Girls, start your engines

In a new Mattel game, girls race candy-colored cars to the mall.

Published February 27, 2007 6:30PM (EST)

Attention, female race car fans: According to the Chicago Tribune, Mattel is coming out with a new series of Matchbox-inspired race cars for young girls. The cars are designed for Mattel's Polly Pocket series of tiny dolls. But be forewarned: Traditional racetracks are not involved.

Instead, the cars, which the Tribune describes as "pink, purple or sparkly" (and which will soon also come, no kidding, in color-coordinated scents like blueberry), will get to race each other on a new sort of track, in a game specifically designed for the cars called "Race to the Mall."

"The winner of the game, the first car to make it up the shopping center's elevator to a boutique, is rewarded with a magnetic shopping bag that 'jumps' into the car," says the Tribune.

Now, just to give this some context, it's not as if Polly Pocket is spending her leisure time writing for Bust. A visit to the Polly Pocket Web site starts with an animated Polly greeting her visitors. "Welcome to," she says, blond ponytail bouncing. "We can hit the mall, decorate my room, hang out at Polly World and so much more!"

In Polly World, girls can choose from activities like helping Polly pick her wardrobe ("Hey fashion friend, help me pick out a new outfit. I just can't decide!"), find a new haircut ("Sometimes a girl's just got to get a new 'do! Help me choose!") or plant her garden ("Let's plant some seeds and see what grows!"). To be fair, Polly also plays soccer ("Soccer's a kick!"), but that's only when she's not busy figuring out what's amiss in her kitchen, or inviting users to help decorate her bedroom.

OK, so clearly there's a reason for this sort of marketing: It works. The site is bouncy, candy-colored and fun. Also, having spent a couple of years teaching at an all-boys middle school, I can personally vouch for the fact that boys' and girls' taste in playthings is often not the same. I don't know how much is nature and how much is nurture, but the point remains: There aren't going to be too many boys racing Polly to the mall, but there will be a bunch of girls hopping into the driver's seat, hoping to make that magnetic shopping bag their own.

I think my bigger point is to say that although Polly's race cars are likely to be quite successful -- and I mean, hell, how great of a marketing idea is it to create a game whose reward is to go shopping for more toys -- I still wish they'd done something a little more subtle or creative. Because even though toy companies are playing off what kids want (as the Tribune reports, the idea for the mall game came from young girls), they also have an influence in shaping kids' preferences. I wish Mattel would take that at least a bit to heart -- though, considering the fact that it's also the one responsible for the 1992 "Math class is tough!" talking-Barbie fiasco, it seems unlikely.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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