Given the influence American Girl Dolls have over our young girls’ thoughts we need to ask are they up to the responsibility.
The Pleasant Company (now Mattel) has a great American responsibility to bear. They are the leader in that age old childhood tradition of dolls play, with over13 million American Girl (AG) dolls and 117 million books sold. As such they have the power to influence and direct young girl behaviors in lots of ways. Potentially they are the stewards for America’s young generation and can create a role model in the same way as Britney Spears or American Idol – a very tall order indeed. So how do they cope with this? Well with $450 million sales they certainly are successful; but business success does not always equate to social or moral success. Here are some good and bad things to think about.
Provides Education: To “bring history to life”, that was Pleasant Rowland’s goal when she created the company in 1986. And it is true; AG does a great job in presenting your child with different cultures and history. Most doll characters are set in an historical context with an informative book on their life and times and outfits from the period.
Helps to Inform: AG has great informative products (for instance the website and informative books) for each development stage of a young girl’s life – from her preschool days of baby dolls and fantasy play through her tween years of self-awareness and individuality.
Good Quality: All products are stylish, robust and sturdy – the majority are made in China. The dolls are durable and life like with articulated arms and legs with a fabric torso and weave wig.
They are Expensive: From the actual doll (80 bucks a head) to the myriad of accessories and outfits to the shop experience ($20 for a kid lunch), everything is grossly over priced. The danger is once bitten by the AG bug; the habit can become extremely expensive. Upon entering AG’s 5th Avenue store the astonished look of bewilderment by the child is matched by the equally astonished look of the parents at the price lists.
Kids don’t play – they collect: Play stimulates the imagination and dolls are for play. More recently AG dolls are more collector’s items than toys (this is part due to their cost). This becomes a deterrent for parents and a hindrance for 4 to 10 year olds who want to sit down surround themselves by dolls, outfits and furniture and simply act out their dolls adventures.
Corporate commercialism: As one can see from the catalog and New York store, AG offers a plethora of products, accessories and services; from shoes to hair salon and everything in between. All products are exclusive and excessively priced. Commercial profitability is one thing but there is also a responsibility to provide value for money – particularly when youngsters can be manipulated into a monopoly business. Additionally since AG has a “mission to educate and entertain” they need to provide services to demonstrating this; closing their web AG Club because “revenue wasn’t enough to justify operating costs” does not do this. Also there is the recent bad press regarding AG hair stylists in the 5th Avenue store not willing to work on a non AG doll and leaving children in tears – hardly the way to make friends and influence people.
So there are good and bad things about AG. If you’re like me, overall you’ll err in favor of AG, if only because they do have a good pedigree and offer high quality goods. But they must underestimate their position in the market – their influence over Americas young girl community must not be taken for granted and indeed must be used prudently. This is a serious responsibility to shoulder and one that should be nurtured and developed with attention and care. I would hope that since Mattel’s buy-out in 1998 traditional values are not giving way to business imperatives. As the media blogger Jeff Jarvis stated “I’ll bet that Mattel didn’t know the obligation it took on when it started this community”. He concludes: “Perhaps third grade is a good time for a girl to start learning that there are friends, and there is business.”
Remember how the mighty can fall; if AG doesn’t seriously take on this responsibility others will.