A Homeless American Girl Doll: Really, AG? REALLY?

Gwendollfull2.jpgSept. 25, 2009 Never quite thought homelessness would end up a ‘branding opportunity’ but alas, when Virgin Mobile lobbied Congress to declare November Youth Homeless Awareness month to devote time, attention and resources to the issue I thought it was pretty cool.

I met a couple of people from Virgin Mobile’s Re-Generation campaign at the cause-marketing lunch table at the Ypulse National Mashup a couple years back, and shifted from thinking ‘goodwashing’ to ‘pragmatic’ once I understood how the use of texting and mobile activism could cut a swath and make a difference.

But American Girl’s new ‘homeless doll’? Not so much. Add the $95 pricetag and you’ve got a headspinning ‘wth’ marketing moment trying to discern the target market of wealthier kids getting a ‘normalized’ message that it ‘can happen to anyone,’ as AG/Mattel attempts to put a face on homelessness in a white sundress with pink flowers.

I see where they’re going here, in terms of trying to get kids to ‘think out of the box’ and relate to the plight of a child who’s had some hard knocks on the familial front (in this case, ‘Gwen’ the doll comes with the requisite AG ‘story’ that dad walked out on the family, mom lost her job, fall turned to winter, and the economy forced the duo to start bedding down in a car).

But in an attempt to remove stereotypes, it appears to me Mattel/AG reinforced a few with that storyline alone…I’m still reeling at the disconnect of pricey dolls with add-on consumption cues galore. (ahem, you can have your doll’s hair done for $20, hmn, will they charge $20 to ‘mess it up’ and stain the dress to simulate what it’s like to live in a car without a shower for awhile?) Thoughts here, readers?


To me, unless American Girl were to send every single penny spent on the manufacturing, marketing, and profiteering of that doll to the National Network for Youth or the National Child Traumatic Stress Network or the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) to try to raise awareness and financially support the youth homelessness orgs going beyond the streets, shelters and stereotypes…then I cry bogus brandwashing.

virginUnless this ‘limited edition’ doll is directly tied to a massive push for November’s month of advocacy to combat youth homelessness stats like these…and federal studies like this(and even then, it gives me the heebiejeebies on simplistic political mining of mindshare among wee ones) then American Girl is sadly just hawking the plight for profit as a new ‘market opportunity’ to add another ‘historical context’ and ‘theme’ to their wares. (sure gives today’s economic downturn a present tense spin of ‘living history,’ through the doll, sigh)

Think about it. Already there’s a new study out by Pew Research that’s tabbed the primary social conflict in America as being (drumroll please)The ‘haves & have nots’ (+immigration trumping race/skin color).

Virgin homelessyouth

The homeless doll controversy that will no doubt be swirling around this lil’ miss soon serves to amp up that caste/class war of wealth.

Somehow, I don’t think that was the AG intent…Or was it? After all, our pop culture seems to fuel itself on drama, gaffes and missteps. Hmn…

Here’s the take on this AG/Mattel development from our own Shaping Youth advisors at Packaging Girhood.com, along with advocacy/action steps to lend your voice if you feel so inclined. Recall they took on the tween Dora makeover in a huge way and made a dent with a petition of five-figures of reverb/parental pushback…

As for me? I’m going to keep a close eye on Virgin Mobile this November, to make sure Mattel doesn’t end up doing a ‘cross-platform’ promotional partnership deal. 😉

Here’s Virgin Mobile’s brand positioning and  accomplishments to date, which rings much more authentic to me! (no pun intended)

phonegreensend.jpgVirgin Mobile: “Right now, there are over two million young people who faces bouts of homelessness each year in the U.S. Most have been forced from their homes because of circumstances beyond their control.

Some manage to make it through school but others are less fortunate, resorting to begging or prostitution just to survive. And homeless kids have different needs than homeless adults – they haven’t even had a chance to live their lives yet.

Virgin Mobile, with the help of Virgin Unite, wants to change that. The RE*Generation is our effort to empower a generation to help its own. We’re bringing together organizations that care about homeless youth and connecting them with young people who want to help.

And we’re making it easy for our customers to take an active role and get involved — through donating, volunteering, and even text messaging and downloading. With The RE*Generation, one person really can make a difference.”

Of Note: Virgin Unite’s overheads are covered by Sir Richard Branson and the Virgin Group, meaning that 100% of donations received, go direct to the frontline where they are needed most.

I’d say this is a smart win-win with philanthropy, CSR, and branding leveraging the power of media for positive change…unless someone reveals to me they’re brandwashing in which case I’ll feel ‘punk’d’ as the kids say. 😉

Virgin brought in important nonprofit partners like StandUpFor Kids, NAEH, Sasha Bruce Youthwork in D.C. for short term shelter, etc. and corporate partners like YouthNoise, so I’m eager to see if they’ll be doing a big media push for November. If so, please ping me, I’d love Shaping Youth to help on the media end…

Meanwhile, here’s the AG doll which hits me as a fashion ‘don’t’…Could be the new poster child for brand blunders…bleh.

The Economy Hits American Girl

by Shaping Youth Advisory Board members Sharon Lamb & Lyn Mikel Brown of Packaging Girlhood.com

(…And soon to be released in October, Packaging Boyhood.com! Feature series forthcoming on Shaping Youth–A.J. )

packaging-girlhoodAs we wrote in Packaging Girlhood, American Girl dolls, in their original form, did a fine job teaching girls that they too were and are a part of American history.

Now it looks as if AG aims to teach girls that they too are a part of the new economic downslide.

To do this, they’ve introduced a homeless doll. Unlike the Cabbage Patch dolls of old that children could adopt and whose lives could be improved with their love, Gwen Thompson comes with her own story of grief and, alas, her own homeless “style.”

Hey, nothing says homeless more than a sweet white dress with a pink sash and matching flip flops. Ooh, and that cute hair style! Buy her and you can forget homelessness — just mix and match her with the other cool expensive outfits and she fits right in!

In one sense we love that AG offers a collection of dolls with normal bodies and stories of hardship and strength that better reflect the real lives of girls. Take that Bratz girls and Barbie! But could this be any  more disingenuous?

Who is this doll for and with a $95 price tag, what will it convey to the girls buying about the plight of homeless girls? Of course this isn’t their own money they’re spending. Let’s leave girls out of this. But Mattel? Get a conscience!

This brazen co-opting of the hard luck stories of girls around America in order to make a buck — horrifying. It’s especially brazen not to offer a penny of this to help better the lives of real girls.

How about giving a healthy percentage of proceeds to homeless shelter daycares that enable children to be taken care of while their parents look for work and housing?

What can parents do?

Write to Mattel/AG and ask that they (not their customers) set up a fund to benefit real girls and their parents in homeless shelters.

Robert A. Eckert
Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer
Mattel, Inc.
333 Continental Boulevard
El Segundo, CA 90245-5012

Thoughts? Firsthand experience? Familiarity with either campaign? Sound off and let us know how this lands on you…

P.S. Here are some of my favorite ‘solutions-based’ alternatives and random thoughts from the comment section of the NYPost article which is getting some heat…

Musikman 09/25/2009 8:21 AM:

“Instead of paying over 100 dollars including tax, why not take your child and teach them how to help others. How many homeless people can you by lunch for with 100 dollars? Or perhaps a winter coat from a thrift shop. Show the children where your heart is, and how to help rather than buy another toy they do not need. the education they receive for helping others will last far longer than the doll. And why make Mattel richer, what are they doing to help others in need?”

think4yourself1 09/25/2009 9:47 AM

“Here’s an idea … volunteer with your daughter at a homeless soup kitchen, many churches have established programs that would love 3 hours of your time on a Saturday. Maybe leave a check for $95 before you leave – how many meals would that serve? Then head out for a shopping trip with your daughter. Bet she’d appreciate the doll even more. It would truly touch your heart if you could serve and speak with real people who are really hurting in this economy, rather than just reading about them.”

plakapaint 09/25/2009 1:29 PM (on the comment section repeatedly)

“Guess, what? Chrissa (the doll of the year) has been around since the beginning of the year, and will be retired at the end of December, as will her friends. This author is about 10 months too late to be introducing all this information in such outrageous shock…maybe she should have done her homework beoforehand.”

Editorial question to S.Y. readers…Does this mean that Gwen the homeless doll shouldn’t be subject to inquiry (or ridicule) because it’s not a ‘fresh’ breaking in the nanosecond news story? Timeliness doesn’t seem to be the issue here…consumption does..

And from a civility standpoint, the passionistas sticking up for their AG dolls and lambasting the NYPost reporter personally (far beyond fact checking to taunt about parenting skills!) are clearly indicative of the divisiveness that the Pew Internet study alluded to in social conflict/communication gaps. Just sayin’…



  1. Great post, Amy. I have to agree with the comments made by Musikman & think4yourself1: ‘Here’s an idea … volunteer with your daughter at a homeless soup kitchen, many churches have established programs that would love 3 hours of your time on a Saturday. Maybe leave a check for $95 before you leave – how many meals would that serve?…’

    Food indeed for thought – and inspired ideas for how parents can model to their children creative individual responses to serious societal and environmental problems.

  2. Thanks, Tania, I think instilling real life philanthropy from a very early age is essential…I did a series on this awhile back before we’d connected on Twitter that you might enjoy, as some of ’em are REALLY tough issues that need a ‘lighter hand’ in conveying the info without scaring the stuffing out of ’em…

    e.g. Shaping Youth through philanthropic fun: https://shapingyouth.org/?p=864

    Marketing mindfulness to kids:

    And for products that impart some wisdom w/it (which is what AG was no doubt attempting w/an epic fail) ck. out

    Turning over a new leaf: Relationships with youth:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment! I don’t know about you, but it’s RARE these days, since long form blogs are getting short shrift with the microblogging bit! 😉

    Oblige, Amy

  3. My daughter’s past the American Doll phase, but I have to admit this homeless doll ploy leaves a bad taste. What parent would be tactless enough to buy one of these dolls? What kind of lesson is that for a child? I can’t imagine any sensible parent buying into this. I guess we’ll see what kind of message AG gets from sales numbers.
    .-= Sandra Foyt´s last blog ..When You Let The Kids Run The Party =-.

  4. Virgin wants to help the homeless? Really?

    Well, if they’re sincere, that’s fine, but I have a question: Are they offering a low-cost pan for unemployed and other people who need a basic phone w/o the big bills? I keep hearing that they make a $10 a month plan available for those who can’t afford more but I don’t see it on their site.

  5. Good point, Merle, let’s see what they have to say on that…and I’ll search a bit too…I’d heard they offer a low cost plan to fill a much needed void for those job hunters sans a home who can’t take interviews w/out a contact #…Found this on the web addressing same:

    Also this Q&A which seems to allude to the campaign being about 3 yrs. old, in need of resurgence/renewal: http://flavorwire.com/30789/exclusive-qa-with-virgin-mobile-freefests-ron-faris

    I’ll search for them on Twitter to see if I can query directly…anyone else have any contacts there?

    I’m going to search my data files from the Ypulse conf. and see if I can find the cause-marketing person I met at the lunch.

    Meanwhile, thanks, Merle, this is EXACTLY the kind of question I want to put forth, as I REALLY don’t like being ‘punk’d’ and wanna make sure I don’t fall into Pollyanna naivete… 😉

  6. Thanks for those links, Amy! Will have a read.

    Definitely agree that long form blogs are getting short shrift these days… 😉
    .-= Tania´s last blog ..tandrusiak: Tobacco mints a lot like candy? (Columbus Dispatch) http://is.gd/3GWro #parenting #health #children #medialiteracy =-.

  7. Amy, I can’t tell you how happy I am to have found this article and for your thorough coverage on this matter. The paradox between the doll’s intent and its cost is bad enough, but to interject an absent father into the back-story is completely unnecessary. Why put this issue into a child’s hands.

    And on another level, experts already recognize the problems boys are struggling with today, and with Gwen we are sending yet another message that boys are nothing but eventual screw ups. There are few things that steam me up more than the negative portrayal of fathers in society.

    Thanks again.
    .-= Clark Kent’s Lunchbox´s last blog ..I’m An Errant Parent =-.

  8. What is the big deal about this doll realy. When american girl released Nellie who was Samatha’s best friend who was a orphan without any money or a home other than a orphanage up untill the end off the last book nobody cared but when they release this doll it’s a huge deal i just don’t get. I think these days everyone is just looking for something to complain about.

  9. Brenda, you make a really strong point! Why carp on this one and not Nellie or others? I think the answer is multi-fold, in that the backstory on this particular doll (coupled w/the exhorbitant pricetag and white eyelet dress) smacks of SURREAL interpretation of a very real situation (profiteering on societal strife) That feels exploitive and disingenuine, when the ORIGINAL intention of the dolls was to impart historic slice of life depictions to engage kids in ‘what it was like’ so they could relate. Many parents have complained that it’s a “that was then, this is now” scenario where the CONCEPT of historic dolls worked, but now it’s just a backstory and props to sell stuff…That’s the main rub, I believe. And the homeless reality for so many right now makes it that much more offensive.
    .-= Amy Jussel´s last blog ..Josh in a Box: Helpful Advice For Parents of Teens! =-.

  10. I beleive that this article misses the whole point of the book. The book itself was about bullying. And aparently the writer did not read the book or watch the movie that aired on HBO. therefore, American girl gave money to stop bullying. American Girl has always given money and donations and charitable contributions to differnet organizations. Gwen “the homeless doll” was only mentioned to have lost her home in only one page out of the book. Her mother and her ended up getting back on their feet after being in one of the homes that helped them out. Also, there were girls in her class that would bully her because of that reason. Chrissa, whom the book was mostly about, not Gwen at all, was new to school and actually befriended Gwen. The mean girls actually then bullyed both of them. It just shows the girls how to make and keep friends and just because you’re different doesn’t mean you can’t be friends. It also shows how to stand up for yourself and your friends and not just ignore them because of what others say. So the main point was bullying, not about being homeless. If the book and movie was actually looked at, maybe the whole concept would’ve came out, instead of just, “ooh its a selling feature, look what American Girl did next”. And BTW to all of you whom keep saying its “a concept of historic dolls” it is not. It was the friend of a Girl of the Year Doll. So yes, she is no longer available.

    But once again, it ws not to “sell stuff” as so many of you have put. This was just to show that people are differnet and that’s no reason to bully others. And also, you shouldn’t not be friends with someone because they had to live in a car and then live in a shelter. The point was bullying and a lot of donations where given to stop the bullying along with the many events they held.

  11. Great content, I think you should just carry on with your good blogging.

  12. It shame in lot of ways that some people are so well to do they look down on homeless people.
    Anyone could become homeless at anytime one little thing happens and your well to do could
    Become your down fall.Shame on people who look down and on other people and refuse to
    teach there children to care about other people.We are pretty well to do but every year take
    Are little girl to a settler to donate toys and help pass out food.She loves helping others and
    are treating her she no better then they are.I think everyone who turns up there nose to
    Homeless person is worse then the homeless person would ever be.Shame shame shame
    On people.I hope some day you are in need and someone is nicer to you then you have been
    To them.I would rather have a homeless neighbor then a rich snob anyday

  13. Understand your sentiment and agree it’s horrific to hear the caste system style snobbery. Especially when 1 in 50 youth attending school are homeless unbeknownst to their classmates…and struggle to ‘keep it a secret’ for the very reasons you’re indicating. A great new book imparting empathy, voice and opening up this convo is called Ivy, Homeless in San Francisco, http://studiobowesart.com/2011/11/28/ivy-comes-home-with-2-literary-awards/ which has recently been awarded some 2011 kidlit kudos and is available at ReachAndTeach.com I’ve been meaning to cover it here on the blog (and will do so when I finish our site expansion as it’s in the queue!) but meanwhile, check it out…it’s a great way to impart the ‘it could be anyone’ concept and raise the bar for humanity, teaching children well.

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