’s exactly what I am: a regular girl!” Now 16, Jazz says: “I heavily insisted that I WAS a girl.”

But Jazz, you are not. Protest and insist all you want, but you are and always will be genetically a man.

And Jazz, the doll, Tonner Dolls and the story itself are influencing our cultural environment. They change our perceptions, little by little. Jazz hopes it will “place transgender people in a positive light” In other words, the doll is a campaigning stunt. And it can only add to the adverse pressures on children who may be confused or struggling with gender dysphoria (not liking your gender).

Virtue Signalling

Starbucks announced they are taking on 10,000 refugeesStarbucks announced they are taking on 10,000 refugees - that's Activism Marketing'

Starbucks announced they are taking on 10,000 refugees – that’s Activism Marketing in action

There is another dimension to this. Recently Starbucks said it would take on 10,000 refugees. They made the announcement after President Trump’s ‘travel ban’. US taxi firm Lyft joined the bandwagon. It told the Twitter world it would donate $1 million to the anti-Christian American Civil Liberties Union. There are many more examples. Adidas and Nike praised the contribution of immigrant workers. AirBnB said it would give them free accommodation.

Getting away from refugees, card manufacturers boast of the trees they are planting. Kenco Coffee is training young gang members in Honduras to be coffee farmers. Dove portrays ‘normal’ women rather than models in its Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Even back in 2015, Coca-Cola removed its logo from its in the Middle East during Ramadan. It replaced it with a message that read “Labels are for cans, not people.” Sales went up.

As we went to press, Apple did a bit of transgender promoting having previously joined the refugee ban protests.

For years we have had celebrities indulging in “virtue signalling”. Bob Geldof wanted to ‘Feed the World’. Singer Lily Allen apologised to a refugee in the Calais jungle. Bono too has been to refugee camps and organised ‘Live8′. He was rewarded with a seat at last weekend’s Munich Security Conference.

Activism Marketing

Mathew Dixon of Hudson Walker: coined the term 'Activism Marketing'

Mathew Dixon of Hudson Walker: coined the term ‘Activism Marketing’

But we needed another term for brand promotion on the back of social activism.  Mathew Dixon, director at brand specialist Hudson Walker, has now coined the term ‘Activism Marketing’ to describe the phenomenon. “It is clear a major change is afoot. Welcome to uber-politicised retail. Forget Sex. Activism is what will make or break a brand in 2017,” he says.

Dixon goes on: “The real challenge around activism marketing is how much to actually promote the philanthropic aspect to a campaign – how much can you tell everyone how generous you are, without it looking insincere? But likewise, what is the point of making a grand gesture or donation and not letting the world know about it? After all, a business has to sell product at the end of the day. The answer probably comes from how deeply embedded these values are within the company culture.”

Alex Holder, writing in the Guardian, is less generous: “Companies are now attempting to outdo each other with major acts of generosity, but there’s a catch; they’ll do good as long as they can make sure their customers know about it. There is no room for humility when a brand does a good deed.”

Starbucks and AirBnB “are helping refugees because it sells milky lattes and cheap holiday accommodation”.

Holder quotes marketing expert Will Fowler, creative director of Headspace. “Our activism is currently mediated by brands,” he says. “Brands are allowing people to pat themselves on the back without them personally having to sacrifice anything.”


There is certainly a market into which activism marketing can sell. We were deluged with hostile tweets after our article on AFC Bournemouth. Many tweeters thought it was just great that a football club should finance a youth gay group. Many supported transgender photographer Steve ‘Sophie’ Cook. Those people are Tonner Doll’s market.  Buy this doll instead of that doll and a liberal-minded parent can be rewarded with a warm, fuzzy, smug feeling.

But for companies, hazards await. An activism marketing campaign is of its nature divisive. You have to be sure your market is in tune with that activist cause. Starbucks probably have it right. They reckon not many latte drinkers care about the indigenous labour-base. On the other hand, they may have misjudged the mood.  And it matters.  Get it wrong, and you can alienate as many people as you attract.

We can but pray Tonner Dolls will find that out.

Genesis 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. 


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