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Mattel accused of ‘stealth marketing’ after giving away free Barbie dolls in schools

Health experts have claimed Mattel-sponsored school programme ‘reinforces damaging gender stereotypes’

Meredith Clark
New York
Saturday 22 July 2023 14:03 BST
Look inside Barbie’s dreamhouse you can rent for free on Airbnb

Mattel has sparked criticism for “stealth marketing” to children after a new programme gave away free Barbie dolls in schools, a move that health experts are claiming reinforces damaging gender stereotypes.

The toy manufacturer launched the “Barbie School of Friendship” programme this year, in which free Barbie dolls were given to an estimated 150,000 students in 700 schools across the UK to teach social skills.

However, in an investigative piece published in the British Medical Journal on 20 July, many experts have questioned the programme’s potential negative effects of gender stereotyping, as well as companies freely marketing their products in schools.

“The project makes me suspicious that it may be exploitative,” Philippa Perry, a psychotherapist and author of books on parenting and education, told the BMJ. “I feel faintly repulsed by it.”

“Commercial entities like Mattel are not experts in children’s health or education, they are experts in selling products to maximise profits,” said May van Schalkwyk, a specialty public health registrar. “The Mattel materials are heavily branded – why should children be exposed to this type of stealth marketing?”

The “Barbie School of Friendship” programme cited research funded by Mattel and completed at Cardiff University in Wales, in which playing with dolls offered “major benefits” for child development, including nurturing social skills such as empathy.

Students took part in a series of role-playing lessons designed to “consider nuance and the importance of empathy” using dolls. To do so, schools were provided with a set of 12 Barbie and Ken dolls, lesson plans, certificates, stickers, a poster, and other educational and promotional items all branded with the company’s logo.

Leaflets aimed at pupils also said, “Enter the ‘Barbie’s School of Friendship’ Competition for a chance to win a Barbie Toy Bundle worth £100!!” and instructed students to “draw a friend/Barbie/Ken” expressing a feeling of their choice to send in to SUPER for a chance to win. SUPER is the marketing company involved in creating and promoting the programme.

The ‘Barbie’ movie hits cinemas on 21 July in the US and UK (© 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

While one expert called the initiative “alarming”, some educators said that Mattel’s offer to provide free resources was a “positive”, given the current lack of funding in schools.

According to the BMJ, a 2020 paper found “higher brain activity in children” when they played with Mattel dolls, rather than playing with electronic tablet computers. A Mattel-sponsored study of the same experiment group also found in 2022 that the children playing with dolls used more “internal state language” to describe feelings and thoughts.

Despite the positive results of the study, psychologists pointed out that the research should not be used to make conclusions about the long-term developmental effects of children playing with dolls. Sarah Gerson – a senior lecturer at Cardiff University, the senior author of both studies, and a recipient of Mattel’s research funding – told the BMJ that Mattel’s school programme and “exercises themselves aren’t directly based on our research”.

However, it seemed that both Mattel and SUPER were aware of some of the criticisms the “Barbie School of Friendship” programme might receive from parents and health experts. “We didn’t want teachers to think this was a commercial venture to sell more Barbies,” said Aaron Lipman, the founding director of SUPER – the marketing company behind the programme. He added that the response to the educational materials have been “phenomenal,” with schools subscribing to the programme in “record” speed.

Meanwhile, a Mattel spokesperson maintained to the BMJ that the “Barbie School of Friendship” programme delivered “positive results” among students and the company was considering expanding the programme to other markets.

The ‘Barbie’ movie is a ‘near-miraculous achievement’ (© 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

The Independent has contacted Mattel for comment.

In anticipation of the widely-acclaimed Barbie live-action film, starring Margot Robbie and directed by Greta Gerwig, Mattel has rolled out a number of campaigns to promote both the Barbie movie and its Barbie products.

Zara, Gap, Crocs, and Airbnb have all announced pink-filled collaborations with the Barbie film and Mattel. The vacation rental company even offered fans the chance to stay in a real-life Malibu Barbie Dreamhouse for one night, free of charge.

As health experts question how Mattel-sponsored initiatives could reinforce damaging gender stereotypes, many parents are also wondering if the Barbie movie is safe for their children to watch, due to its PG-13 rating. A PG-13 rating is generally given to titles that the Motion Pictures Association (MPA) feels include “some material that may be inappropriate for children under 13”. Barbie was granted this rating for “suggestive references and brief language”.

Still, critics are raving about the Barbie film after it received an impressive 89 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes during its opening weekend. The Independent’s Clarisse Loughrey also called it a “near-miraculous achievement” in her five-star review.

Barbie is out in cinemas on Friday 21 July in the US and UK.

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