Doll Maker Embarks on 'Save Girlhood' Campaign

From racy Britney Spears videos to saucy midriff-baring styles, it's no secret today's little girls are inundated by images and products that entice them to grow up fast.

Now a brand revered for promoting wholesome fun is lobbying moms and daughters to turn back the clock. Mattel-owned American Girl proclaims it wants to "save girlhood" in a new test marketing campaign, which launched in September. The company, known for its extensive line of dolls and books aimed at 3- to 12-year-olds, is pitching a Web site and print ads in Atlanta and Seattle devoted to helping girls and their parents combat a culture that it says pushes young ones to mature too quickly.

The copy on the hot pink Savegirlhood.com Web site entreats girls to "save unicorns, save dreams and save rainbows," and warns adults that "from every angle, today's girls are bombarded by influences pushing them toward womanhood at too early an age -- at the expense of their innocence, their playfulness, their imagination."

Visitors are greeted by faux testimonials from girls like "Linda," who is concerned that pig Latin is becoming a lost language and "Tina," who warns that the number of girls longing for ponies for Christmas is dropping at an alarming rate. The site also offers tips for parents and their daughters about everything from body image to dealing with bullies, as well as a prominent link to purchase American Girl products.

Dolls vs. iPods

It's clear the company has a financial interest in promoting the length of time youngsters engage in juvenile play. The yearning for traditional toys appears to be eroding as modern youngsters long for more sophisticated entertainment, including high-tech gadgets like cell phones and iPods. Sociologists call the trend "age compression." And girls are not immune.

"Girls are getting older younger," said University of Illinois advertising professor Dan Cook. "The market is shrinking as girls and their peer groups move on from dolls to other things. … Wearing makeup and fake tattoos and paying more attention to their own bodies instead of a doll's," Cook said.

Some industry observers point to a slide in Mattel's famed Barbie franchise. Barbie saw a 30 percent drop in U.S. sales in the third quarter of 2005, according to Jim Silver, editor of trade magazine Toy Wishes. Leo Burnett, the media agency handling the Save Girlhood initiative, declined to comment.

Still, some Christian conservative groups see another reason for American Girl's pilot campaign. Earlier this fall, right-leaning organizations called for a boycott of American Girl products because of the company's ties to Girls, Inc., a nonprofit organization that promotes academic success and leadership skills among girls and also supports abortion rights and tolerance of gay lifestyles.

"It sure looks to me like a reaction to the protest and an attempt to restore their wholesome image," said Ann Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League.

The link in question is the "I Can" bracelet sold by American Girl. A portion of the proceeds funds Girls, Inc. science and athletics programs. That joint venture is set to end next week. 

  But Scheidler lauded the campaign's mission. "Save Girlhood celebrates that special time in a girl's life when she can just be a girl and can dream big," she said. "It proves the customer can impact the decisions a corporation makes."

Calls to American Girl's headquarters were not returned.

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