June 15, 2012 Last year when I wrote about Mattel’s vampy campy Monster High dolls I purposely didn’t even name their brand, hoping it would quietly fizzle and bury itself in the outcry of parents tired of sexploitation, sassy, rude, mean behavioral cues sent to kids, blatant consumerism and vapid values.
When Mattel tried to backpedal from the toxic messages in their webisodes that had been repeatedly called out by media literacy and adolescent development pros in social media channels, they spun into brand damage control by partnering with the Kind Campaign (young filmmakers with access to schools promoting an “anti-bullying” documentary program). Mainstream media lapped it up like lap dogs.
Voila…halo effect meets brand repositioning into a celebration of ‘diversity’ and uniqueness. Where is the critical thinking in journalism when they run a glorified press release puff piece in the New York Times? Embarrassing.
Despite the wafting stench of Mattel’s Monster High balderdash, I refrained from writing about it further, using media with mindfulness to keep from giving it any heat. Instead, I stepped away from the story hoping to watch it self-implode with critical thinkers everywhere.
I’ve spent 25+ years in new product development, product revamps and line extensions, and this was like being handed a creative brief in classic counter-marketing 101…SURELY people would see through Mattel’s superficial “goodwashing” and savvy consumers would ‘spot the spin’ of their profiteering agenda to save their massive investment from flailing, right? Fat chance.
The dearth of what information literacy professor Howard Rheingold calls “Crap Detection 101” appears to be growing increasingly severe in our sound bite culture, as parenting blogs gobbled up the bait, spewing back ‘wow, I must’ve been wrong-look how they’ve changed’ posts with nary a blink at the actual content of the toy’s messages, webisodes, and hyper-sexualized product toxicity that Mattel’s Monster High brand continues to splatter all over the toy aisles, in the media sphere, and newly minted deals with youth advocates as corporate shills.
Respected media literacy colleagues like Peggy Orenstein (author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter) wrote about it in “Monster High’s New Low…You’ve Gotta See This” deconstructing Mattel’s larger product rollouts to come (including a movie slated for 2012) to give savvy parents a heads up that this product wasn’t going away.
Nationally certified school psychologist, licensed specialist and Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker took critical thinking into granular analysis, time logging each webisode noting behavioral cues and recording data with notes and number crunching on the prolific stereotypes and bullying messages sent to kids, giving us an overview in her post “Does Monster High Teach Kindness?” NO. It does not. (Especially not with an early child age group that has an inability to discern nuance and satire, look at the neuroscience; that’s why there are FTC ‘bumpers’ in programming and advertising for the under 8 crowd, folks!)
This week’s headline in HuffPo “Believing In Girls is Good Business” written by the VP of Girls Marketing Mattel followed by this announcement of Monster High promoting a ‘back to school program’ with Walmart using the goodwashing youth advocate angle put me into shoutout from the windows mode reminiscent of the classic film line from the Network movie,
“I’m mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore.”
Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker has always been ‘kind’ with her tempered responses, like this one where she evaluates how to decide whether a product is ‘right for you’…and today’s post noting Monster High ‘may be good for business but is it good for girls?’ and outspoken blogger Melissa Wardy aptly zeroed in on the age compression conflict of interest, calling out Mattel’s shelf positioning at toddler heights and aspirational targeting of a much more vulnerable audience, as she writes in “Don’t Claim to be Promoting Self-Acceptance in Teens While Selling Sexiness to Six Year Olds” (haven’t seen any middle schoolers and high schoolers engaged with doll play lately have you?)
But when critical thinkers are outgunned by mega-millions in marketing dollars promoting propaganda like this, I think it’s time to say “gloves off.”
Using the power of media for positive change also means calling out Mattel’s brandwashing. Decisively.
The ludicrous Monster High chatter about boosting self-esteem is imbecilic and offensive,
“From creating a fang-tastic playlist to rockin’ a gore-geous accessory as your signature piece, each tip serves to boost one’s self-esteem.”
Ugh. Just TRY to keep your cookies on that one. As Shaping Youth’s newest young writer and soon to be columnist Bailey Shoemaker Richards duly noted, “That doesn’t boost self-esteem, that boosts consumerism and conformity.”
I’m far too close to this controversy from an industry insider perspective, as I’ve even given up on engaging in rhetorical arguments about whether the brand is appropriate for 6 or 8 or 10- year olds and hopscotched right into the unethical conduct of Mattel’s marketing tactics, including the repeated use of perceived ‘youth advocates’ as corporate shills and corrupt cronieism within industry channels.
It’s high time media people start unearthing the realities of greed ‘monsters’ by going for the corporate jugular vein. (though sadly, it appears when media pundits are power-schmoozed by blood-sucking vampires, they appear to ‘become one of them’ losing objectivity with eyes aglaze)
I’ve decided this is important enough to take a macro lens to countless ‘follow the money’ trails of corporate industry tentacles that repeatedly reach into schools, government, kids health and wellness policies, even food stamps programs, using case study examples like this to reveal the industry workarounds and show-n-tell subversive marketing ploys.
So that post is yet to come…meanwhile:
How about if we show and tell the level of big money/big media entrenchment, far beyond just Mattel? Let’s report the insidious tactics of how industry responds to challenges, (often using bullying I might add, especially legal threats, which Mattel is well-known for deploying) and start connecting the dots back to the corporate ‘handlers’ doling out this brandwashing and goodwashing?
Mattel’s bogus Monster High “self-esteem” spin reads like a how-to case study from Martin Lindstrom’s neuroscience playbook. (if you haven’t read Buyology or Brandwashed, put them on your list pronto for a ‘lift and reveal’ of what’s behind the marketing curtain rivaling the Wizard of Oz)
Just curious: Has anyone else been tracking the emergence of candy-coated pro-Mattel comments that instantly follow any negative input popping up on parenting blogs about Monster High? Is anyone asking whether the majority of the comments are autobots, corporate sock puppet hires, PR interns?
Some had the exact same handles across the blogs, others had the same IP addresses, typos and discordant poseur style (the common tactic marketers use when they try to act like kids in forums using language that ends up being a dead giveaway)
For those of you unfamiliar with spin control, public relations puffery, corporate shilling tied to vested interests, (graphic at left sums the outcomes nicely) these are just a few tactics in the toolchest used when unfavorable posts appear in forums and blogs about a given brand.
On Twitter, Facebook fan pages and other social media channels it can get even messier with faux follower counts created to give the illusion of brand popularity among consumers, and trumped up manipulation of ‘tweets’ to appear words are golden and the pundit d’jour is an ‘influencer’ with ‘klout’…
There are countless varieties of silly metrics that most intelligent analysts promptly place in the discard bin.
In case there’s any question as to how strongly I feel about the damage of a ‘kind and caring’ credo repositioning Monster High as a ‘good for you’ brand, it wreaks of corporate goodwashing on a par with the new Coke sponsored school fitness centers, (‘unbranded’ is the PR spin, but see the problem with use of the term “unbranded” in this piece School Sit Ups Sponsored By Soda and Snacks …It’s like dentists giving out lollipops…there’s a head-spinning ‘whaaa?’ factor of discordance.)
As the MissRepresentation.org campaign would say: “Not buying it.”
Clearly, I’m far too frustrated with this KIND of Mattel marketing manipulation of consumers and obfuscation of the fact that there is complicity here on multiple levels of profiteering, I need to recuse myself temporarily.
Instead, I asked for a fresh, youthful perspective from 22-year old literary pro Bailey Shoemaker Richards who has written on a variety of topics here before.
I asked if she could come up with some ‘solutions-based’ critical thinking to help navigate the Monster High waters. No directives, just give it a go.
Bailey turned around this commentary in a 24-hour ‘whoosh’ with writing depth and analysis drawing from her own research, not mine. She flipped this article to me fast and thorough like a journalist in a war zone, and I read through it with glee, overcome with emotion having my own Sally Field-acceptance speech moment thinking, “she gets it, she REALLY, REALLY gets it.”
Bailey has quickly emerged as an important and impressive media literacy voice in my sphere, and I’m proud to announce that for the first time ever, Shaping Youth will have the honor of a strong and mighty youth voice presented in an ongoing column with Bailey Shoemaker Richards at the helm.
Congratulations, Bailey. Thank you for your remarkable insights, for taking initiative and leading the path through these conversations to deliver important content and educate beyond the ‘140 sound bite’ world. Amazing work…And quite validating to hear a different generation deconstructing with rapid fire speed and finesse.
Parents and educators will appreciate the helpful talking tips Bailey has provided to navigate the Monster High mixed messaging amidst the “kindness” media morass, and give them the deconstruction they need to be able to recognize “junk food in the toy aisle.”
Meanwhile, let’s all send a strong message to Mattel to knock off the goodwashing and start changing their core content and cruddy cues to kids so consumers don’t have to constantly mitigate this monster problem.
Monster High’s Mixed Messages About Bullying
by Bailey Shoemaker Richards
The Monster High line of toys is one that’s come under fire from parents and researchers since it was released – the scantily-clad characters with their impossible proportions, and the short-short skirts, excessive makeup and bad messages have received long, loud cries of, “Boo!” Now the company has been trying to raise the line’s image from the dead, using a tactic called “goodwashing.”
By plastering the website with messages like, “Don’t be a mean ghoul!” and emphasizing in the press that the toy line encourages friendship, the Monster High line is suddenly supposed to look pretty good to parents.
There are a lot of problems with that, though.
For starters, do the toys (and their ubiquitous marketing, commercial spots and webisodes) reflect that messaging? From the outside, a toy line that encourages kids to be themselves and unique would sound like a great option – but aside from the fact that the Monster High characters are monsters, they look just like every other doll on the market.
The monster shell is just that: an extra layer of makeup slapped onto the same old messaging about how girls are expected to look and act. I can’t think of a single line of toys that explicitly encourages girls to try to be like everyone else; uniqueness is a common message, but when most toys offer the same narrow options for appearance and behavior, I’m going to cry foul.
The most recent one on the website when I visited it was “The Nine Lives of Toralei,” a school news report on a catty bully, complete with racist undertones (Toralei ends up “in the pound” – still in high heels – where she meets other “kitties from the street,” her “werecat sistahs” – and no, I’m not kidding).
Toralei and her “sistahs” fight to control the prison by having a catfight with the top dogs, before Toralei and the others are whisked off to Monster High, where it’s indicated that “the same rules apply.”
Apparently it’s a jungle out there, and the only way to get to the top is to bully, fight and intimidate your way there.
Hardly the same message as, “Don’t be a mean ghoul,” is it? But maybe that’s just a bad episode. It’s possible that there are others with better messages about friendship, cooperation, intelligence, kindness and good ethics, right?
“Unlife to Live” features Cleo bullying her boyfriend into buying smoothies (because that’s how girls get what they want: Pouting, glaring, crossing their arms – good lesson!) and talking to Ghoulia, the requisite “smart girl,” who is brilliant but slumped over, drooling and incapable of talking.
As Cleo walks away, she mocks Ghoulia (shown at left) for not having a life. What a good friend.
Ghoulia is then shown answering the brainy equivalent of a Bat-Signal and saving the school, only to be mocked again by Cleo at the end of the episode.
Episode after episode features similar messages: You get to the top by being the biggest monster possible – and not in the fun, unique way the line might insist you should, but by threatening or using physical violence, bullying tactics, cheating, lying and whining.
The occasional episode where these methods don’t work (usually because they’re practiced by someone other than the top Mean Ghouls) fail to enforce any good moral lessons or growth.
And, most importantly, how can we communicate to the target audience (girls around the age of 6 through ‘tweens’) that maybe these monsters don’t really have their best interests at heart? (high schoolers don’t play with dolls anymore, but high school looks cool and glamorous to younger girls)
Having an age-appropriate media literacy discussion with kids is a big first step to helping them untangle the web Monster High is trying to weave.
By coating bad messages in an outer layer of good PR and catchy slogans, the company makes it harder for kids and parents to reject the toy without looking like they support bullying.
That’s a slimy tactic, but helping kids develop strong media literacy skills reveals it for what it is.
To make sure kids can understand the spin, parents and older siblings have to understand it first.
Media Literacy Talking Points About Monster High’s Mixed Messages
1.) Who profits? Who gets the benefit from a major corporation slapping feel-good phrases on a product line that’s been under fire for negative messaging to kids? The corporation does. If the PR works, parents and kids are going to buy into the hype that suddenly Monster High characters’ historically bad attitudes, barely-there clothes and unhealthy bodies play second fiddle to their positive messages about being nice and staying true to yourself.
2.) Is their message consistent? Examining the messaging in its own context – the Monster High website – quickly reveals that the nice girl message is a hastily slapped on façade that attempts to cover the backbiting, bullying, “Mean Girl” perception of reality. Pasting a platitude at the top of the site doesn’t change the fact that the Monster High show relies on girl hate, girl-on-girl violence and stereotyping (both gendered and racial) to feed girls the same old lies.
3.) Can you spot the spin? Arrange to co-view the shows. Girls in the target audience aren’t necessarily going to understand what’s meant by the sexualization of girlhood, but they understand friendship. Watching a few of the Monster High shows (they’re usually about 3 minutes in length) and talking through the behavior of the characters is an easy way to expose the negative messages they contain.
“Is Cleo being nice to Ghoulia? Do you think that’s how friends should treat each other? Is it appropriate to hit, scratch or punch to get your way? How do you think your friends would feel if someone said that to them?”
Asking simple questions about the behaviors of the girls in the show will expose the messaging for what it is, and from there it’s easy to have a frank discussion about why those behaviors are not okay, and why the Monster High toys aren’t welcome in the house.
Kids who are too young to parse the spin doctoring of a toy line’s marketing aren’t too young to know right from wrong. Talking through the lessons imparted by Monster High is the easiest way to expose the monster in the closet, and throw it out for good.
She spends her free time writing, reading, playing video games and watching Doctor Who.
Bailey is passionate about grassroots activism, media critique and giving a voice to young women.
AND…Bailey is the first ever Shaping Youth Correspondent turned Columnist, where she will now have a biweekly platform to cover media literacy messaging in the K-12 sphere and beyond.
At A Glance Recap Of Monster High Goodwashing
1.) Monster High’s multi-layered marketing madness is vile on a variety of misguided levels including body image/sexualization akin to the productization of pole dancing Pussycat Dolls we staved off from Hasbro just a few years ago. (note similarities of dolls in photo)
2.) The ‘kindness’ is a cynical corporate spinmeister maneuver to realign Mattel’s snippy girl on girl bullying and hyper-sexualized dolls which have taken some heat in the media & marketplace by parents in a lame attempt to ‘reframe’ and ‘reposition the brand’ as ‘kind.’
3.) The ‘kindness’ tactic of teaming with nonprofits that appear to reflect the antithesis of Monster High webisodes and toys not only creates confusion (among both parent purchasers AND child end users) it does damage with a supremely misguided deployment of a much-needed conversation.
4.) We should teach civility and leadership sans toy gimmickry and be mindful of media and marketing that HINDERS rather than helps the messaging about girl on girl relational aggression and senseless stereotypes. (see Rosalind Wiseman’s excellent post on how to tell the difference between a good and a bad anti-bullying campaign)
Sample Monster High Webisode/YouTube Mentioned in Bailey’s Article Above
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