Criticism Mounts as Mattel Faces Backlash for Distributing Complimentary Barbie Dolls to Schools

**Barbie Manufacturer Accused of “Stealth Marketing” to Children**

Barbie manufacturer Mattel is facing accusations of “stealth marketing” to children through a program that donates dolls to schools in order to promote social skills. Critics argue that this program could have negative effects on children and may do more harm than good.

**Concerns Raised in Investigative Report**

An investigative report published in The British Medical Journal highlights the concerns raised by experts regarding Mattel’s program. The report sheds light on the potential negative impact of the “Barbie School of Friendship” initiative.

**The Barbie School of Friendship Program**

The “Barbie School of Friendship” program was launched this year and provides a set of 12 dolls along with branded lesson plans, certificates, stickers, and other promotional items to 700 schools in the UK. According to Mattel, the program has the potential to reach over 150,000 students.

**Teaching Social Skills**

The aim of the program is to teach social skills such as empathy, problem-solving, compromising, and conflict resolution. An industry publication in February highlighted the educational aspects of the program.

**Positive Reception From Teachers**

Some teachers have welcomed the program, especially considering the lack of funding in schools. A teacher at Lord Blyton Primary School in Tyne and Wear, where the program is implemented, expressed gratitude for the materials provided, as they allow children in socially deprived areas to engage in activities related to social skills.

**Expert Concerns**

Experts, however, warn about potential negative effects of the program, including gender stereotyping. They argue that the research funded by Mattel, used to support the “Barbie School of Friendship,” overestimates its benefits for both educators and parents.

Mark Pettricrew, a professor of public health evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, stated that commercial entities like Mattel are not experts in children’s health or education. He expressed alarm over the heavily branded materials used in the program, questioning why children should be exposed to this type of stealth marketing.

**Controversial Research Findings**

A research study funded by Mattel and conducted at Cardiff University found higher brain activity in children who played with Barbie and other Mattel dolls compared to those who played games on tablets or computers. However, this benefit was observed only when children played alone, and it disappeared when adults were present, according to psychologist Franziska Krob from Dresden University of Technology in Germany.

Sarah Gerson, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University and a senior author of the Mattel-sponsored studies, acknowledged the moral ambiguity surrounding the program. Although the program is based on research, Gerson clarified that the curriculum itself is not.

**Response from Mattel**

In response to criticism, an anonymous Mattel spokesperson reportedly provided The British Medical Journal with testimonials from teachers praising the program’s ability to engage students and the diversity represented by the dolls in terms of body types, skin tones, and disabilities.

The spokesperson also mentioned that schools often rely on commercial companies to supplement their lesson planning due to underfunding. Mattel may consider expanding the program to other markets.


Mattel’s “Barbie School of Friendship” program has sparked controversy, with concerns raised by experts about possible negative effects on children, gender stereotyping, and stealth marketing tactics. While the program has received a positive response from some teachers, its reliance on company-funded research and the heavy branding of materials have come under scrutiny. The debate continues as to whether programs like these truly bring educational benefits or serve as a marketing tool for companies like Mattel.

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