I wrote in February about American Girl’s major announcement of their first boy 18-inch doll. There were indications this was a distress move for a formerly high-quality company that was rapidly losing market share through oversaturation and trivialization following its purchase by global toy conglomerate Mattel.
The latest earnings reports confirm something’s going wrong: American Girl’s sales declined 12 percent this past quarter, one of its biggest drops in recent years.
The only Mattel line to see growth was Hot Wheels, likely because of its ties to the “Cars” movie franchise. Notice also the big drop in Barbie sales.
I argued in February that American Girl’s decline in sales and income is related to its decline in quality. Since Mattel bought the company from founder Pleasant T. Rowland, a former elementary school teacher, it has reduced emphasis on American Girl’s iconic and original historical dolls line, degraded the quality of dolls’ stories in their accompanying books, and “Barbified” the higher-end brand by pushing dolls chosen largely for racial characteristics rather than character and substance.
American Girl has gone from displaying stories of real courage and hardship—of a little slave girl escaping to freedom and making a new, uncertain life—to cheap scenarios whose ‘hardships’ are only so for the weak. Maybe the sales for 2015 Girl of the Year Grace Thomas were soft because reading about hysterics over friends who started baking cookies without the title character really isn’t as interesting or soul-nourishing as Addy Walker’s slave story. Rowland desired for little girls to ‘learn to know and trust in goodness.’ Her company seems to no longer know what good is, nor have any criteria for what ought to go into a prestige product to make it worth the payout.
Of course there probably are larger problems within Mattel as a company. It’s not just American Girl seeing sales slides, and ever since American Girl’s major market success lots of competitors have put comparably sized dolls on the market for a lot less money. That plus the reduction in the beauty, artistry, and historicity that American Girl uniquely offered means it’s getting harder and harder for moms, aunts, and grandmothers to justify spending $115 for a doll or $45 for a doll outfit for the same cheap, modern, brightly colored doll gear they can get cheaper at WalMart or roadside craft fairs.
Dear Mattel: American Girl won moms’ and girls’ hearts by offering us substance. Don’t pander to us with what you assume we want because the culture-makers insist identity politics sells. Everybody knows it’s an empty trick to empty our wallets without filling our minds with rich ideas in return.
We want something that connects us to our American heritage and explores the good and bad in our shared identity in an age-appropriate way. That’s what American Girl did so well without being cheap or partisan. It’s what made it a huge American success story. Maybe try that instead of a tweeny boy pop star and virtue-signaling political progressivism. Give us something unifying and edifying so we can justify sending you twice as much as all the other 18-inch doll makers.