Toy giant Mattel has been criticized for “stealth marketing” after giving away free Barbie and Ken dolls to 700 UK schools as part of a program to teach “empathy” to primary school children.
According to Mattel, the “Barbie School of Friendship” program is based on neuroscience research, but experts question such studies and say they are concerned about the negative effects of the dolls based on gender stereotypes, questioning whether the companies can freely deploy their products in schools.
The Barbies were given away for free to students to perform role-play exercises, which could be used by more than 150,000 students, Mattel reported to investigative journalist Hristio Poitsev, who published an article on the subject on July 20. British Medical Journal (PMJ).
Each school participating in the program received a package containing 12 Barbie and Ken dolls, lesson plans for role-play activities, a guide for teachers, guidance for children with special educational needs and disabilities, flash cards, certificates, stickers for students, a poster, a flyer about the competition, information for parents and additional cut-out images of the dolls.
Mattel provided Boytchev with teaching equipment, which he described as all branded with the company’s logo, Barbie and Super (the marketing firm involved in developing and promoting the program). The logos are even on a classroom poster and student handouts with images of the toys.
Some flyers say: “Enter the ‘Barbie School of Friendship’ competition. CHANCE TO WIN A BARBIE TOY PACK WORTH £100!!”. Additionally, prompts tell children to “Draw a friend/Barbie/Ken,” expressing their desire to send Super for a chance to win the contest.
Philippa Perry, author of books on psychotherapy and parenting and education, warned that the scheme raises suspicions that children may be exploitative. “I kind of hate it,” she said.
Mae van Schalkwyk, public health registrar at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, agrees that the plan is risky. He notes that “companies like Mattel are not experts in health or early childhood education” but “specialists in selling products to maximize profits.”
According to van Schalkwyk, the company’s products are heavily marked up. “Why should children be exposed to this kind of cheesy marketing?” Asks the expert, exposure to the Barbie doll compared to other dolls may have negative effects on women’s career choices or internalization of the thin ideal.
What Mattel Says
The company says that research it has funded shows that playing with Barbies offers “tremendous benefits” such as developing social skills such as empathy. The study, reported in a 2020 paper, was part of a five-year collaboration between Mattel and Cardiff University and revealed that children’s brain activity was higher when playing with the company’s toys than when playing with electronic tablets.
A Mattel-supported reanalysis in 2022 by the same experimental group concluded that children who play with toys are more likely to use “internal state language” to describe feelings and thoughts.
said Franziska Korp, a psychologist at the Technical University of Dresden in Germany. B.M.J The idea of the study was good and its methods were appropriate. But he pointed out that while the researchers found significant differences between toy and tablet play, those differences disappeared when children played with adults. Therefore, according to him, it is not enough to make statements about long-term behavioral or developmental effects.
The senior author of the two studies, Sarah Gerson, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University, agrees that the higher brain activity found is related to individual rather than social play – something that is revealed in the papers but not in Mattel’s materials for schools.
According to the scientist, exercises in the classroom are not directly based on research. He admits he found the show interesting, but had some reservations: “I think it’s complicated, for sure,” he said, adding that there was “moral ambiguity.”
Paradoxically, Super’s founding director, Aaron Lipman, argues that science is key to the program in schools. “We don’t want teachers to think this is a commercial effort to sell more Barbies,” she says. According to him, the materials “do not contain sales messages” and children are not asked to do anything other than learn from the educational content.
Lisa Georgeson, a teacher at Lord Blydon Primary School in Tyne and Wear, who took part in the event, says the provision of free toys and supplies is positive given the current lack of funding in schools.
According to Georgeson, a teaching assistant conducted half-hour sessions once a week for seven weeks. She said the children enjoyed the sessions, which helped them engage in positive discussions about friendship, social skills, empathy, stereotypes, disabilities and kindness.
“We are in a very socially disadvantaged area and many of our children do not have the opportunity to engage in speaking and listening activities in subjects like this,” argued the author.
The UK Department for Education did not respond B.M.J Are you aware of the Mattel campaign and have you evaluated the products? “Each school has autonomy over the materials it uses, as long as they are truthful and age-appropriate,” a spokeswoman said. “By next year, school funding will be at the highest level in history — in real terms,” he added.
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