This article was originally published in OPENWIDE back in 2015, and was written by Kyle Simons
Many of my afternoons in the summer of 2004 were spent with my best friend. Whether inside plopped in front of the television or in the steel forest of the playground, he and I were inseparable. I was a goody two-shoes with a perky attitude, buck teeth, and long gangly limbs; he was a set of pixels on a screen. That’s right – in addition to being immensely socially awkward, my 10-year-old self was obsessed with Tamagotchis.
I have often reminisced of my digital friend and his place in the emporium of nostalgic 90’s artifacts, so when I discovered the new branding of Tamagotchis across the English-speaking world I was shocked. What I discovered was not the diverse, aesthetically nauseating, zany patterned eggs that I had once so dearly cherished as a child. Rather, the new Tamagotchis come in pink and purple, and are adorned with silver ribbons, hearts, jewels, and excessive feminine signifiers and buzzwords.
The Tamagotchi came from Japan, where in the mid-1990s, a pet-enthusiast by the name of Aki Maita had an idea that would soon revolutionize the toy industry worldwide. She envisioned a virtual pet that could be fed, nurtured, and taken anywhere by its owner and promptly sold the concept to Bandai. In 1996 the company debuted the “Tamagotchi”, a combination of the Japanese word for “egg”, “Tamago”, and the word for “friend”, “Tomodatchi”. After being rolled out in various forms over the following 17 years, the company has pushed more than 79 million units to children across the globe.
With such salient success, it really doesn’t come as a surprise that the company would attempt another reincarnation of the toy, because one way to spice something up is to gender it, if it hasn’t been already been, right? But the question still remains as to why the marketing for the new toys is so heavily female oriented. While investigating possible reasons for this change, I revisited some 90’s commercials from Bandai’s virtual pet brand and the difference is truly astounding. The first ad for the English Tamagotchi release begins as a young girl enters her room to grab her Tamagotchi. As she brags incessantly about all of the incredible and astounding things that her virtual pet can do, her pet fish tries desperately to compete. The gender neutral clothing, colour palette, and inclusion of a fish’s male voice create an aura of inclusivity for children of either sex.
The ad for the 2004 re-release follows a much different format, but is equally gender-neutral in its execution. The rhetoric is both masculine and feminine, making mention of boys’ and girls’ pets while and how they can grow strong and find romance. Moreover, the ad shows male and female children dancing spastically beside the toys, which has an equally neutral aesthetic.
My confusion can thus be understood when viewing the most recent advertisement for the “Tamagotchi Friends” line. The ad features young girls sitting on rainbows, bumping their Tamagotchis together to a “Best Friends for Life” type anthem. The backdrop featuring sparkles, rainbows, hearts, and stars bouncing around, and is undoubtedly attempting to appeal to young girls alone. The ad also features a new logo for the brand: the words “Tamagotchi Friends” in a heart-laced font. The new product and it’s highly feminized marketing approach contrasts so sharply to the gendering of Tamagotchi toys from my childhood that it has left me wondering why Bandai ceased marketing to half of the population. Does something about caring for another being still seem somehow more feminine than the alternative virtual experiences available to children these days?
Answering this question becomes easier by examining the trajectory of the brand outside of its international circulation. In the years that it was absent from North American and European markets, the product continued to thrive in Japan, branching out into a number of different industries including cartoons (anime) and video games. The vast majority of these goods were consumed by girls and the Bandai press release for the 2014 return even emphasizes that Tamagotchi has remained “one of the #1 Character Brands for girls 7-9 in Japan”. The growth made by the brand in Japan has demonstrated that girls are more responsive to the products and it may therefore make more sense to market to them directly. Since all of the virtual pets sold in North American and European Markets have been slightly modified versions of select Japanese products, it would make sense that these products would be designed using Japanese market research.
While I am sure that there were difficult decisions made in the marketing of Tamagotchi Friends, my inner 10-year-old can’t help but feel neglected by this new-fangled marketing. Many of my fondest memories of childhood are “connecting” with my friends to play games or trade gifts with our very own virtual pets. The toys fuelled my curiosity, as I would even take the time to carefully disassemble my treasured eggs to unlock secret functions to improve game play. They also combated my childhood propensity for boredom and loneliness. While the success of Tamagotchi Friends in the North American market is yet to be collected, I can’t help but feel that the new direction taken by Bandai will leave many young boys feeling disconnected.