Mattel’s Media Backlash for $100 Homeless American Girl

Okay, this is one for the books folks, largely because it all could have been so easily avoided. 

Mattel, the makers of the remarkably successful (and ridiculously expensive) American Girl Dolls, has launched a new doll, Gwen, who is homeless – and they are now seeing a massive media backlash.

Each American Girl Doll comes with a detailed “history.” For example, there’s Escaped Slave, Addy with a Civil War era backstory; A Jewish Immigrant doll named Rebecca who tells a story of discrimination; the Great Depression Doll, Kit Kittridge launched a successful feature film.

Gwen’s history: her father walked out on the family. Her mother lost her job and soon, Mother and Daughter began living out of their car – which I imagine is also available … for a price.

The “Gwen” doll starts at $95. One hundred dollars for a doll is bad enough, but consider the real PR blunder is this is a Homeless Doll and there is absolutely no tie-in to any sort of charity or philanthropic initiative! None. Not a single penny earned from this doll goes to help anyone – except Mattel.

Now, some people say this doll raises awareness for the issue of homelessness in our country. It’s a flimsy argument in my view. I’d rather see parents taking their kids to shelters to share their toys and food than saying, “here, play with this really expensive doll.”

And, to charge $95 and not give anything back for it? Nuh-uh. It feels exploitative of a real issue that is affecting millions and millions of people … and Mattel is starting to hear about it.

Hattie Kaufman of CBS News reported,  One homeless woman in a shelter said “Gwen” touched her heart when she saw the doll in its box. The women [in the shelter] praised the doll, Kauffman reports, until they learned Gwen isn’t a fundraising device for the homeless.

“I don’t even see why you would make a homeless doll, anyway,” one woman said to Kauffman, “unless it was being used to raise money to help charities aiding the homeless.”

Ryan McCarthy of The Huffington Post wrote of the doll, “there is a fine line between advocacy and, well, poor taste.”

Linda Lowen who writes the Women’s Issue blog for About.com, asked, “Is Mattel presenting an important social issue to children by manufacturing a doll who faces real, present day challenges? Or is the company commodifying and prettifying the issue? And how can you charge nearly $100 for a doll that’s supposed to promote compassion for homeless people?

To be fair, although the reaction is overwhelmingly negative, not everyone is against the doll. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a sensitive portrayal of a girl who happens to be in this situation–especially given that she’s apparently smart, accomplished and a terrific musician,” writes Sadie for Jezebel.

On Babble, Jeanne Sager wrote, “…I’m willing to take feminism out of the equation just this once and allow maybe they’re just showing what life is like for a heaping helping of America’s kids. And that’s good for the haves–to learn–and good for the have-nots too, the kids who might actually recognize themselves in the faces of a doll for once.”

I’m wondering, though – exactly which kids Sager thinks will recognize themselves in a doll priced so high that anyone who is actually living with homelessness will likely never see it.

Shannon Moriarty at Change.org (an organization that drives support and awareness for the plight of America’s homeless) pointed out the irony of the controversy, … it takes a plastic doll and her fictional biography to have everyone up in arms. Yet, the real stories of homeless children crowding shelters and schools are accepted without an ounce of outrage.

In its defense, American Girl says the dolls “offer valuable lessons about life,” and it is “disheartened that there has been any confusion over our fictional characters.” The company adds that, while no proceeds from sales of Gwen and related offerings go directly to help the homeless, it has given almost $500,000 since 2006 to HomeAid, a national nonprofit group that tries to help the homeless find housing.

With the American Girl division reporting a profit of $379.6 million dollars in 2008 alone, having donated only “almost $500,000” in three years is hardly worth a parade. But, okay, fine. It’s still something and I do grant them it’s more than a lot of companies do at all.

Nonetheless, profiting off the plight of the homeless in this way is as distasteful as hiding behind the pretense that this doll will somehow help little girls understand homelessness.

And, even for those who believe Gwen will shed light on this important issue, if Mattel had simply arranged for, “a portion of profits to go to…” this whole mess could have been avoided – and they could have received some goodwill media coverage. But, now, instead of letting their PR people talk about how much Mattel and American Girl care about their customers in these trying times, they are on the defensive about politics and profits.

Let me know what you think!

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