Plays to Parental Fears of Children Growing up in Over-Sexed World

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CHICAGO ( -- Protect your daughters from pop culture: Buy stuff from American Girl.

That’s the pitch in the “Save Girlhood” test campaign aimed squarely at moms that positions the American Girl line of books and dolls as a wholesome age-appropriate oasis in a sexy girl culture personified by Britney and Bratz.

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A mini-manifesto, the centerpiece of American Girl’s campaign, opens with this mini-manifesto: “Save unicorns. Save dreams. Save rainbows. Save girlhood.” It includes faux testimonials -- “By 2010, only 2% of girls will dot their i’s with smiley face” -- as well as suggestions for games, tips on dealing with bullies and body image and links to buy merchandise.

The copy on the page reads, “The way we see it, girls are growing up too fast. 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.”

'Moral panic'
“They’re responding to kids getting older younger,” said Daniel Thomas Cook, an advertising professor at the University of Illinois who studies children as consumers. “There’s almost a sense of moral panic.”

The campaign marks an ongoing effort by American Girl to build its brand as corporate parent Mattel struggles with weakening sales of Barbie, which has driven down the company’s earnings and stock price. American Girl is portraying its high-priced dolls and companion books as more than toys: They’re aids to growing up in a world pushing girls to mature too quickly.

Parents know “the American Girl products are something they can really do for their daughters vs. just another thing they can get,” said a spokeswoman for American Girl.

Advertising is a departure for a brand that has grown into a cultural phenomenon -- it posted nearly $380 million in sales last year -- through untraditional marketing. The dolls, launched in 1986 and acquired by Mattel in 1998, originally relied on a catalog to get the word out. It then expanded into theme stores that host musical performances and fashion shows. Earlier this month the WB aired “Felicity: An American Girl Adventure,” about Revolutionary War character Felicity Herriman. The network last year ran “Samantha: An American Girl Holiday,” about a girl living in New York during the Victorian era.

Outspent by sibling Barbie
Still, American Girl is far outspent by its brand sibling. Mattel backed American Girl with $33,000 in measured media in 2004, according to TNS Media Intelligence but spent $13 million behind Barbie. MGA Entertainment meanwhile, spent $2 million on Bratz.

To be sure, Barbie is a much bigger franchise for Mattel, but it continues to slide as American Girl grows. While the company does not break out sales for Barbie, the brand accounted for an estimated $1.28 billion of Mattel’s $5.1 billion haul in 2004, or 25%. American Girl represented 7%. But in the third quarter, Barbie’s worldwide sales fell 18% while American Girl’s rose 12%.

The campaign now in test launched in September in Atlanta and Seattle and will run through the end of this month. Media used includes local magazines and newspapers, as well as direct mail and interactive. American Girl has also distributed “Save Girlhood” magnets in the test markets. Spending was undisclosed for the effort, handled by Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett USA, Chicago. Starcom USA is the media agency.

“While our catalog continues to be an invaluable advertising tool ... we are considering additional advertising to help build a broader awareness and a deeper understanding of the brand among potential new customers,” the American Girl spokeswoman said. She said it was too early to gauge the success of the effort and future plans.

Attacked by Christian groups
Ironically, American Girl has been attacked on the values front since launching the campaign. Last month some Christian groups called for a boycott over American Girl’s support of Girls Inc., a youth organization that supports abortion rights and encourages acceptance of lesbians.

The spokeswoman said the boycott would not affect the marketing effort.

With the campaign, the company is emphasizing attributes already inherent in the brand. Founder Pleasant Rowland started the line with an eye toward creating dolls with a storyline and educational component. The stories emphasize traditional themes like family, loyalty and friendship. And, as can be observed at teatime at the bustling American Girl store on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, the brand encourages interaction between moms and daughters.

Pitching to parents
The appeal to parents is somewhat unusual for traditional toys, which generally aim at children. Given the high price of the products -- the Felicity doll and book cost $87 -- it makes sense to win over the ones whipping out the plastic. “You don’t want mom to be an obstacle,” said Gregory Livingston, exec VP of kids’ marketing agency WonderGroup, Cincinnati.

But the campaign also positions the dolls as a way parents can exercise some positive influence over their daughters’ lives. That’s important, because with the Internet and other new media, parents feel they have less control over their children’s lives, said University of Illinois’ Mr. Cook.

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