Kit Kittredge: An American Girl; Product Placement or Literary Bridge?

Ruthe Stein, Senior S.F. Chronicle reviewer must be a soul-mate of sorts in the ‘thinking alike’ arena, as her opening marks hit me with a one-two punch over my coffee this morning, having just done a double-take on the four-color, full-page fireworks ad that screamed,

Celebrate the Holiday with An American Girl!”

“Movies have become adept at sneaking in product placements, but Kit Kittredge: An American Girl may be the first to blatantly shove one into its title,” she said wryly. I thought to myself…

“Nope, not really…Look at Pokémon, Bratz, Care Bears, Barbie TV specials, and all the other merchandising-driven movie spin-offs that originated in the toy aisle!”

Still…it begs the question: “What is the difference between well-scripted literary springboards (Dr. Seuss, Harry Potter, Nancy Drew, etc.) and licensed character opportunities (Spongebob, Barney, Rugrats, and crew)?”

Further, what is the difference between a movie driven by toy merchandising ONTO the silver screen, VERSUS a movie turned into a merchandising bonanza AFTER its success in the theaters?

Is there any difference at all between, say, a ‘Toy Story’ or ‘Monsters, Inc.’ and ‘An American Girl?’

Stein writes, “Shops named American Girl are sprinkled around the country, stocked not only with dolls and matching elaborate wardrobes but also with historical novels starring Felicity, Samantha, Ruthie, Kit and the others on display…Now Kit bursts out of her box and onto the big screen. The movie named for her is surprisingly solid and entertaining, considering that it started life as a doll.”

Yah. Guess so. As encouraged as I am with the gushy positive movie reviews saying it’s ‘a rare gift for young girls,’ (WSJ), that it “seeks to personalize history by telling inspirational stories set in specific historical contexts with young heroines whom today’s girls might find relatable” (LA Times) that it’s ‘spunky perfection’ (NYPost) and ‘some kind of miracle; intelligent and sincere’ (Roger Ebert)

The analysis side of me is leap-frogging directly into the quality of content arena thinking aloud:

“Ka-ching; those $100 dolls are gonna fly off the shelves now,” followed by “But hey, it’s no different than Batman and Hulk and the other summer blockbuster merchandising,” landing somewhere in the puddle of “Hmn, this product placement series of mine may drag on for awhile, I REALLY have a lot to think about and say!”

With its historical hobos, freight-train hopping, and depression-era storyline based on the ‘Kit’ book and doll series; plus, adept screenwriting by none other than Ann Peacock of The Chronicles of Narnia fame, this film feels very different to me than the branded Bikini Bottom junk food fest of the Spongebob Squarepants Movie.

But maybe that’s me being a writer snob?

Or maybe it’s me looking at substance over floof…an ‘intellectual meaningfulness’ snob…

Or maybe just me favoring Joan Cusack in almost any performance… 😉

I mean, c’mon, how do you differentiate between a “90-minute commercial” for licensed characters from other entertainment properties whether it’s Nickelodeon or pbs or American Girl?

Is it the script? The content/craft? The subtlety?

Just because they do it well and do it better, does that mean it’s NOT product placement?

Variety’s sunny review about Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine herself) gives me pause, as they chirp about the dearth of wholesome, smart films for girls and the welcome addition of this new entry…

Agree with that, for sure.

“Plucky, likable and determined to succeed, much like its heroine, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is a throwback to the kinds of movies they don’t make anymore.” –Variety

Hmn…Product placement or not, much like The Last Mimzy, and one of the earliest product placements ever, of Reese’s Pieces (video here of Elliot luring E.T.), I simply can’t help but embrace this film as appealing…

Variety says it’s “for ages 7 to 107…given the popularity of the American Girl brand, it should be an especially hot-ticket item for elementary- and middle-school girls.”

Sigh. And there comes the reality check…the ever-present ‘target market.’

Mind you, Rotten Tomatoes review shows the tween scene appeal at close to 80% positive feedback, which is dang good…(um, not that I listen to reviews, but…)

It prompts me to ask myself, “So what’s the rub?”

It’s ALL merchandising and product placement…

Some is simply executed better than others!

Think Star Wars, only coming from the other direction…the toys hit first.

So, does that mean acting talent and superior writing over-rides ‘selling stuff’ when it comes to seamlessly telling a story for all to embrace?

Thankfully, it appears to be so!

And yet…The ‘writer snob’ in me keeps asking:

“Is there REALLY a difference between hawking other merchandising properties like the Muppets, Rugrats, Clifford the Dog, and a soon-to-be live-action Dora the Explorer made for TV?”

What about other toys and children’s icons that began on the small screen (and should’ve stayed there) like Barney?

And where do the super heroes fit in?

The Incredibles are new and fun, but what about PG-13 classics like Batman and Spiderman and the Hulk as examples of sophisticated screenwriting that go beyond comic book characterization?

They’re not only multi-faceted, but arguably, ‘over the heads’ of young kids that will no doubt be collecting action figures with their fries sometime soon regardless…

What about kids’ movies like Happy Feet that integrate subliminal product marketing outside of the movie sphere by developing trusted associations within it?

Remember the Roche pharmaceutical sponsorship of the FluFacts site masquerading as generic information, peddled by those cute lil’ tap-dancing drug dealers?

Shaping Youth even landed in Stuart Elliott’s column in the New York Times on that one!

Proof positive: The devil is in the details, folks.

Continuing our series on differentiating product placement, integration, ad creep and overt vs. covert brand disclosure, we turn to the chicken or the egg theory for summer blockbusters…

Since I’m a bit of a hybrid as a writer/producer as well as a consortium member of the FCC child advocacy group aiming to protect children from embedded advertising, I want to be well-versed to see ‘all sides’ of the numerous issues surfacing in new media contexts that morph faster than a Transformer.

So, as the FCC begins to look deeply into product integration in TV, digital entertainment, and overall proliferation, I ask readers to weigh in with YOUR thoughts on the blurred lines in different mediums, given that the 60-day comment period for the NPRM will soon kick in…

What say YOU, smart people? Parents, youth, and friends of all ages?

Speak your views! So we can best represent them!



  1. Nice post – I do still read, I’m just very quiet 😉

    First, let me say, in spite of being very sensitive to marketing to kids, I would probably let my daughter see this film (although probably on DVD in a year or so, she’s only 5) — because of the dearth of choices where there are positive female characters as leads. There are of course girl movies, but they are brattitude diva junk most of the time, as you well know. I think this is an example of the shade of gray parenting I try to embrace — living in the real world, I choose the best from among a lot of things I don’t care for. My daughter hasn’t been to a movie since last 4th of July, FWIW.

    Having said that, the bigger concern for me with this particular film isn’t product placement, it’s the erosion of creativity. My 5 year old daughter has been given 6 of these dolls by relatives and they don’t bother me (consider again the alternatives — princess, bratz, etc.), in fact I like the way she plays with them — making up her own storylines, relationships etc. For her the dolls have names, but they aren’t “characters” per se — this movie would chip away at that pretty significantly. Suasn Linn’s most recent book (reviewed here earlier) comes to mind.

    Another Q is age compression — are tweens really the market? In this Hannah Montana moment, it’s nice if this content would still have appeal to an 11 year old, but it’s hard for me to envision.

  2. Whoa. You have some generous relatives based on those pricey doll costs! 😉

    Cheapskate that I am, my own daughter wasn’t exposed to them much, and when she was, she sort of shrugged ’em off, mostly because she wasn’t an early reader and the whole thing smacked of school/bookishness ‘learning’ to her…Even reading her a couple of ’em, she replied with a yawn in those days.

    I WANT her to see this film, and I’m hoping she’ll agree without a roll of the eyes, for as you rightly say ‘tweens’ tend to associate a ‘G-rating’ with younger kids…

    Aside from perhaps Disney’s new Wall-E or my favorite critter Ratatouille, she hasn’t even ASKED to see any of the G-movies (with pals, anyway) which leads me to believe that kids are being peer-conditioned toward the ‘crass and vapid and edgy’ in terms of what constitutes ‘cool.’ Even Kung Fu Panda is rated ‘PG’…so I hope the G rating doesn’t deter (boy it sounds warped and weird saying that!)

    As far as the erosion of creativity in favor of consumption, I hear ya, though it’s hard for me to relate, since mine was never one for ‘collecting stuff’ or attaching value to toys. (even made it through the beanie baby craze relatively unscathed)

    Mind you, she named every potato bug, snail, duck and critter crossing her path, but I lucked out on the ‘stuff’ scene back then…(only to make up for it now with ipod nano and cellphone coveting of the latest and greatest on the gizmo front)

    p.s. Another ‘storyline doll’ to put in your ‘better choices’ list is the new line from Karito which seeds philanthropy and embraces indie thought.

    But again, like the American Girl model…pricey.

  3. On generosity – you’re right – too generous. They spend far more money than I care for. In a way, it actually helps us that the AG dolls are expensive. One $80 doll means not getting 4 $20 dolls… lol. Sad, but true.

    Also – did you see the piece on Susan Linn and her book in USA Today?

    h/t to Lisa R.

  4. Not sure where I weigh in on this one. I’ll muddle through as I type. First, yeah the whole American Girl empire is wholesome. The books are historical and educational. There was bound to be a movie sooner or later. But perhaps that’s the prob. Why does there HAVE to be a movie? The fact that AG has the books, the pricey dolls, the pricey accessories (which are updated with each book), the catalog, and the mega-store is one thing. If people enjoy collecting dolls and reading stories, that’s fine. But I guess I’m with “Mom” above in the feeling that spinning the doll into a movie just seems to take away the magic. I mean I could put on my marketing hat and just say “What a magical experience for little girls to see their favorite character come to life on the big screen!!” But I know that’s all bunk.

    Despite the movie getting rave reviews (and I’m sure it’s wonderful because little Miss Breslin is super)it all comes down to making more $$ to me. It’s a way to sell more dolls and pull a new audience into the AG fold (and by “new”, I mean very young tweens/and even pre-tweens because I just can’t see many of the jaded 11/12 year-olds I know wanting to see this).

    And yet, I’m still torn. If it’s a wholesome property that promotes good values, it that so bad? Hmmm…I’m still muddling.

  5. Well, I’m very UNmuddled…

    I’m big on promoting ANY movie that has a meaningful message even if it’s hawking toys or giving away freebies at the exit booth…(kidding, folks, I hope it doesn’t come to that) 😉

    Hollywood is a biz, which needs to make money like any other rev gen model, and though it may sound Pollyanna, I’d rather my $$ support positive, wholesome messages that have consumer tie-ins than negative drek that doesn’t.

    My theory is that if Hollywood can make money on QUALITY rather than titillating teen trash and slasher flicks, then they will…Pixar and Dreamworks have proved this well with their fun flicks.

    I feel we owe it to ‘opening weekend box office’ to push those numbers sky high if we really want to see universal change out there.

    Money speaks. Executives listen.

    p.s. I posted that USA Today link in both the prior posts as ‘updates’ —but hadn’t seen these great photos of her, as I’d pulled it off of the CCFC site! Thanks for this, I think I might repost my own interview with her, and use the new photos! 🙂

  6. “…if Hollywood can make money on QUALITY rather than titillating teen trash and slasher flicks, then they will….Money speaks. Executives listen.”

    Very VERY true! Done muddling.

  7. Cool. heehe 😉

Speak Your Mind


CommentLuv badge