The “Homeless American Girl” and Cause-Marketing

 In her post on Gable PR’s Blog, Krista Rogers writes about a controversial topic, which can teach us future PR pros a thing or two about cause-marketing.

Has anyone heard this story yet? American Girl Dolls have come out with a brand new addition: Gwen Thompson, a homeless pre-teen. She was abandoned by her father and now lives out of a car with her mother. The doll’s price, you ask? $95.

“Homelessness is a serious social issue. With over 10 percent of the U.S. categorized as homeless, the new American Doll does embrace an aspect of our culture that needs to be communicated […] However, capitalizing on the unfortunate circumstances of transients without any type of give-back to the homeless community is as the Huffington Post puts it, in bad taste,” said Rogers.

As you can imagine, backlash to this doll has been very apparent. Many feel American Girl’s efforts are only to make money off of homeless children by capitalizing on their issues.

The solution? Rogers believes it’s all about cause marketing. This means involving the efforts of a “for-profit” business with that of a “not-for-profit” organization, for mutual benefit. While it may be too late for American Girl to reclaim their good name, Rogers says that had they thought of this idea beforehand, much criticism could hav ebeen avoided. She suggests providing 10 percent of sales to a national shelter program for the homeless, or another similar initiative that would provide some good.

This strategic program could build a better reputation for the company as well as really helped the community. Their cause marketing could have provided people with links to make their own contributions or educated the public on the realities of homelessness.

“Cause-marketing is a proven way for building reputation and goodwill among different target audiences. Studies show consumers support companies that give back to the community. […]Perhaps it is time to start connecting in new and more meaningful ways,” concludes Rogers.

I completely agree and I think we can learn a lot from this example. Not only is cause-marketing smart for business efforts, it can also dramatically help the community around us. By providing means for well-off girls only to purchase this doll and who could not relate to the topic, why not educate them on the seriousness of homelessness? Can you think of any other ways American Girl doll could have avoided this fiasco? What are you takes on the homeless girl doll? Do you think cause marketing is an effective way to avoid crisis?

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18 Responses to The “Homeless American Girl” and Cause-Marketing

  1. sferrer says:

    It is rather interesting to learn there is a “homeless girl” doll available on toy store shelves. I grew up with perfectly thin, blonde, California tan Barbie dolls. I think it’s a great concept for American Girl Dolls to educate young girls about a social issue that exists in our world but it’s absurd to profit from these dolls without donating some proceeds to any organization that helps the unfortunate. The doll company has hurt their reputation and they need to build up their standing with the help of PR professionals. A spokesperson of American Girl Dolls needs to make a public apology if he or she has not already. The company should also immediately donate funds to a homeless shelter or underprivileged schools.

  2. cgharai says:

    WOW! I found your post to be so interesting, especially about the new Gwen American Girl. Homeless? or helpless? They are making this doll seem pathetic, because she never got to “live in Barbie’s Dream House.” Is this a PR stunt to get buyers/children to feel sympathetic for homeless Gwen? Yes, Gwen and I are on on “first-name basis.” Sorry, I know I may seem passionate about this topic. I cannot deny the fact that I was “into” these dolls when I was younger, but of course I had the coolest doll of all, Molly (the doll with the frames). My doll was not homeless! I cannot deny that although it seems coniving on Mattel public relations’ behalf, It will work, no doubt! According to ABC (link provided below) this doll is intended to represent a message in younger girls, “This [GWEN] doll is meant to teach tolerance and is part of an outreach program teaching young girls how to spot bullying and stand up and speak out against it.” Great tactic American Doll/Mattel.

  3. Miranda Kuhl says:

    This post was very interesting indeed! As someone who works for a nonprofit organization currently, I find it absurd that they would not donate some of the funds raised to homeless shelters or homeless people. While I understand that they are in no way legally obligated to, it just does not translate into smart advertising or marketing for their project. I do think it is a good idea to have the doll though, because as opposed to the traditional barbie dolls, this doll displays diversity. It is also very educational to young girls, which I definitely appreciate. However, I can’t help but wonder that at $95, the young girls that are getting this doll might not be the ideal girls that would benefit from having this doll. It would be better suited for homeless or lower class girls that could relate to the doll and find comfort in their having such a toy.

  4. astrazzara says:

    I agree that American Girl does need to partner with homelessness non-profit, in order to teach children that this is a serious situation instead of glamorizing homelessness. Kids will think less of homelessness because their pretty doll Gwen was homeless, but she came with a white eyelet lace dress, a pink headband that doubles as a belt and braided sandals. As a PR student I wonder what the message American Girl was trying to send because they missed the mark. Was it from poor planning, did no one think about the message this would send or did they even have a plan? I think American Girl needs to reevaluate this situation, and donate to organizations that help homeless children rather than exploit them for commercial purposes.

    • wwillis says:

      Thank you for pointing out what Gwen is actually wearing as a homeless girl. Looks like she has it pretty good. Is this some glorified form of homelessness as observed by Mattel? What was their plan when they designed this concept? What were they thinking?!

  5. ekozak says:

    Sometimes I see companies undertaking a cause-marketing campaign that is seemingly unrelated to their core business and I wonder “What’s the connection?” That is why it is so strange to me that NO ONE with Mattel saw this perfectly packaged opportunity. Because of this apparent lack of foresight, what could have been an excellent PR opportunity has morphed into a crisis situation. Even if Mattel corrected the issue immediately, it would not have the positive affect of most cause-marketing because the company no longer seems genuine nor does it seem interested in bettering the greater community (without first receiving backlash). If I were a PR professional with Mattel, I would 1) apologize 2) immediately start a campaign involving monetary donations to organizations for the homeless, education about the issue and free dolls for young girls who live at homeless shelters 3) make sure that next time Mattel consults with me to ensure they are not creating a crisis situation by ignoring what is right in front of them and being insensitive about a serious social issue.

    • wwillis says:

      I know, doesn’t this cause-marketing opportunity seem just perfect for this American Girl doll? Thanks also for getting the conversation started about Mattel actually formally apologizing. because they haven’t yet.

  6. bgansar says:

    Wow. I am actually shocked at the thought of a “homeless girl doll.” I’ll admit that I was definitely an American Girl Doll fan, (Samantha and bitty baby for me), but I would be embarrassed to ever buy from them again after this. It is like a cry out to save them-in a bad way. The PR team should have seen the repercussions of such a thing; did they really thing that this would go over well with the audience who buys the dolls? I mean it is a $95 doll that every little girl waits for during the holiday season and I doubt they want some homeless looking thing. I can slightly see why they would make the doll because they try to reach all types of girls aka they have the Native American doll, the cowgirl, African American, etc. but homeless? Really? I realize the need for help for the homeless community, but this was more than wrong of the company to take advantage of.

  7. glindsay says:

    Now, while I don’t necessarily stay on top of every new “American Girl” doll that comes out, I had heard of the brand before and didn’t remember ever associating them with social statements, movements or causes. I wonder what prompted them to do this in the first place? I agree with your post, Whitney, that it would have definitely been a better PR move to give something back to homeless shelters from this sale. I just find it strange that we don’t see other “shocking” dolls like the homeless one, but rather “historical characters” and such. It just seems like to much of a leap, too soon.

    • wwillis says:

      Well Greg, you probably haven’t heard of American Girl because of who they market. Trust me, they’re a huge influence on young girls of today, especially when girls my age were growing up. I agree with what you said, this was a huge leap for the company and where did they even get this idea?

  8. kinoshita says:

    I don’t know that I see this case in black and white. I agree that it might be too much for little girls to digest and grapple with the idea of homelessness; however, we are living in an age where 8-year-old girls sing sexual Britney Spears’ songs and roll their hips. I can honestly say Gwen doesn’t bother me.

    If you look at her picture you can see that she’s not in tattered clothing or dirty. She looks like every other little girl. I like the way Mattel packaged her because not every homeless person is haggard on the side of the road. This is a misconception. In my sociology class, I learned that most people aren’t homeless for life but for an average of two years or something like that. Homelessness doesn’t fall on a certain type of person either. It’s normally about circumstances. I think it’s okay to try to inform young minds of what social issues are out there. They are seeing and being told everything else.

    From a PR perspective, yes, this fiasco could have easily been avoided. Too easily in fact. Like others have mentioned, Mattel should have partnered up with a nonprofit organization and given a portion of the proceeds to that organization. Mattel still would have made a profit and been given a pat on the back.

    I agree, wholeheartedly, with Rogers about the power and success of a well orchestrated cause marketing campaign. Mattel sure missed out on this one. I’d like to think cause marketing is about the intrinsic value of helping those in need, but I’m not so naive as to believe that. Cause marketing is just a shiny package for making money but looking generous while lining pockets- most of the time.

    The American Girl Web site says, “At American Girl, we celebrate girls and all that they can be. That’s why we develop products and experiences that help girls grow up in a wholesome way, while encouraging them to enjoy girlhood through fun and enchanting play.”

    Maybe Mattel’s PR consultants need to take a peek at their client’s mission statement. Maybe the head honchos of American Girl need to be reminded of the image they are trying to portray. It’s clear Mattel doesn’t care about the real life Gwens, and that’s in direct contrast to what the company is trying to teach these young girls they market.

    With that said, it’s not too late for Mattel to do some damage control. However, I’m sure time is running out. This issue came up at the end of September, early October, and so far Mattel has yet to make an apology or even acknowledge their royal boo-boo. What are they thinking?

    Mattel needs to apologize to the Gwens of the world and the company’s customers- pronto. It’s too late to backtrack and try to act like the company had the best of intentions from the beginning- hello, transpareny. They need to apologize for their motives and do what they should’ve done in the first place which is partner with a nonprofit. It’s unlikely it will make it right completely or any time soon, but doing nothing is the worst course of action.

    • wwillis says:

      Oh my goodness, I love the thoughtfulness of this response! Thank you SO much for your comments. It’s true that if you look at other forms of advertising in this world where young girls are growing up- you may think that this homeless American Girl doll is really no big deal. I realize that it is probably too late for cause marketing, but you’re completely correct about them issuing a formal apology. What is keeping their response on the down low actually doing for this mini-crisis?

  9. bihrig says:

    When I was younger I was a big American Girl fan. Between my sister and me we had 7 dolls and I loved learning about the time period each doll came from. I learned what the daily life of a pre-teen girl in the different time periods entailed. It was educational and I learned to appreciate how much easier life is today.
    I think there is nothing wrong with the Gwen doll, had they done cause marketing. Donating part of the profit from the over priced dolls would have been a smart move. The American Girl Company should have expected controversy with this one because the doll’s history is about a current issue, whereas most of the other dolls face issues from the 1700’s or 1800’s.
    Since American Girls are looked at as providing a historical education for young girls, teaching the girls to giveback through donation would have been helpful. The backlash American Girl has received is damaging to their image. Hopefully they will create a program that will benefit homeless Americans when they sell their over priced dolls.

    • wwillis says:

      I was a HUGE American Girl fan too! Weren’t they actually a big influence on your younger years? I remember reading the books and really getting a feel for girls my age throughout history through them. The brand is so pervasive that some responsibility should be placed on the company, especially as I feel cause-marketing could have dodged this entire fiasco.

  10. sclarke says:

    This topic was actually brought to my attention by another classmate a few days ago so I decided to check out your post and I found it extremely interesting! I grew up with the American Doll, like most other girls. We collected the cards and clothes and everything else that came along with it. I can not imagine creating a “homeless” girl doll without partnering with a cause and donating a portion of the profit. That would make more sense. I can see how the public would find this doll a bit offensive. In this case, PR or cause marketing is crucial to their reputation.

  11. Pingback: Smidgen of PR, Dash of Social Media · A deeper look at the “Homeless American Girl” fiasco

  12. edean says:

    I am almost at a loss for words with this one. Great topic. I do understand why American Girl would want to leverage their influence to spread tolerance…but this had way too much room for misinterpretation. Homeless? Really? Are they going to do a pregnant teen next? I agree with the majority of you that said if they wanted to do this successfully, their partnership with a shelter should have been vocalized (loudly) throughout the campaign to avoid the public misconception.

    Taking into consideration that Mattel missed out on an opportunity to authentically cause-market the doll, it’s just making a mockery of a serious social issue. I also find it hard to believe anyone would want to buy a “homeless” girl doll. Who would want that in their house? Products need to be appealing to their audiences and I don’t think those who can afford to buy a 95$ doll want to give their child something like Gwen.

    From a PR perspective I agree that they need to apologize immediately and donate a large amount of holiday proceeds to shelters or as someone said above, donate free dolls to the less fortunate.

  13. ncano says:

    I thought by far this was the most interesting post. I of course grew up on American Girl dolls and loved Samantha and was able to get my own when they did the “look alike dolls” where a girl can build her doll to look like her and buy all the different unique stuff to go with it. Like for instance, I wear glasses, so my doll had them too. I thought that was a smart product to sell. I get what they are going for with the “homeless doll,” however that was wrong to do that. Sure they had Addy who was the African American doll, that wasn’t a bad idea. I kind of think it’s like Mattel and their barbie ideas, like when Barbie’s waist became smaller and her chest became larger. It wasn’t a very good idea to be superficial. I’m not very good at knowing how to deal with a crisis like this, however, issuing a statement would be good and apologizing would be step one for me. However, maybe they need to next time survey little girls, or the target they are going for to get a feel of what they can do next, not go off ideas that sound good on paper, but when developed and created that’s when they should’ve done more research. They were so successful in what they had going on for a while, that if they just thought about it for another couple of months they probably could’ve avoided this.

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